December 14th, 2009

Fulfillment ratings=FAIL

Here's a little insider look at something that is seriously damaging the entire used book business:

Fulfillment ratings.

You probably have no idea what I'm talking about; or, if you do know, are wondering why it's such a bad thing.

So, for those of you in the first group, let me explain: Most of the major used bookselling sites - Amazon, ABE, Alibris - require dealers who use their services to sell books to be able to fulfill at least 85%-90% of the orders that come in. If you can't meet these percentages, your listings can be suspended or your account terminated.

What this means is that you've listed your stock on the site, an order comes in, and if you can't come up with the book, you take a hit. Why wouldn't you be able to come up with the book? Sure, not a problem for someone who is essentially a hobbyist, picking up books at estate sales and thrift shops and storing them in the garage...but a BIG problem for an open, "brick-and-mortar" store, especially a busy one. The new books you list online are the same new books your customers in the store may be after. It's virtually impossible to remove books the instant you sell them; stop by Iliad any afternoon, watch every member of the staff running as fast as our legs can carry us, and you'll get the picture. It's not at all uncommon for us to get an online order in for a book we've sold hours or even minutes before to a walk-in customer.

So why is this bad for the entire field of used books? Because these sites (inexplicably) do NOT also utilize feedback rating systems, ala ebay. In other words, it doesn't matter that the book you get may not be what you ordered, or may not have been accurately described; all that counts in a fulfillment rating system is that you got some book.

At least 70% of the sellers on these big sites are these garage sellers. Some of them may have a small knowledge of books, but the majority wouldn't know a cracked hinge from a gauffered edge. I can't tell you how many times I've ordered a book for a customer at the store, and received a Book Club edition when the book was described as a first edition, or received something that was a beaten-up ex-library copy when I ordered a book in fine condition (curiously enough, I'd say it happens close to 70% of the time...hmmm...). Returns made directly to the dealer don't count against their sacred fulfillment ratings, and without feedback ratings you, the next potential buyer of a book from these amateurs, will probably get rooked the same way, possibly for a large amount of money. If you don't have an extensive knowledge of books, you may drop a large wad in the belief that Mom and Pop's 14th printing of Gone With the Wind is a true first.

At Iliad, I dropped a service today because we couldn't meet their fulfillment ratings requirements, and they had no interest in working with us; coincidentally, I also received an angry and accusatory e-mail from someone who naturally assumed that we were trying to rook him on a book he wanted to purchase, probably because he'd been scammed by other sellers. Bookseller discussion boards are full of stories of established bookstores giving up on online selling because of fulfillment ratings.

It's not bad enough that used booksellers - many of whom have decades of experience and training, and pursue their jobs with real passion - have to deal with rising real estate costs, competition from chains and online giants, and declining literacy rates; now we're also threatened by the very co-ops that should be helping us sell more books. The fine art of bookselling (which IS considered a real trade in many countries, one with its own unions and training programs and conferences) is being damaged from within by an almost industry-wide practice that elevates inexperience, apathy, ignorance, and possibly downright fraudulent practices. Maybe this doesn't matter to most book buyers, but to those of us who still value and collect books, it's positively catastrophic.