To OP or Not to OP, That Is the Question

Josie Leavitt -- February 16th, 2010

If an independent bookseller can’t get a book for a customer, but it’s available somewhere else, say Abe.com (Advanced Book Exchange), alibris.com or, don’t say it, amazon.com, what’s      the bookseller to do? I’ve done some investigating and it seems Amazon does own abe.com outright and has a pretty swell set-up for out-of-print resellers on Alibris, but does that mean independent booksellers should not use them?

Here’s the scenario: a customer comes in wanting an out-of-print book, say, Ruth Carlsen’s classic, Mr. Pudgins. This book is easily available on Ingram’s professional level Ipage, so you can literally just add it to your selection list, click order and you’re done. The out-of-print resellers are on Alibris. The book ships net, you are charged freight and the charge is added right to your Ingram bill. The ease of this transaction makes this an attractive option.

Baker and Taylor offers a similar service, though it’s not quite as smooth. Out-of-print books are available, but the link takes you right to Alibris and you have to have an Alibris account and a credit card to process the sale. This can be cumbersome if a staffer who doesn’t have access to the store credit card is trying to place an order.

Because the book is net from Ingram or Baker and Taylor, so the bookstore gets no discount, now you have to decide if you’re going to mark up the book to cover your staff time in researching the book, or do you just order these types of books as a courtesy to your customers? Or is it enough to pass on the freight cost to your customer and have them come in the store to pick up their book? (I just played around on Ipage and learned you can set a default discount or price increase for Alibris books. So, when you’re searching the Hard to Find database, the price you’re quoting customers already incluce whatever pre-set mark up you’ve determined.)

Or, perhaps, you just give the customer the info he needs to order the book himself at amazon.com or any of the other places he could go?

The real question, I guess, is, do you want the customer to come to you for the book, regardless of where you get it, or is it easier and more efficient, staff time-wise, to have them go to an on-line competitor and risk maybe losing them?

We have a general rule at the Flying Pig: we’ll always get the books for older folks who maybe aren’t as tech-savvy as the folks who work at the store. Students coming in seeking books will sometimes get directions to websites so they can save the most money. But as more people come in seeking out-of-print titles, it has become a real dilemma for us.

In a perfect world, all our stores would be down the street from a great used bookseller and none of this would be an issue, but I’m really curious to hear what other bookstores do.

9 thoughts on “To OP or Not to OP, That Is the Question

  1. Lilia

    OP titles have become even more popular in the last couple of years. At the American Book Center, in the Netherlands, we order our OP titles with Alibris. We have a price table that gives us and the customers a very good basis of what to be expected. Our customers know the delivery times and prices, and just a few are not interested in accepting them. But most are. And they are also very happy in finding them with us. One action that helped us with non-collected second hand books has been a small downpayment made up front, when ordering the book. More often than not customers feel obliged to come to collect the books within our time frame. And those who would not come to collect them don’t order anymore.

  2. Savon

    I charge by the customer which isn’t what I’d like to do but is practical. Most people here don’t have credit cards so when they come to me I either charge a flat fee or mark up to around 40%. For those with credit cards I add on as little as I can to cover my costs. They complain all the time that I don’t have Amazon prices as it is. Living on an island of 20K people I have to try to keep whatever business comes my way however I can.

  3. Beth Kanell, Kingdom Books

    Those of us who sell on ABE are still for the most part independent booksellers — what ABE provides is the marketing window to the outside world for our books. In exchange, we pay a fee plus a commission to ABE. I don’t see this as being part of or owned by Amazon in any sense — so I hope you’ll continue to use ABE and be selective among the shops from which you purchase. Good service and beautiful books are on hand at fair prices from most of us. As a mountain-bound shop, I value this “shop window” that lets me market my “lovelies.”

  4. Sudey

    At River Lights Bookstore (aka a Book Locating Service), we do a whopping OP, H-T-F business. We utilize Amazon as a wholesaler – their (and the Amazon Sellers)prices are usually WAY better and the shipping is MUCH faster than Alibris and even Abe. No matter what their price, we mark them up at least 40% and pass on shipping charges. We also require prepayment. Indies shouldn’t miss out on this profitable service!

  5. Laurel Book Store

    We’ll hunt for op books for anyone on nearly any site. People are often surprised that we do and last year we found and sold over 300 books from childhood favorites to textbooks. I charge a flat fee on each book and will reduce it with multiple books from the same vendor. It’s been enough per book, over cost and shipping, to make a 40% overall markup, but with abe now charging a 3% “international banking fee” we will be increasing it a bit. We use abe, alibris, half.com mostly. I’ll use addall.com to see where there might be others hiding. I also tell folks that they can do this themselves but that we’re happy to do it for them. Most have us do it and some who did it themselves were grateful for the info and made it a point to come back. We also ask that the books be paid for up front so we lessen our chances of getting stuck with them.

  6. kat

    At The Bookloft OP search sales add up to 2% of total receipts & the total is growing every year. But that isn’t the true picture since we have the side business FOUND AT THE BOOKLOFT, that deals exclusively in rare & collectible books. We use all available sources to find books for our customers and mark up the net prices 40%. If we are charged shipping we pass that on to our customer too. The customers that use this service are almost always very grateful & pleased. We have many repeat customers, some order multiple books several times a year. It is an important part of the business.

  7. Louise Borden

    As a former bookseller/part owner of an independent store (1986-1991), I used to do the Stop orders. Today I am a published author (25 books) and always support the independents in any city I’m in. Some favorites are KramerBooks and Politics and Prose in DC, the Harvard Bookstore, the Biography Bookshop in NYC, Crawford and Doyle and Posman Books, also in NYC, the very wonderful but now closed Shaman Drum in Ann Arbor, several nice bookshops in Leelanau County, MI, the Bookshelf in Cincinnati, Heywood Hill and Hatchard’s in London, and others. As a writer, in doing research for my books, I order many OP books from online dealers but had not considered the dilemma that you write about. Some books I’m ordering come from the UK. By ordering from those small used bookstores, I always felt as if I was giving them business – even while ordering via Abe or Amazon. Good luck in trying to find a good solution for your own wonderful store and customers. HUZZAH! HUZZAH! To all independents! Bravo – for your courage, and your passion for books. Louise Borden

  8. Jennifer

    I’m someone who tries to purchase as much as I can from local, independent businesses. I know I could get a hard-to-find book somewhere on-line, but I choose to have my local indie store order it for me so I can keep my money in my community.

  9. Peggy

    I’m always happy to do OP searches for our customers. Last year I fulfilled 183 requests ranging from poetry to “Accelerator-driven Subcritical Reactors.” We use a sliding scale that decreases as cost of the book+shipping increases. For example, if the book costs between $0.01 and $9.99 including shipping, I add a 100% premium; thus, if the book from Alibris costs the store $5.29, we charge the customer $10.58. If a book costs between $60.00 and $79.99, I add at 35% premium. Books over $100.00 have a 25% premium. A friend set up an Excel spreadsheet that calculates the premium. I always call the customer with a price quotation, of course.

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