We’ve probably made more mistakes with this side of the business than with any other sales channel.
When we set up Tortoise in 2012, we wanted to have a good solid website, steady and reliable, a place where people could find us and submit whenever the hell they felt like it. Granted, we knew very little about websites, and didn’t want to spend scads of time and money putting one up. Fortunately, someone suggested Squarespace. We were able to put up a decent and professional-looking site without spending the proverbial arm-and-a-leg. (Or even an arm, for that matter.) We could launch it and not think about it, pay our $10 a month, and have a solid and professional-looking presence.
Except you can’t ever really stop paying attention to anything in business. Squarespace has been amazing; we’re still using them, and they’ve been a solid foundation for this corner of the business. But the thing about business is: you have to keep doing stuff. You get new ideas, you develop old ideas, and you make mistakes that you need to correct. (And only the person who does nothing makes no mistakes, as good ol’ František Moravec used to say. Yes, that’s a book plug.)
In the beginning, we didn’t even really want to sell our own books on our site. It was all Amazon links. Our thinking was it would be easier and more convenient for everyone.
This was a mistake.
We like Amazon. In key ways, they’ve made this whole publishing journey possible. It’s nice having a reliable always-up storefront in every corner of the globe; it’s great any time any part of your business is that dependable. You can’t quite ignore them—we’ve learned it isn’t healthy to ignore any part of the business—but you don’t have to worry about them, either. They’re low-maintenance, and that’s nice.
But relying on Amazon completely for web sales, you miss out on some good opportunities. You can’t tailor your business to different types of customers—you lose the ability to make bulk sales to, say, a university that wants to use your books for a class, or a bookstore that doesn’t want to go through Ingram. But you can do all those things well if you’re managing at least some of your sales through your own website. (You can even handle sales by your own authors better—especially out-of-town authors. You can sell them copies of their books at a steep discount, but above cost; they can then sell books to their friends and family, and you don’t have to pester them to get money back for those sales, because you’ve already made money. With the right discount, it works out well all around—they make more money per book than you do, while you get paid up front and have less headache and hassle.)
So after a while, we put up two sales pages—one for retail sales, and one for wholesale. The retail page still linked to Amazon because, hey, we do still like selling books there. And the wholesale page offered our books at 60% of list price, which is a pretty standard bulk purchase rate for book sales. And then we got a little nervous. “What if we get a whole flood of one-off orders from retail customers who are buying books at 60% of list using the wholesale page? We’ll be shipping books out the door as fast as we get them, and we won’t make any money on those sales, because we’ll have to pay shipping on those orders.” And we didn’t want to take the time to figure out what our shipping costs would actually be for those orders. So we added on a $10-per-order handling fee, to dissuade one-off orders.
This was also a mistake.
We’ve heard it said that there are two basic ways to operate in the world: living in faith, or living in fear. We’ve also heard it said that you can’t do both at the same time. (“Faith” here doesn’t mean the capital-F religion-and-dogma sort of thing, but just sort of a general trust that things are going to work out for the best. It doesn’t mean you can stop paying attention; it doesn’t mean you can just kick your feet up in the La-Z-Boy and wait for the sales to come pouring in. But it does mean that you believe that if you put in time and effort and keep putting one foot in front of the other, things will work out for the best, more often than not. Whereas fear, in this sense, means thinking that things generally aren’t going to work out; it means you spend all your time focusing on what you don’t want, spending all your time and energy trying to avoid some negative thing, rather than create some positive thing.) And it seems to us now that having a low per-unit cost, but a high per-order charge that customers didn’t see until checkout, was more of a fear thing than a faith thing.
Besides, we don’t like any buying experience like that. We don’t like pricing that’s confusing or tricky or opaque, pricing where you think you’re getting a good deal and then realize later that you’re not. We tend to like pricing that lets us know up front what we’re getting, so we can make a simple decision. (Also, we’ve come to realize that the Golden Rule is underappreciated as a business model. If you give people the experience you’d want to have yourself, it’s a lot more satisfying than giving them a bad experience out of fear that they’re going to give you a bad experience. That goes for the books we write and publish; we’re trying to put out books we’d want to read. And it goes for web sales, and pretty much every other corner of the business.)
Plus, given the way the other sales channels work—particularly the Ingram channel—we do sometimes end up with returns on titles. So if we have twenty or so copies of a title on hand, more than we could hope to move at our next few book fairs, why not try to sell them online? The old pricing model was based in part on fear of losing money—but if you crunch the numbers, you realize it’s possible to make money selling books one at a time on your own site. You just have to price them close to retail, send them out media mail, and maybe buy mailers in bulk so you can get them cheaply rather than paying retail at the post office. (Shout out to Uline, our bulk mailer provider. This is a top-notch vendor—you get great mailers, you get them right away, you get them at a very reasonable price. We did some comparison shopping before making our first mailer bulk purchase, and there were slightly cheaper options, but the enthusiasm of Uline’s online customers led us to place our first order there, and it was the right decision. Their mailers are great, and their shipping is fast—blink three times and your order’s there, just about. Uline is another company you don’t need to worry about, and we’re looking forward to doing more business with them.)
Anyway, long story short, we got rid of the two separate sales pages (which also helped clean up the website a bit) and started pricing everything pretty close to retail. The customers who buy direct can then get a good deal—better than Amazon, especially for the books where we have extra inventory and we can afford to discount them a little—and we are still getting a good deal, because we’re still making decent money on those sales and/or moving returns inventory that would otherwise be sitting in our closet for years on end. And if we want to, we can still do bulk-rate sales to bookstores and universities and what-not, by issuing them discount codes.
Have we arrived at the final perfect answer? No. One of our old bosses in the corporate world used to say Information Technology work was like the Holy Grail: you’re on this quest, and you never quite get there; perfection always feels just beyond your grasp. There will always be changes and adjustments to be made with the website, as with every other corner of the business. We’ve started doing presales for a few titles, which is a lot more work than just shunting those customers off to Amazon, but also a solid way to drum up sales in advance of an official on-sale date. We’re also going to encourage local bookstores to place bulk orders through us, rather than through Ingram; they get a better deal, because they don’t have to deal with Ingram’s returns caps, and we get a better deal, because we can structure those sales to make a little more per book. With a little hard work and a positive vision, you realize it is possible to set things up on your website in a way that everybody wins—and that’s just fine with us.