About The Guide

Hello! We are Sonja and Ivan. And this is our Bookstore Guide - an amateur guide to book shopping throughout Europe. We hope this Guide will help you find the book(stores) you are looking for.

The Story Behind Books and Records

In 2009 we started a series of articles (mostly by guest bloggers) entitled "An Insight into the Current State of Independent Bookselling". We've decided to follow up with several interviews with people from different countries involved in various sectors of the bookselling business (booksellers, publishers, authors etc.). It is with great pleasure that we introduce the first of these interviews with Bob Evans, the owner of Books and Records.

Could you briefly introduce yourself and your online shop Books and Records?
My name is Bob Evans, based in Wiltshire in the south west of England, and I own and manage an online store specialising in used hardback books and vinyl records.

books and records logo

How did the idea of Books and Records come up and how long did it take you to turn the idea into an actual shop?

Since the late 1990’s I had been  trying to get a small business off the ground. I tried selling How-To reports by mail order and had some moderate success but found the niche to be overcrowded with other sellers all promoting similar products so I changed my focus to building web sites for other people, but that again was an area that was a bit swamped and there was only so much I could do – my skills were somewhat limited. I more or less stumbled on the idea to start selling books and then later I added vinyl records to the inventory. Neither niche seemed too crowded, so I made a start. My wife helped with site building and adding products. We launched in April 2008 and it has steadily developed since then.

How did you come up with such a unique combination of products that you offer?

This is an easy one to answer – I love books and I love vinyl records. I wanted to start a business selling tangible products as opposed to digital stuff and as I had a keen interest in both books and records, it seemed an obvious choice to start selling them.

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What were your biggest fears when launching this online project? Have any of them materialized?

My biggest fear, I suppose, was that I couldn’t hope to compete with the likes of Amazon, Abebooks and Alibris and that my little online store would be swamped and outranked in the search engines. But I was wrong. I quickly realized that the internet is set up in such a way that the little guy can not only compete with the big guns, but can also outperform them. It is not difficult to rank well in the search engines, no matter what a lot of so-called gurus tell you. It really is all down to content, and how often you update your site.

Have you had any prior experience from the bookselling business?

No, none at all. In fact I did not even know how to identify a first edition, or which authors were collectable, or anything beyond the fact that I could never walk past a bookshop without going in.

How big is the team behind Books and Records?

Technically, it’s just me – I’m a sole trader, but my wife has had a large input in terms of preparing product listings and also had a hand in the design of the site.

How have the site and the whole project developed and changed over the years?

The basic structure of the site has remained unchanged since the beginning. I have added new categories, and of course new products on a regular basis, and most recently I added the Customer Review system, Trust Certificate and Buyer Protection function to bring the site up to full compliance with data protection and other legal requirements. This is great for the buyer, as it offers them a money-back guarantee that is overseen by an independent company – Trusted Shops. I have also added an extension to the main site for other sellers who might be interested in listing their own products. It’s kind of at the development stage, but once I have ironed out a few creases, it’s something I’d like to promote a bit more heavily and see where it leads.

The usual problem with this type of business is the discrepancy between the time and effort invested by the founder(s) and the financial outcome. Many people either give up after some time or focus more on their ‘real’ job while keeping their side-project running as their hobby. Where do you stand in this struggle?

This is an excellent question! I think that in general people either give up too easily or struggle to maintain focus on any one business project. I had the same problem when I first started out. I wanted to be the next internet marketing guru. I soon found out that it wasn’t going to be easy. There were almost as many people promoting their new ebook as there were customers to buy them – and unfortunately, a lot of the material was old-hat. I lost interest and focus, and pulled out of the niche, but still wanted to try and make a go of something. I had a full time job at the time, so any income I earned from the business was invested mainly in new stock. I’m not quite at the stage where I can earn a living from it but perhaps if I concentrated more on advertising in other areas it might lead to a more solid income, who knows?
To date, almost all of the traffic to the site comes through the search engines, predominantly from Google and Bing. I have to say that I’m a bit reluctant to spend money on advertising. It’s so hit and miss. You can have all the traffic you want, but if they’re not interested in your product, they won’t buy.
But to answer the second part of your question – giving up a full time job in pursuit of financial independence through an online (or for that matter offline) business takes a lot of courage. For anyone wanting to take the plunge I would say: do your research first. Identify a niche you are comfortable with. Find a platform from which you can sell your product(s) – after a great deal of research I went with a free shopping cart called Storesprite, which serves my purpose extremely well. I would say give it at least a year before you make any decision to quit regular employment. It may even take five years to get to that stage. It really depends on a number of factors – how much effort you put into it, whether there is enough demand for the products (or services) you are offering and whether there is a vibrant market.

ian m banks excession

“Competition“ is always an easy-to-use argument and can even be an excuse not to risk it with your own project. In the book business, the question it all melts down to is “What can you do better than Amazon?“. So how can small businesses like yours compete and survive in a market controlled by big players? What specifically has worked for Books and Records?

Another excellent question!  Books and Records has survived, I think, mainly because of the effort I put in right at the very beginning of the project, when I made sure that at least one new item was listed every day. I prepared templates and I stuck to the same format for every product listed, so that it showed a kind of uniformity throughout the site. There is a main title, a short description or summary and a full description for every single item. I always post at least one image with alt tags. Every page is a just a click away from the Home Page. There are no broken links. All of this is fodder for the search engines! Consequently, the site is indexed several times a day and features on the first page of Google, Bing, Yahoo and many others because of this approach. It is frequently even in the number one spot, ahead of all the big guns and I have done nothing more nor less than followed the exact same procedure when listing new products.
As to what I do better than Amazon – I don’t think I can do anything better than them. But I do try to match them. I think I have first rate customer service. I think I am open and transparent in my product descriptions – if a book has spinal lean and age spotting then I say so, if a record has a dozen clicks on Track Two then I say so. Some sellers try to get away with skimping over some of the facts regarding the products they sell. I couldn’t do that. Attention to detail and emphasis on customer service are two of the factors, I think, that have enabled the project to keep going for so long.

Do you have any specific goals set for Books and Records? Would you like to keep it as an online shop or is a brick and mortar bookshop also a future possibility?

A brick and mortar establishment is not a conceivable goal for the near future – the stock volume does not warrant it at this time. But who knows what the long term future holds? Having said that, I think it would be too expensive to maintain a shop in the real world.

tolkien hobbit
Based on your experience, what kind of advice would you give to people who are thinking of starting an online bookshop or a small online business in general? 

As mentioned above, do your research first. Find a niche that really appeals to you. If possible, build and maintain your own website. Update it on a daily basis with fresh content. Always put the customer first. You can do this by replying to emails in a timely manner. Nothing puts a potential customer off more than an unanswered enquiry. Just in the last couple of weeks I have emailed three different companies more than once and have received no reply from any of them. The result is that I will not be buying their products or services. It is their loss, not mine. Also, I think transparency is paramount.

What are you personally like as a customer when it comes to buying books? Online or offline.

I tend to buy more books offline than online. I am quite fussy when it comes to buying on the internet – I want as much information about the product as possible. Some sellers seem to think they can just put a couple of words together and leave out important details because they know that if they mention that the book is in bad condition no one will buy it. I’ve had a few arguments with sellers over the years because they skim over the facts. Having said that, I have bought a number of books online and been perfectly happy with the purchases.

Do you have any favorite bookshops you visit often?

Yes, there are one or two in my local area, although these are starting to disappear. Most of the ones I used to frequent have either taken their business completely online or they have ceased trading altogether. 

How do you see the future of bookselling, both in the traditional brick-and-mortar form and in the virtual online space?

I think the future of bookselling is a healthy one, even though many titles are becoming digitalised. Fortunately, there is a vibrant community of book collectors, so that is very encouraging. I do think that a lot more traditional establishments will disappear from the High Street and take the Amazon route. I have customers who buy all their gifts online – not just books – so it looks very much as though the internet will take over in that respect. Even for those businesses who maintain an offline presence there is one thing they absolutely must have and that is an online store. A lot of companies realise this, but there are still quite a few that have not made the transition, or else have not made a good job of it.

a short history of nearly everything

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