Seven years later, the company has managed to carve a solid niche for itself in the field and continues to grow and thrive from its base in Asheville, North Carolina. I contacted Biblio’s CEO, Brendan Sherar, for an interview, hoping to get a little insight both into how this tiny company has managed to become so successful, and into the tales of impressive charity endeavours I had heard of Biblio undertaking. Along the way, I felt compelled to pick his brain for his thoughts about the future of books in general, how visiting Bolivia had changed his life, and what kind of reading a Book Lord of his magnitude would recommend to others.
Wikipedia states that Biblio is “probably the third-largest books only website”, and mentions that you specialize in rare and out of print titles. Your website lists only five employees, and states that you are located in Asheville, NC. How did Biblio get its start, and how does such a small company manage to hold its own against larger organizations? Do you feel you cater to a niche market (that of collectors of rare books), or that you are successful for other reasons?
Actually, the site may be a bit misleading there – we actually have eight people on staff full-time, and one part-time. My wife and I used to own a brick and mortar bookstore, and during that time I became interested in and started to pick up a little know-how with the internet and technology. We came up with the idea, and bought the domain name “Biblio.com” sometime around 1998. It actually took us a few years to get anything going, such were the demands of running our bookstore and raising our first daughter, but eventually (with a little help) we were able to get a small “kitchen table” business off the ground in late 2000. Initially, we were more of a price comparison site, which drew in a very modest income. But, it was enough to provide the seed capital to re-launch Biblio.com in early 2003 as the full e-commerce marketplace it is now.
I get asked the secret ingredient question often, and even though the answer is simple, its always challenging to find a way to respond in a simple way. People. Our core business strength is built upon a small group of people sharing a common set of values, goals, and vision for what Biblio needs to offer its stakeholders. By stakeholders, I’m referring to not only ourselves as employees or shareowners, but to our customers, our booksellers, and our community (locally and globally). I think over the years, we’ve built some really unique technology. We’ve been innovative with our business strategies. We’ve done some wonderful things in our community. And, each time you trace our successes back to their roots, you’ll always find a group of amazing individuals who are motivated by a vision to help shape and work for a great company that can measure its success far deeper than the bottom line.
There must be quite a few unique challenges to running an online business which depends so heavily on cooperation with tons of individuals whom you never meet. What’s the hardest thing about playing the middle man between buyers and sellers, and what innovative solutions has Biblio come up with to handle the difficulties? What’s the weirdest complaint you ever received?
Interesting questions. In serving a two-sided market as we do, its critical to make certain you’re continually providing a substantial value to both the customers and booksellers. In many ways, its little different than other, more traditional businesses. Take, for example, television, which serves two types of customers with uniquely different value decisions in mind: viewers and advertisers. The challenge for them is to provide the proper mix between content for the viewer, and presentation of advertising copy for the advertisers. If they focus too much airtime or quality on one at the expense of the other, the entire system becomes at risk of becoming dangerously unbalanced. Once this happens, the business essentially becomes irrelevant. Biblio.com works in much the same way, with the greatest challenge being always seeking the golden line where we’re striking the best balance and providing the greatest value to both sets of customers. In a way, its like trying to perform acrobatics on a tightwire that’s always swaying under the heavy pace of internet technology. As far as innovative solutions to this, we really don’t have a corner on anything new. We try to apply the golden mean, and when there is an irreconcilable dispute between a customer and a bookseller, we take it on the cheek ourselves and absorb whatever costs are reasonable.
The strangest complaint we had was from a bookseller who actually went to the BBB and the state attorney general because he was upset that his own storefront on Biblio was appearing in the first slot on Google when you typed in his business name. He wanted his own mybookstore.com webpage to appear first, and was convinced that we somehow “got into” Google’s servers and put ourselves first, and insisted that we log back in to Google and put his site back where it belonged. It was a diatribe that went on and on at some length. I believe he shared some of his business wisdom with the folks over at Google also. It was the first time we’d ever considered the idea of un-optimizing a page through some kind of anti-SEO campaign, thought for a while of creative ways to make the page entirely distasteful to the Google spider, thought we could make a business of anti-SEO, and finally thought it best to simply close our relationship with him.
In 2004, Biblio financed the construction of a library in rural Bolivia, and then went on in 2005 to create BiblioWorks, a charitable organization which has undertaken other similar projects as well as working to aid charities closer to home. Can you tell me a little about how BiblioWorks evolved, why you felt it was important to develop a charitable arm for Biblio, and where you would like BiblioWorks to go in the future?
Biblio has always had a desire to exert a strong, positive influence in communities and, in wanting to do so, we didn’t want to simply write a check and walk away. We wanted to roll up our sleeves, make a promise, and see the job done. The first library in Morado K’asa was just this type of opportunity and became such a labor of love that we sort of looked up after we were finished and mused to ourselves, “what would the world look like if every company did something like this every year?” And, we realized that we needed to stake our commitment to literacy and education for the long haul.
Its a little misleading to think of BiblioWorks as a “charitable arm” of Biblio. Biblio volunteers a lot of time, money, and resources to help BiblioWorks, but in the end, BiblioWorks is an independent non-profit. This was an important part of our thinking in helping to establish BiblioWorks: we wanted to ensure project sustainability for the organization, and in order to do so, we needed to ensure its strategic and fiscal sustainability. To this end, the best choice seemed to be to “set it free” as an independent, non-profit 501c3 which has its own board and is solely responsible for its own operational and strategic objectives.
You personally travelled to Bolivia in 2005 to inaugurate the library in Morado K’asa. Was this your first visit to Bolivia? How did it change your view of where you live, and your responsibilities and ambitions both as an individual and as the CEO of Biblio?
Yes, that was my first visit. I think people often find ways to write entire books about those sorts of experiences, but I’ll try to be a bit more brief. Bolivia is an extremely poor, politically unstable country, characterized by all of the stigma you’d expect to find attached to the label “developing nation.” It is impossible to understand the gulf of economical and developmental separation that looms between a country like that and the U.S. through anything other than direct experience. The economists can shovel shelves full of statistics and empirical data into your arms; the photographers and videographers can fill books and documentaries with imagery; but none of this will ever supplant the empathy you experience when you have the opportunity to visit to a developing nation. And, yes, it does change you. I’m not sure it’s always in an epiphany-on-the-hill moment – at least not for me. But as the beginning of a transformation in values, perspectives and assumptions which continues to this day. Its a feeling of humility and, oddly, shame. Initially, where I expected to feel pity for them, I instead felt a curious pity towards myself. I was afraid I was falling prey to something reminiscent of the noble savage perception. Later on, I began to understand that it really wasn’t that at all, but instead because something inside me just didn’t add up quite right.
It took a man named Don Dario to make me understand this. Don Dario has a family of a wife and eight children, and lives in a small adobe in the dry hills outside of Sucre. They have one bed for all of them to share. He has two rocky plots of land, an equal measure apportioned to him by the community. One is at a dramatic incline up the side of a ridge, and the other has a small side facing a river. Out of this land he grows crops to support his family and to trade for other staples. He’s only about 35, but looks to be in his mid-fifties. That’s what the dry wind and extreme sun does to everyone’s complexion. He’s actually considered an elder and a man of some means in his community. He doesn’t know how to read, and never will. Don Dario also loves his wife children with his whole heart. He has a smile that will light up a room. He has a love for life and a spring in his step that remind you of some broadway musical. He is humble and kind to everyone he meets.
And I realized that, despite his humble means, he had achieved so much of what we all want to achieve in our lives. Provision for our family, great relationships with our loved ones, warm and kind to strangers, waking to each new day with a glimmer in our eye. But, with all our economic clout and success, have we truly fared any better or worse than Don Dario? How could I, personally and professionally, figure out how to generate the best return on what really matters using the good fortune I had been given in life? And I suppose I don’t have an answer to the question, and I don’t even need one. I think I just need to have the question before me when I’m making decisions that impact myself and others.
In a time where more and more reading is done online, do you ever worry that there is a shelf-life to Biblio’s success? Do you think people will always have a love of paper books, even if our technology advances to the point where electronic books have a similar look and feel?
Sure, digital media are a threat to traditional printed media. In fact, it already has had a sizable impact. A great example is to observe the newspaper industry struggling to re-invent itself over the past five years. To their defense, I think that at the upper management levels, they were very aware of the risks and the need to adapt to stay relevant, but it is a long journey for giant hundred-year-old institutions to get a message of change from a boardroom table to the nightshift supervisor at the presses. For Biblio, its a very different story. We’re all here, working together everyday as co-workers and peers, so consensus isn’t so difficult to achieve, given that the threats and opportunities more or less impact each of us in the same way. In other words, our goals are pretty aligned, and we’re able to adapt. So, to answer from that direction first, no, I really don’t worry that there will be a shelf-life to our success. Biblio.com may be very different in a few years, but I think we intend to remain relevant for a long while to come.
As to where technology will turn regarding printed books, I don’t think anyone would dispute the fact that electronic books will continue to gain wider acceptance as the technology emerges and becomes more affordable. I think digital delivery platforms will certainly become the medium of choice for specialty, reference and professional publications. Most likely textbooks and some academic works as well.
Its a gray distinction to make, and the line probably differs for everyone, but I think there is a certain type of book which will always survive relatively unchanged physically. Actually, I would describe it less as a “type of book”, but as a type of motivation that draws people to books. There are the books you need for your work, for your studies, for spot-reference. You pick them up because you have to in order to achieve a particular goal. Then there are the books you pick up because you want to. I don’t believe the latter are truly in jeopardy. Reading a book for pleasure is an experience which is so deeply rooted in the uniqueness of each individual’s memory and lives that I can’t imagine it being threatened, at least for generations.
Your profile on Biblio’s staff page lists Italo Calvino, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cormac McCarthy, Philip Roth, and Don Delillo among your favourite authors. That’s a pretty interesting (and by most American standards, pretty obscure) list. Being in the position of aiding the distribution of millions of books, do you find yourself thinking that there are some books everyone really needs to read? If this interview were somehow going to wind up being read by millions, what books would you want to tell them all to pick up?
I think there might have been a time where I would have been happy to ramble off a list of books that everyone should read. I’m not sure I feel comfortable doing that any more. So much depends on what you value in life. Or, what you fear. What your dreams are. And, of course, where you are in life, what’s going on around you. Having been deprived since birth of omniscience, I’m afraid I’m just not qualified to answer that question.
But, here’s a suggestion: pick up two books. Make one of the books something you’ll learn something new from. In fact, make it something you can learn that in no predictable way, shape or form could possible give you any kind of leg up in your career, finances, relationships, or whatever. Maybe its a book about bees, spaceflight, psychology, or Alexander the Great. And, the second one, something you’ll enjoy. And, I do mean, you’ll enjoy, not what your reading group suggests, or your co-worker, or your spouse. Maybe its secretly second-rate science fiction from the seventies. Perhaps you enjoy series-romance. People worry too much about what people will think of their reading tastes. (To be fair, I’ll even acknowledge my under-the-mattress reading: survival fiction). In a nutshell, read what you enjoy – there’s no better reason to do it.
If you had to pick one book that had changed your life the most in the last ten years, what would it be?
I don’t think I could pin the blame on any one book. So many are responsible for making me get older. One relevant example, though. A few years back, when I was struggling with the uncertain decision to leave my stable, high-paying corporate job for the uncharted territory of running Biblio, I found myself reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams. In it, McCullough gives an excellent accounting of Adams’ struggles, fears and motivations in the time leading up to secession and revolution from the British. Included throughout the book is a series of heartfelt correspondence between his wife, Abigail, and himself. In one of her letters, encouraging him as he struggles with the personal and political consequences of his decisions, she quotes Shakespeare, out of Julius Caesar:
“There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in the shallows and in miseries”
All hyperbole aside, that was the turning point of my decision to launch into a career in books (again).