Serendipity & Book-Burning On Trade Me

Trade Me’s booksellers are kicking up a stir on the Message Boards with a thread entitled “Books: Non Fiction NZ.Category removed. WHY?” 

The essence of their complaint: that the Books>Non-Fiction>New Zealand category was removed without consultation or advance notice, the week before Christmas. 

Some of the heartfelt pleas to Trade Me on the subject, via the Message Boards:

“I used this [category] heaps when selling, browsing and buying, it’s the obvious place to look first for NZ written and published non-fiction books!” — jo.dcat

“You know what is bound to happen now? People will flood the Rare & Collectable — NZ Published .. category with books that are neither rare, nor collectable, because they can’t find anywhere else to list them. That category is already misused as it is … grrrr” — bookshelves 

“I’m concerned about the removal of the NZ Non-fiction category from ‘Books’. While fiction buyers usually search (by author) non-fiction buyers tend to *browse* by subject – and ‘New Zealand’ is a significantly collected subject so it needs to be a category on its own. Many collectors of New Zealand books (like myself) collect widely within non-fiction and are going to struggle to browse among a dozen other categories (Architecture, Biography, etc) to find the New Zealand books. One of the difficulties in selling books on-line is that it works better for searchers than browsers and since people don’t have lists of non-fiction titles or authors they want, non-fiction relies on browsers. Having a New Zealand category encouraged browsing within it – scattering New Zealand books through a number of large categories makes browsing almost impossible. Please reconsider this change.” — thirzajane

“This decision doesn’t make financial sense at all. We all know how we shop for non-fiction and we know that breaking up the highly collected New Zealand non-fiction category and scattering it here and there will negatively affect sales, thus reducing success fees paid. I don’t think for a moment that this is a malicious decision, just one made by people with little or no knowledge of the mechanics of collecting/buying New Zealand non-fiction. Perhaps we should ask them to pop down the road to a bricks and mortar store and sit watching the people in the New Zealand section? They’ll be the ones who arrive with very little idea of what they want and who BROWSE until they discover something they never knew existed and which they now realise they can’t live without.” — thirzajane

“Please scour your trademe staff for someone ‘on the team’ who understands the ramifications of this unwanted change,understands book sellers and book buyers and is prepared to acknowledge a mistake has been made in this instance and has the nous to reinstate Books Non Fiction New Zealand as a primary category.” — hurworth

“I know from having been a buyer in a major bookshop that NZ books are the life blood of a bookshop in NZ! TM is a business which is fine but who is financing this?” — mme

“Please bring back NZ Non Fiction Category. Removing this as a primary category defies logic and commonsense. By all means add sub categories under NZ Non Fiction. But by this action in removing this category you have disrupted trading in Non Fiction NZ Books, created headaches for many loyal sellers and disadvantaged buyers who may be looking for NZ Non fiction.Please act quickly to restore NZ Non Fiction as a primary category and listen to the voices of experienced booksellers on this matter.” — hurworth 

“The figures from the books/non-fiction section seem to make the case for reinstatement of the New Zealand sub-section. There are now more than 3500 listings in the “other” section (the area into which we are [now] advised to place NZ non-fiction). Yet subjects with far fewer listings rate their own sub-sections (flora and fauna 80 listings, genealogy 92, wine and drink 129). Reinstatement would be a great Christmas presents for buyers and sellers — and even for TM’s bottom line.” — bookstacks
“We had nearly 1000 listings, many with Gallery, on Monday. TradeMe by removing all our listings to odd places you have cost us a lot of money in lost sales. Buy Nows of NZ books stopped as soon as you did this and most of our books are NZ. If we don’t get sales you lose money on commissions. We need a NZ category with sub-categories.” — morrisandbill 

Most of the Message Boarders are reporting automated email replies, but a few booksellers have managed to attract real responses. Here’s perhaps the most relevant reply from a Trade Me Customer Service staffer:

“Thanks for contacting us. We do not appear to have made a Site Announcement yet about this change so I do apologise for any confusion that you may have experienced when going to list yesterday. I can appreciate that the books you intend to sell (the ones you have listed) would fit most appropriately in a NZ Non Fiction category and this feedback is greatly appreciated. The changes were made based on feedback from members and the use of these categories on the site, but having said that, feedback on the changes is also very helpful for us. Thanks again and if you have any further questions or if I can be of any further help please do not hesitate to contact me.” — reported by felix00

Booksellers as a genus are not generally considered inflammatory individuals. However the removal of the Non-Fiction>New Zealand category has sparked a fiery reaction from these stereotypically placid purveyors of printed matter, and the issue risks becoming a cause célèbre amongst the literati. That’s unfortunate because both Trade Me and its bookseller customers have the same end purpose in mind — providing the most effective marketplace for the buying and selling of products.

The issue under debate  — whether book buyers search or browse — was well captured in an article in The Times of London last April entitled “How internet booksellers are killing art of browsing”. As The Times put the matter, rather more poetically, “The joy of stumbling on a captivating book of which you were previously unaware is being undermined by the internet.”

Margaret Atwood, the Canadian author whose books include The Edible Woman, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Blind Assassin, which won the Booker Prize in 2000, was reported in the article as saying that the “serendipity” of discovering something in a bookshop has not been replicated online. As Ms Atwood told the London Book Fair:

“You are not going to get the same experience on the net. Amazon is trying, by saying, ‘If you like this book you might like this other book’, but it’s often something quite offensive that they suggest.”

It’s quite a heavy burden to lay on Trade Me: preserve the Art of Serendipity (and the ancient and honourable craft of bookselling) by reinstating the Non-Fiction>New Zealand mega-category, so that casual browsers wandering through a large number of unrelated-except-by-country-of-origin books will encounter and potentially be captivated by previously unknown titles. A big ask, when elegant simplicity suggests that buyers would prefer to search by more specific categories.

And yet sellers are obviously convinced otherwise.

What to do? Some possible solutions:

  • Reinstate “Non-Fiction>New Zealand” as a category, without changes. Easiest to implement, but probably requires a substantial amount of Trade Me number-crunching to confirm (or quash) sellers’ beliefs that sales within this category are driven by browsers rather than searchers.
  • Reinstate “Non-Fiction>New Zealand” as a category, with a wide range of sub-categories to cater for searchers browsers [corrected – thanks thirzajane]. Theoretically a good idea, but inefficient (do you browse for a book about Kiwis during the Second World War under “Non-Fiction>War & Military” or “Non-Fiction>New Zealand>War & Military”?)
  • Add “New Zealand” as a sub-category to every other book category. Effective but (as above) also inefficient for browsers.
  • Allow sellers to add a “New Zealand” tag to any book at listing time, which can then be used as a search filter (Just as “New” and “Used” can be similarly filtered). Would enhance the listings, but at the risk of non-standardising the Books category compared to the rest of the site, a definite negative. And does nothing to further the cause of serendipity.

All in all, a difficult issue without an obvious quick fix. 

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One thought on “Serendipity & Book-Burning On Trade Me

  1. auctionitis


    I followed this thread with interest as I also received a lot of emails from very upset clients about the stress this caused them.

    I think that the significant issue for book sellers is the lack of site announcement by TradeMe about the categories – sellers get their books shuffled around by TradeMe, using quick relist they may not know for months their books are sitting in some irrelevant category.

    It also somewhat odd that automated emails are sent to sellers re the changes on the site in response to their complaints, and when a seller (post 103 of the thread) rang up and spoke to the person they had received an email from, the person knew of no such email or category changes.

    If I understand correctly, book sellers were consulted (and buyers) but it seems some of the bigger sellers with a wide variety of books across categories such as betterbooks were not consulted.

    I knwo too well that you can’t please all of the people all of the time but it seemed to add a particular stress on sellers at an already stressful time of the year – changing categories right up to two days before Christmas day, no announcements nothing.

    Serenity Now, Insanity Later! Serendipidy Sometime!

    Happy New Year Michael :)

    Tracey MacKenzie

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