I’ve been asked about the history of the BOOKFAIR.COM domain.
And I’d like to explain why I’m asking for suggestions for what Bookfair.com should become.
I first encountered the World Wide Web in its early days and I participated (in a very minor role) in its development (see anecdotes from 1991). The web was not widely used because of the difficulty of connecting to the Internet (there were very few commercial Internet service providers) and there were no web browsers for popular operating systems such as Windows. Nonetheless, from 1993 to 1994 I used the Web as a knowledge management tool while working for a consulting firm that re-engineered information systems organizations for large corporations (yes, that’s a mouthful, but such is corporate-speak). It gave me an opportunity to use the Web for organizing and disseminating information and left me eager to explore the possibility of using the Web for book publishing.
Early Beginnings With Online Books
I worked in the publishing industry early in my career (as VP of sales for a children’s book publisher) and in the summer of 1994, I began a project to develop a web application that would allow publishers to sell access to online editions of books. I registered the domain BOOKPORT.COM and, in conjunction with Seth Ross, owner of a small publishing house in San Francisco, started selling an ebook online in early 1995. “Netiquette,” by Virginia Shea, was one of the first books ever sold as an online edition.
I’d focused my efforts on small independent publishers but I found that no established book publishers were interested in exploring the possibilities of selling online editions of books. Yet there was tremendous enthusiasm for marketing bound books on the Web. I found many publishers were eager to get a “home page” featuring their current books. This was a year after the first web browser was released for Microsoft Windows and around the time that online dial-up services AOL and CompuServe began to offer access to Web. Responding to demand from independent publishers, I began developing web sites for publishers and soon found I was working as a “webmaster” for several small independent publishers. Bookport, which was a home for online books, wasn’t the right place for publishers’ catalogs of bound books, so on April 17th, 1995, I registered the domain Bookfair.com, and launched the service at the American Booksellers Association (ABA) convention in Chicago in May of 1995.
The Bookfair.com Concept
The concept for Bookfair.com was simple. Like a real-world book fair, it served as a place for publishers to present their catalogs of books. In 1995 it was impractical for most publishers to set up their own web sites because web hosting services were not widely available and few people had the technical knowledge necessary to create web pages. I created web sites for about two dozen publishers, complete with sample chapters of their books, and an ordering system that delivered customer orders direct to the publishers by encrypted email.
I found I was not the only host for publisher’s web pages. A company in Arizona, named BookZone, led by a former bookseller, Mary Westheimer, offered similar services and very successfully served several hundred small- and medium-sized publishers. And it wasn’t long before enterprising publishers began to teach themselves how to build their own web pages and hire neophyte webmasters to install their web pages on the new commercial web hosting services that began to emerge.
I found I was increasingly spending time coaching my clients on the nuances of online marketing. To me, driving traffic to the sites, and generating sales, was more interesting than building web pages. A few of my clients caught on quickly, and shared my fascination with the Web as a marketing vehicle, notably Joe “Mr. Fire” Vitale, Dan Poynter of Para Publishing, and Jerry and Esther Hicks of Abraham-Hicks Publications. Significantly, these clients realized they were in the business of selling branded information, not bound books. Jerry and Esther Hicks have had a string of NY Times bestsellers based on the web marketing methodology I created for their organization. And Joe Vitale is now a multi-millionaire and an Internet marketing guru in his own right.
Undone by Amazon
As originally conceived, BOOKFAIR.COM was soon superfluous. A few months after I launched Bookfair, in July 1995, Jeff Bezos launched an online bookseller named Amazon.com. Amazon initially wasn’t well-known (or well-liked) by publishers but within two years became a dominant destination for book shopping. Amazon was not the original online bookseller (the long-forgotten Bookstacks, founded by Charles Stack, was the first large online bookseller). But the timing for Amazon’s launch was propitious and its convenience of ordering, combined with efficient customer service, made it very popular.
I believe that the original concept for Bookfair offered advantages for publishers. Unlike Amazon, which takes a bookseller’s traditional cut of a sale, Bookfair delivered orders directly to publishers for fulfillment, giving the publisher the full margin on the sale. Many publishers that talked to me about Bookfair were reluctant to sell direct to consumers out of concern for alienating the bookseller sales channel. However, at this point in time, many booksellers are out of business (or approaching bankruptcy) and the publishers have simply seen the bookseller channel displaced by Amazon. Be that as it may, Amazon succeeded by offering advantages that Bookfair never could have achieved. First, Amazon offered the opportunity to order any book, not just a few from participating publishers, making it a logical destination for any book buyer. Second, Amazon’s ordering system and customer service was consistent for all books, something Bookfair could not have achieved with a patchwork of publishers selling direct. Finally, Amazon did something at a scale that no publisher or bookseller had done before. It opened up an avenue for user-generated content, in the form of reviews and recommendations and reading lists. (At Bookfair, I was fascinated by the possibilities of user-created reading lists and hosted several that eventually migrated to other websites. But I failed to foresee the necessity of building web apps, as Amazon did, that allowed the large-scale creation of user-generated content.) In sum, it was Amazon that undid Bookfair, because Amazon offered more information about more books. Amazon showed that people had no reason to visit a publisher’s web site to find books on the Internet.
Decline and Opportunity
Bookfair.com continued to host web sites for a few small book publishers until my clients eventually migrated to their own hosting providers and found new webmasters. By 1997, Bookfair.com was only serving as a portal to other book-related sites on the web. Its “Internet Road Map to Books” was popular and received commendation in several guides to the Internet. I maintained the site until the summer of 2000 when a decline in traffic and the hassle of maintaining the server persuaded me to shut down the site. In 1999 and 2000, the dotcom boom was well underway and I was busy teaching corporations how to build web applications and serving as CTO of a dotcom startup. My involvement as an entrepreneur and a developer with web startups continues to this day but I feel some remorse at neglecting Bookfair.com and I’ve resolved to give it my attention once again.
For whatever reason, Bookfair.com continues to attract a substantial number of visits. And over the years, I’ve received a steady flow of offers from various parties who’ve wanted to buy the Bookfair.com domain. In May 2008, a domain speculator offered $25,000 for the Bookfair.com domain name. I was strongly urged to sell the domain name at that time but so far, I’ve been reluctant to do so.
Let my explain. I first encountered the Internet at a time when noncommercial uses vastly outweighed commercial considerations in developing the Internet. I am not adverse to accumulating material wealth through development of online services (I’ve had the opportunity with several other projects). However, I prefer to make “money on the Internet” by creating businesses that have unique and genuine value. And I continue to believe in the value of the Internet as a “commons” where value is created by collective intent, rather than individual whim. Not everyone views Internet business this way, but it suits me, and it explains why I haven’t sold Bookfair.com to the highest bidder.
Since August 2008, there’s been a new web page at Bookfair.com with an email sign-up form. I’ve collected email addresses and offered to send news of future developments at Bookfair.com. Over 400 people from around the globe have asked to receive news.
I’ve decided my best course of action is to ask visitors what they would like to see at the Bookfair.com site. Few people launch a web startup this way (I never have) but I’m curious about what suggestions I’ll receive. As a marketing approach, it has some merit. Why not build what people ask for? But marketing is not the only reason I’m asking. I believe that a valuable domain name, such as Bookfair.com, like the allocated radio frequency spectrum, ultimately belongs to everyone, and it’s my responsibility to make sure that whatever site comes to occupy the domain makes the highest and best use of the namespace.
In that spirit, I encourage you, my visitors, to help determine the fate of Bookfair.com.
You can leave comments on this blog entry or email me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.