So You Want To Sell Books Online?

Why don't Americans understand how the postal service works?

COVID has sent many booksellers scurrying to figure out how to ship books ordered online to their customers. Over on Twitter I’ve watched them get up to speed quickly, and also heard them vent frustrations with the process, how hard it is, how detailed the work, how upset the customers can get. And once again I appreciate how good Bill Rickman, who handles Belt’s shipping and handling, is at his job.

First, some basics that might help a bookseller or two out. This is our current set-up, and it works well:

-Our online store is through Shopify, which helps organize orders on the backend.
-We use Endicia for postage; we signed up with them when we were a tiny infant baby press, and remain loyal.
-We use a DYMO label printer. Ditto above.
-We order mailing envelopes from ULINE. I am not loyal to ULINE, because they have questionable politics. They are cheap and insanely fast, though, and they have us in the snares of that capitalist scourge, path dependency. My to do list usually contains “alternative to ULINE?” on it, and I keep not crossing it off, and then suddenly we are almost out of envelopes again and Bill could order some that would arrive the next day so…

Bill ships orders every other day or so. He goes to the Shopify back end, gets the info about an order, enters it into Endicia, DYMO spits out a label, Bill slaps it on a mailer, and puts the envelope in a box. When he is done he takes the boxes of labelled envelopes full of books down three long flights of stairs to his car, and drives them to the post office. (Our lease is up soon, and we are committed to a first floor office damnit, so if you are in Cleveland and know of a spot, lmk! Also, we can’t get anyone to pick up our boxes where we are located, thus Bill drives them to the post office) Sometimes Bill will pack up boxes of thirty or forty books each, for larger orders, and walks down the stairs carrying dozens of pounds of books. Sometimes, like he did this morning, he meets a truck with 1000 books, fresh from the printer, carries each carton to our freight elevator, takes them up to the office, and unloads them all.

It’s a very physical job.

One thing you might want to know about Bill is that when he isn’t doing this—and when there isn’t a global pandemic—he is usually found on the crazy curvy Cuyahoga River. He’s a Masters rower whose crew often wins at fancy national regattas! And he also coaches high school rowing, and adult beginning rowers. In other words, he is in good shape, so he can do all this silly stair walking with heavy boxes.

Another big part of Bill’s job involves customer service. Lucky him! I have seen booksellers commenting about customer complaints with online orders, and they are hearing ones we commonly have to vet. In fact, there is one common customer complaint that DRIVES ME INSANE. Bill and I share an email account where many of these are sent, and I read them and scream at my screen, and then he reads them and calmly, generously replies, and I am constantly astonished at his restraint.

The complaint boils down to a variation of this:

“Hi the USPS tracking info says my book has arrived but it isn’t here! What’s the deal, guys? I need a refund. Also please send me another copy.”

Look: my son, age 20, is confused about why letters need stamps, so I get it that younger folks might find the whole shipping world confusing. But I quickly forget compassion and get really huffy (in my head), the kind of huffy that only all caps and italics can express:


That tracking number? It comes from, as you note, the USPS. If you have a tracking number, it means that we did our part. We put your book in the mail. We do not know what happens after that. We do not have a special red phone that connects us to USPS. YOU NEED TO TALK TO USPS NOT US. THEY SCREWED UP NOT US.”

This is Bill who actually does respond to the poor human I am screaming out in my head:

“Let’s give it another day. Sometimes tracking says it has been delivered but it is still out for delivery. If it does not show up in the next few days, let me know and we can send you another copy.”

I don’t know how he does it.

Please don’t tell Bill about this newsletter! He’ll be pissed if he finds out. But—ssshhh—he is also the human behind our social media, so you can tweet @belt_publishing or insta @beltpub and freak him out my mentioning rowing. Or maybe eggs. Bill has challenged himself to eat one egg a day in 2020. Wonder how that is going.

What I’m Reading: I’m back to my comfort COVID authors: Anthony Trollope (Phineas Finn) and Penelope Fitzgerald (The Blue Flower). When did I become such an Anglophile? My PhD is in American lit!

Shout Out: The great group that revitalized (vitalized?) rowing in Cleveland, The Western Reserve Rowing Association. Must be hard for them all to have the boathouse closed. Here’s to choppy curvy healthy rowing next year.

Notes from a Small Press is a weekly newsletter by the founder and owner of Belt PublishingHelp support it by becoming a paid subscriber. Pre-order So You Want to Publish a Book?, a book based on the newsletter, publishing in July.

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