Plans to pick up the safari during Anne’s half-term week put into disarray by the realisation that there is an ABA Council meeting in the middle of it. All that remains is a flying visit to Dublin to see our members there next Monday – a report will follow – and the safari will continue anon.
But there is more than one way of travelling in this day and age – so this week has been a virtual safari to ABA members, near and far, with a tour of inspection of their many and various websites. The first surprise was how many booksellers still do not maintain a website of their own. No particular reason why this should be a surprise, we are a conservative (and frequently elderly) trade – and there is no need to put in all that time and effort if you don’t need to – but that something like a third of ABA members (seventy-six by my rough count) do not have a web presence of their own did puzzle me a little.
So, frankly, did some of the sites that do exist. Leaving aside the one that won’t display itself for security reasons, some were, what shall we say, “modest” or “perfunctory” in aspiration – the cyber equivalent of leaving a note on the door saying “gone fishing”. Some were even more half-hearted (quarter-hearted? eighth-hearted?) than that – simply wishful thinking, a memo to do something sometime, or an idea abandoned at birth. And I was also rather disturbed by the rash of rather dodgy shades of green which seems to have afflicted all too many sites – do we not all know that green books don’t sell unless they are about gardening, golf or cricket?
But these are a minority. The majority – in all their different hues – represent a great deal of thought, work and effort. Ranging from sombre to jaunty, from restrained to shouty, from simple to messy, from stylish to cluttered, from sober to bonkers, what they all had were fantastic books. It became quite an exciting game working through the websites one-by-one, because as you click on the links (all available on the ABA Web Links connection to your right) you simply have no idea might might lie in wait. Will they have a website? What might it look like? What books do they have? The naked man on one Australian site is definitely the worst that awaits –
although some of the booksellers’ pictures of themselves (clothed) are perhaps also a trifle ill-considered. (Two honourable exceptions are the Marilyn Monroe lookalike working in darkest Oxfordshire (Bennett & Kerr) and Natalie Galustian’s peek-a-boo).
Some sites are simply beautiful – take a bow Alicia Bardón, Simon Beattie, Justin Croft, Quadrille, Janette Ray, Sims Reed and a whole raft of others. Some of the photography is exquisite. Some are enlivened by histories of the firm, or interesting articles on book-collecting (honourable mentions here to Kay Craddock and Jonathan Fishburn), or map-collecting (Jonathan Potter). There are blogs, testimonials, all sorts of fascinating links, all manner of searching devices and more.
But how effective are these sites? You have perhaps heard of the Alexa rankings which place the world’s websites in order of popularity and usage – so that Google is ranked at 1, Facebook at 2, the BBC at 41, this blog at 631,615 and so forth for the top thirty million or so websites. There are all sorts questions over the methodology and accuracy, and the figures can change quite rapidly, but they give the best rough guide we have. Disappointing to find only four ABA members in the top million – but well done Berkelouw, Blackwell’s, Peter Harrington, (modesty forbids the fourth) and the ABA website itself. Another five make it to the top two million and another forty-five currently feature in the top ten million. More worrying are the thirty or so outside the top twenty million and the additional thirty-three stigmatised by the “no rank” ranking of outer darkness.
But the surprise in this is that it is very often the sites which we would regard as the most attractive which fare the worst in these rankings. It’s not always a matter of being beautiful – often still less about having the most interesting books. Stylish is not necessarily the same as effective. It is static content, lots of it, with a repetitive hammering out of the key search words which inspires Google, not necessarily shifting content or floating images. It is something that the designers of websites sometimes fail to grasp. But let me urge you all to go and have a look at some of these sites – delight and wonder await.