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Joel on Software

Wordsworth Responds

by Joel Spolsky
Monday, August 07, 2000

In Strategy Letter I, I wrote:

If you're going into a market with no existing competition, lock-in, and network effects, you better use the Amazon model, or you're going the way of Wordsworth.com, which started two years before Amazon, and nobody's ever heard of them.

I was happy to hear back from Sanj Kharbanda over at Wordsworth, who wrote:

Thanks for noticing us!

... A customer of ours pointed [Strategy Letter I] out and after the appropriate period in which I agonized over your comment I thought I might write back.

I have no qualms with what you say, though I must add that folks have heard of us (not to the extent they have heard of Aaaamaazon, but there are folks out there who know us---largely because of our reputation in the physical world). Our website does fairly well, in spite of us. We have put very little in terms of monetary resources in it and we are every marketer's nightmare.

Are there days where we don't kick ourselves? I'd be lying if I said no. Did we envision that the web would be this big for books? We knew it would be very big, we did not think it was going to be this HUGE.

Our error, we had the vision we just did not execute. (spilt milk---sour grapes etc). The only reason I can come up with it the same reason Wordsworth books has never tried to "chain" itself...we are an independent store that tries to keep the "community store" ethic and we were afraid we would loose that.

My rather extensive reply to Sanj... more of a rant about independent booksellers in general:

I love the concept of independent bookstores, but in many cases I think that they are just not "doing what it takes" to be competitive -- online or in the stores. I suspect that is because the types of people who love books enough to be indie booksellers are not necessarily the best businesspeople.

Here's an example I can think of... a famous bookstore here on the Upper West Side, Shakespeare and Co., closed down when a Buns and Noodle's SuperDuperStore opened up practically next door.

I liked Shakespeare and Co., but, you know what? They just weren't doing what it takes to be competitive. They didn't have places to sit down. They made you check your bags. They didn't have a cafe. Their selection was much smaller than B&N -- for example, I wanted a book about bicycle touring -- B&N had a whole shelf of bicycle books; Shakespeare had one book.

Indies "claim to fame" is that they have more knowledgable staff and they do better selection of interesting books. Sometimes true, but not in the case of Shakespeare and Co., who were hiring the same local entry level workers that B&N did.

At the time, Shakespeare had limited floor space to expand their inventory -- but a giant store that would have been perfect for a large bookstore was vacant, right across the street. My guess is that Shakespeare was undercapitalized and couldn't afford to compete on the same basis as B&N. They hung on for a while but eventually closed down. I would miss them, if I could think of a single thing they offered that B&N didn't.

In the online world, the same thing seems to be happening between Wordsworth and Amazon. Doc Searls changes his bookstore from Amazon to Wordsworth and sees his revenue plummet to $0. (Jacob Nielsen explains why). I myself am an Amazon affiliate; it's earning me about $100 a month which just about covers the cost of all the books I buy at Amazon :) [By the way... you guys should be thankful for Nielsen's free UI advice; normally people pay about $30,000 for this kind of advice!]

Anyway, no matter how much I love independent bookstores, they just weren't getting the books to the people. In many smaller cities across America, the Borders and B&N megastores represent the first time there's been a decent selection of books available. I love the fact that B&N means that worried gay teenagers can read XY magazine, even if they live in Kansas City. I love the fact that B&N means that 2600 magazine is available nationwide. I love the fact that I can buy an XML reference manual 11:30 PM in my neighborhood... before B&N, even in New York City, you had to go to McGraw Hill in midtown for good computer books, and they closed at 5 PM promptly.

Anyway, that's my bookstore rant :) It's great to hear from you, and I suspect a lot more people will hear of Wordsworth if Amazon runs out of money as quickly as some analysts think they will!


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I’m Joel Spolsky, co-founder of Fog Creek Software, a New York company that proves that you can treat programmers well and still be highly profitable. Programmers get private offices, free lunch, and work 40 hours a week. Customers only pay for software if they’re delighted. We make Trello, easy web-based collaboration software, FogBugz, an enlightened bug tracking and software development tool, and Kiln, a distributed source control system that will blow your socks off. I’m also the co-founder and CEO of Stack Exchange. More about me.

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