If, around 2003, you were thinking of starting an internet business, what might you have gone for?
It’s a fair bet that second-hand books would have been some way down your list. Amazon had plugged the gap in the market for new books from 1994, and Alibris had shaken up the trade in older books three years later.
With ebooks being mooted for the near future, second-hand bookshops closing down and charity shops often refusing to take books, the outlook for the trade was gloomy. Books could be bought cheaper than firewood.
Three young men in Bognor Regis, on the south coast of England were beginning to take a contrary view, however.
All were in boring jobs and wanted to work for themselves. One, Simon Downes, now 37, had a degree in business information systems and was experimenting with trading on eBay.
Convinced that physical books were moribund, the three nonetheless did see a lot at the car boot sales they frequented looking for things to resell.
They tried buying them for pennies and auctioning them on eBay.
The results could be spectacular. A pile of unsold Barbara Cartland paperbacks they bought from someone who was putting unsold books in a rubbish bin at the end of one car boot sale fetched them £270.
“Against all intuition, it seemed books were a saleable product when the audience was not local, but global,” Mr Downes says.
The three reported all this to the father of one of them, a local businessman, Arthur Maxfield, who was also curious about the internet’s potential for buying and selling on.
Mr Maxfield coincidentally found that two local British Heart Foundation shops were not only filling their back rooms with unsold books, but paying to get them taken away and pulped.
Long story short: the four started a business, World of Books. Today — and this is probably the most counterintuitive thing I know — the company employs more than 500 people in a business park premises in mundane Goring-by-Sea. It buys 70m volumes a year, turns over £30m and made £1.3m profit in 2015, its fourth profitable year. It sells 80 per cent of its stock to recyclers, the rest to readers in 175 countries.
Last year it rehomed 5m books, making it, so it claims, eBay’s second-largest seller globally, by transaction numbers, of anything. The company says it is also the world’s fourth-biggest independent seller by volume on Amazon.
At the start, it positioned itself as the place for charity shops to offload books. It didn’t only take away zombie titles that had already died once — it bought them.
The public got to know about World of Books in 2014, when it released a brilliant app,Ziffit, with which you can scan the barcode on books (also CDs, DVDs and games) and get an instant offer based on global market prices at that moment.
Scanning books is fascinating — and profitable — fun. The algorithm Mr Downes developed is comprehensive and complex. “The system is actually like a living thing, responding to hundreds of influences and inputs,” he says. Ziffit sends couriers to pick books up for free — at least, those the app says yes to. The company says it has paid £6.5m to users to date.
One of the many clever things about World of Books is that it doesn’t need to maintain its own retail site. Its system is integrated with all the major customer-facing platforms — when you buy a second-hand book on Amazon, it will often have come from Goring via the ecommerce behemoth.
The book business has been in turmoil for years. Not everything that happens is predictable. Last year sales of physical books in the UK rose by 0.4 per cent, the first rise in four years, says the Publishers Association, to the detriment of ebooks, which lost ground for the first time.
It seems people just like the feel of books. Perhaps if ebooks had been invented first, the paper book would be revolutionary — look, no batteries!
Whatever explains it, an unlikely thriving, data-crunching business in a sleepy British backwater is the result.