The BentoNet – Closing down

Hi all, this is a post to let you know that “The BentoNet” will be closing down before the end of this year. It’s unfortunate, but the reasons are mostly personal which I have listed below.

The site was originally launched in 2016 as a way to connect indie comic creators with local libraries and bookstores using print-on-demand technology (IngramSpark). Now, this worked as a concept, but unfortunately after the site launched, I never had much time to work on it or promote it since I was wrapped up in my own work and personal life. Various technical issues also created numerous problems, and so I thought it would be best to close it down and dissect it to see what went wrong (and right).

Anyway, if you don’t feel like reading to the bottom of this post, I still thank you for taking an interest in “The BentoNet”, and thank you also to any supporters, creators, buyers, bookstores and libraries who helped support it. It was an experiment from the start, and while it was something of a success (it actually got books to customers within a set amount of time), it was also a tad ahead of its time. Neither print-on-demand is there yet, and most books are still not available to be digitally printed.

Post-mortem: Dissecting the BentoNet

The site was originally meant to encourage local creators to make their work available via IngramSpark’s print-on-demand, which would make it easier for bookstores and libraries to order indie comics en masse since they won’t have to deal with individual creators (in retrospect, not the best idea). The site acted as a middle man (again in retrospect, not a good idea), which took money and orders from buyers, and then funneled the money and books (ordered from IngramSpark) to either the reader via mail, or to a bookstore of the reader’s choice for a pickup. This system was meant to encourage book buyers to visit bookstores, in return for cheaper mailing costs.

What Went Right?

  • Proof of concept: I received a number of orders through the website, and the system seemed to work as intended. I got the orders, placed them with IngramSpark, and then the books will be mailed out to the buyers. They typically got them within a week to 10 days, even in remote places like Alice Springs. Either way, the system worked fine, and was actually financially feasible and workable, so no problems with execution. The problems were all about something else.

What Went Wrong (a lot)?

  • Difficulty in advertising:  I actually spent way too much time programming the website, and nothing on how I was going to advertise and promote it. Marketing isn’t my forte, and when I realised that the website worked as proof of concept, I was at a loss at what the next step was. Allowing prose fiction along with comics onto the site was also not a great idea – it meant that the site wasn’t niche enough, and its only selling point is that it’s “indie books”. It then quickly dawned on me that “indie books” is not a reason for anyone to buy a book. This is a problem that only individual creators can ameliorate, through self-marketing. Which leads me to the next point.
  • Failure to help indie bookstores:  The BentoNet was originally meant to encourage book buyers to pick up their books from a bookstore, in return for much cheaper shipping. Unfortunately, this was a huge failure – only TWO orders out of dozens did the book pickup option; most people were just happy to pay quadruple the shipping amount to have it shipped directly to them. Sadly, most people just don’t care about bookstores they don’t already know and love, which leads me to the next point.
  • Acting as a middleman:  The BentoNet was always a too-complicated a concept to explain to bookstores, and it didn’t fit into their inventory systems. It was okay for most of them because it was only a very small number of orders, but this became a problem when one o(f two) of the book pickup orders were by a faithful customer of Impact Comics in Canberra. The customer emailed me to say that she ordered because she supported and regularly visited Impact Comics, which made me realise an unfortunate fact: if the customer already visited Impact Comics, then she wasn’t she better off directly ordering her books through Impact Comics rather than going through The BentoNet (which takes a cut)? The BentoNet acting as a middleman actually didn’t benefit bookstores at all – in the long run, it might actually have been more helpful to raise the professionalism of indie creators in dealing with bookstores and library suppliers.
  • Failure to supply for libraries:  It turns out that one of the largest suppliers of libraries, James Bennett, is owned by a rival of IngramSpark and does not allow orders from IngramSpark under any circumstances. So, JB can only order directly from the creators in this instance, and libraries themselves prefer to order from companies like James Bennett because they do cataloguing for libraries as well, which saves the libraries money. So, raising the professionalism of indie creators so they will list with library suppliers is the only way to deal with this.
  • Hardcopy books:  With the increase in e-books and e-comics, I wonder if hardcopy books are that popular anymore. The long-awaited death of the comic floppies also look to be finally happening, as the sales figures have now definitely etched out a downward trend on various graphs and website blog posts. I don’t think hardcopy books will every go away, but I can’t deny this fact.
  • Technical issues:  All websites taking credit cards got a sudden security upgrade in late 2016 due to PCI Compliance laws, which required massive amounts of contingency plans that the site owner must fulfill before they can process credit cards. I couldn’t make heads or tails of this, and so had to stop taking credit cards. In late 2017, Paypal demanded a security certificate upgrade which I also couldn’t understand, and which the Paypal website didn’t either (it led to dead 404 links on Paypal itself). This means that all payment options will be defunct by January 2018. These technical issues don’t count the platform I used to build the site, Magento 1, which is being phased out by its developer due to security concerns. I had a look at the newer Magento 2, and realised that it was completely different to Magento 1, meaning that it’s impossible to do a direct site upgrade. In the end, I realised I should have just stuck with WordPress rather than learned Magento. Going with a dated e-commerce platform was a huge mistake.
  • Personal issues:  In late 2017, I developed some minor health issues that needs to be managed, and there is also the possibility of a major life change. I may be going back to university from 2018 onwards, which means that I even have less time.

I’m saddened that I couldn’t help creators more, and I apologise if anyone is disappointed by the outcome of this. But all in all, it was an interesting (and mildly successful) experiment, and I again want to thank everyone who took an interest in this. Who know what the future will bring, but best of luck to all the creators and bookstores/libraries, and I hope things will continue to be good for the Australian Comics Community.

Important:  If you want a guide on how to list your books with Australian library suppliers, please look at this guide here.

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