The Plot, and Profits, Thicken: Online Book Selling Tips

Whether or not you're passionate about books, there's bucks to be made selling them online. Our expert shares insider secrets for success.
A book is among the few things in this world that still can be purchased for a dollar or less at thrift shops and flea markets, or even found free, discarded in dumpsters or amid a pile of curbside-rubbish — and then sold for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. This still occurs with surprising regularity for those willing to do the leg work.

Books can also be easy to sell, off or online. Even in New York City, where pretty much everything but the air is taxed or licensed, books can be publicly sold for free; (First Amendment rights allow booksellers to set up tables one foot from the curb of any public street and sell books 24 hours a day, should they so desire.) Despite the fact that virtually everything and anything is for sale on the Internet, more books are sold online than any other product, according to a recent Neilsen survey, which also found as of early 2008, that 41 percent of all Internet users have bought a book — a number expected to grow going forward. And these shoppers are buying more books: of all the books sold annually in the U.S., the percentage sold on the Internet has increased from 12 to 20 percent over the past several years.

As it becomes known that online book selling works, the business model is attracting everyone from passionate booklovers to the coolly indifferent. By one book blogger's estimate, there are currently 150,000 people selling or attempting to sell books on the Internet. In short, business is brisk, but so is the competition. For those starting out, here are some basic tips on what to seek and avoid in today's online book-selling marketplace.

First, Make a Decision…

Often new booksellers attempt to handle only what interests them. Some sellers specialize in rare and collectibles, others best sellers, romance paperbacks, textbooks, etc. Still others focus on niche fields such as children's books, military, maritime, history, sports, modern fiction or dozens of other specialized fields. However, given today's ferocious competition for books, becoming a "specialist" has become increasingly difficult. Many, if not a majority of online booksellers, myself included, are what we call "generalists," selling anything for which there is a demand, regardless of age, rarity or topic.

…Then "Beat the Bushes"

After deciding what you want to sell comes the tricky business of finding stock. Aside from those who deal in remainders and bulk lot closeouts, bargain-seeking booksellers troll early morning flea markets, thrift shops, garage and house sales, cruise neighborhoods on trash pick-up days, and yes, even dumpster dive. The more reliable sources are book auctions, library book sales, estate sales, brick-and-mortar bookstores and eBay, particularly auctions. Professional book sellers constantly surf eBay book auctions as many casual eBay sellers do not research the values of books they sell and frequently bargains that can be listed at many times the eBay price slip through the cracks.

Jacket Required: Condition is Everything

Years ago when seeking a first edition copy of William Faulkner's "A Light In August," I found two copies in a seller's catalog. One was listed as being in Fine condition with a dust jacket for $750, and the other in Fine condition without a dust jacket for $75. Then and now, the dust jacket can comprise up to 90 percent of a book's value. Since the 1890s nearly all books have been issued with dust jackets but very many were discarded, creating a demand, particularly in vintage collectible books. Research value before spending serious money on any book without its jacket, particularly post-1930 books.

Avoid "Book Club" or BC editions of collectible books as collectors eschew them as common. (Book club editions do not have a price inside the front flap, or are labeled 'book club,' and may have a small blind stamp on the bottom rear cover and/or are more cheaply bound than the store-sold edition.)

Accuracy, Details and Honesty Count

Describing a book as "In OK condition considering its age," or "the book is in good or better condition," will identify you as unprofessional — a book-rube or someone too lazy to describe the actual copy. Familiarize yourself with the basic grading conditions for used books: Fine (virtually no flaws to the book or jacket,) Very Good "VG," (bright and attractive with minor but visible wear to the book or jacket,) Good (the most common condition of a used book, readily visible wear and soil, chips missing from the jacket, no jacket, etc,) Fair and Poor (unbound or falling apart, missing the jacket, heavily soiled, good only as a filler or reading copy.) Excepting true rarities, collectors generally want at least VG condition books. However you acquire books, it's important to remember, condition means everything.

Research, Research, Research

A major reason for the dealer stampede into book selling is the transparency in pricing. Pre-Internet, book values were learned through years of experience or through expensive sets of auction record books and/or plowing through boxes of catalogs. Today, pricing can be found for most books with a few keystrokes on the mega-book-search engine sites, www.bookfinder.com and www.Addall.com.

Both offer pricing, description, edition status and bibliographic lore on millions of books sold by many thousands of booksellers using the fee-based, book-listing services. The book search engines can also prevent you from sinking money into books with enormous populations: a recent search found thousands copies of the "DaVinci Code" for sale online; commonly, 50, 100 up to many hundreds of copies of the most popular books can be found for sale on the Internet. Unless you expect to outlive Methuselah, it makes little sense to handle such books.

Take Advantage of the Technology

No one can know the value of every book encountered in buying situations at flea markets, book auctions or anywhere else. I, for one, have boxes of "mistakes" I made in purchases. Today, technology has brought book pricing out into the field via PDA devices, laser scanners and Internet connected cell phones.

For mid-1960s and newer books, laser scanners can read the bar code by the ISBN number from a database and provide pricing; for books without the bar code the scanners allow for punching in the ISBN with the same but slower result. These PDA devices such as Scout Pal can provide pricing on pre-ISBN books via Internet/data base access.

These devices are not inexpensive, ranging to $400 and up with monthly connection fees. But if one of these gadgets can find you a four-figure book or keep you from spending serious money on an overpriced tome, they can pay for themselves. Many veteran booksellers still rely on their experience and instincts in scouting books, but if you are new and inexperienced in this competitive market, you may want to consider investing in a PDA or scanner.

How to Sell? Diversify

There are two basic formats to online book selling: fixed price and auction. The vast majority of books for sale online are fixed-price listed on the approximately 20 fee-based multi-dealer book-listing sites. Off these, the most popular are the "Three As," ABE (Advanced Book Exchange,) Alibris and Amazon.

Despite endless complaining by booksellers regarding Byzantine terms, conditions and fees on the Three As, most online sellers list with at least one of these three services simply because they sell the most books. Nearly all of those sellers will also list with other smaller but good-performing services such as Biblio.com, TomFolio, ChooseBooks, AntiqBooks, or eBay Stores, among others. A complete list of current multi-dealer book selling sites can be found at the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA) site, along with book auction sites, library sales and much other useful bookseller information.

With notable exceptions such as Biblio.com, which has a free listing option, and Alibris, which allows free listings up to 1,000 books, the services charge monthly listing fees of about $20 to $100 and up based on the number of books listed. All of them charge commissions on sales, that along with credit card processing fees, average about 15 to 20 percent. eBay Stores, an increasingly popular fixed price venue among booksellers, charges nominal listing fees and commissions on sold books.

The eBay auction format, once sneered at by listing service sellers for its pop-culture bent, is now used by most online sellers. One reason is liquidity — books will sell in a week on eBay as opposed to the fixed price listing services where books can and do takes years to sell. Another is the serendipitous nature of eBay as buyers there often search by topic and will bid, sometimes impulsively, on books they never knew existed, while listing service buyers tend to search for specific titles. Booklets, brochures, magazines, ephemera, etc., sell much better on image-friendly eBay than the listing services.

The downside to eBay auctions is that beyond the occasional books that sell for much higher than the retail price due to a bidding war, the average sell-through book price in the eBay auction format is wholesale to high wholesale; whereas fixed-price listing services net the seller retail, minus commissions. Fast nickel or slow dime — it's your choice.

(Continue to Page 2 for Pricing, Marketing and Other Selling Tips)


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