Selling books online - CARPE DIEM: Some tips for a better bottom line in 2016
- by Susan Halas
Carpe Diem - "Seize the Day" was my mother's favorite piece of bookselling advice. A bookseller for 50 years she hung this motto over her desk and she found opportunity in many places. Here are some tips - old and new - that consistently helped me sell books and ephemera, prints, maps and other older paper online. May 2016 be your best year ever.
Before I list anything I always try to get a rough idea of what the value of the book might be and estimate how many copies are out there. Addall is my preferred first stop. used.addall.com
Lots of sellers use other bases including ABE, AMAZON, BOOKFINDER or VIALIBRI to check the prices, but I prefer ADDALL because it includes many book bases all at once, and let’s you filter out print-on-demand titles. It’s an easy way to get a rough idea of just how many duplicate listings of any given title may be available.
Many dealers list the same book on many bases, so the same book can show up four or five places. With ADDALL you’ll know it’s just one book and genuinely scarce, or it’s the same book owned by the same seller listed in a variety of places. Set ADDALL to have the results sorted by price with the most expensive first (descending) order, and then click on the binding (hard, soft, any) and click “no print on demand” and you’re good to go.
Use descending order because though some dealers ask a high price set by an algorithmic formula, better dealers ask a higher price because they actually know something about the book that gives it more value. These dealers are apt to put this information in their description and if you see similar info popping up in several higher priced listings (such as “The rose on p. 27 faces left.”) and your book has that point, you’ll want to include that information in your description. Likewise, if the better dealers say their copy is a “stated first edition” and your copy lacks that statement, then chances are your copy isn’t.
Lord knows why, but a great deal of the value of a used book, especially a used collectible book, resides in the dust jacket. Does it have a dust jacket? Is that dust jacket priced? (Usually on the front flap, but sometimes on the back flap). Then mention it in your description, and give the price in dollars, pounds, rupees or however it’s denominated. Also mention the condition of the dust jacket.
It’s often worthwhile to put it in a Brodart cello protector, especially if it’s fragile or in less than pristine condition. I use Brodart ‘Just-A-Fold Original Cover’ in a size that fits books to 12” (Catalog Number: 10-195-004.) One roll will last quite a while. I’ve found it’s more economical to buy the big size and cut it down for smaller dust jackets than to purchase multiple sizes. Brodart sells a wide variety of book and library products, if you have more sophisicated needs ask for a catalog or view their stock on line www.shopbrodart.com (Brodart Co. USA toll-free 1-888-820-4377, Canada toll free 1-800-265-8470.)
Bookish Listservs: Here are two good ones
Listservs were one of the earliest incarnations of the digital age and though we’ve invented higher tech tools the basic text only listserv is still a very good way to exchange bookish info:
The Bib List
One of the longest running bookish listservs is bibliophilegroup.com aka the Bib List run by Lynn DeWeese-Parkinson firstname.lastname@example.orgThis is a list that has been going for at least the last 15 years. A subscription costs $30 per year payable in March. Parkinson offers a two week free trial period for potential subscribers. At any given time this list has about 1,000 members, many of whom are booksellers. Some of the Bibs sell and comment frequently. Others never post but are faithful lurkers -- and though they may be invisible they are indeed buyers.
Subscribers can list books and book related materials For Sale (FS), For Auction (FA) or Wanted (WTD). They can also post topics for discussion, information, news, tech support and other headers. Much valuable information is exchanged and the tone is friendly and consistently collegial. This is a very good place to sell books. There is no fee or commission besides the annual one time subscription charge. In 2015 I had sales from the Bib List every single month. If a book or lot is going to sell on the Bib List it usually is spoken for within an hour or two and sometimes within minutes.
Ex-libris is a very different kind of listserv. The moderator is Ev Wilkie email@example.com he runs a tight ship. The active users tend to be from academia, especially librarians in special collections and archives. The only day that sellers can post is Tuesday and then there are very strict rules about what is allowed and how it is to be formatted. Ex-libris does not allow actual ‘For Sale’ listings, but links to catalogs are permitted. This list is free; the best way to join is to contact Wilkie, sign up and read the rules carefully. Then it’s a good idea to lurk until you get the feel of the group. Ex-Libris is not a good place to make money, but it is a good place to see what other dealers are offering and to learn some of the more specialized knowledge shared by those who work in rare book rooms, archives, museums and the like. It is a particularly good for job postings, news of coming events, symposiums, exhibits at the various member institutions, and lots of really specialized bibliographical information. Some of the information posted on Ex-libris can be useful to people who buy and sell in less elevated spheres.
There are lots of ways to describe a book. You can say: “Used ex-library copy with usual stamps and marks” or you can say “Gently read former library copy lightly marked.” It’s the same book but one sounds better than the other.
Some commonly used descriptive words
Words that indicate a BETTER copy
Good, bright, tight, clean, complete, original issue, vintage, antique, no marks, looks unread, stated first edition, stated first American (or UK) edition, priced dust jacket, signed by author, inscribed by author, index, bibliography, photos, color art, limited, association material laid in.
Words that indicate a LESSER copy
Discolored, freckled, foxed, toned, yellowing, brittle, chipped, tender, frayed, bumped, detached but present, missing, loose, torn, cracked, chipped, worn, rubbed, price clipped dust jacket, shabby, heavily read, name of prior owner in ink, inscription of prior owner in ink, lacks dust jacket, later printing, partial dust jacket, Book Club Edition.
Words that indicate a copy that’s NOT SO HOT
Musty odor, damped, pages with pronounced ripple, pages stuck together, insect damage, heavily stained, underlined in marker, incomplete.
Check the back - last page
Most beginning booksellers know enough to check the dates on both the title page and the copyright page. But a lot of people forget to check the very back of the book where there may be additional information especially related to the printing and production and sometimes to the limitation and number of copies published. If you think it might be unusual or limited don’t forget to look in the back.
FREE has a good ring to it
I find a lot of what I sell by looking around and asking what’s for FREE? What’s being given away, what’s being discarded? You’d be surprised how many sellers think the new books with the shiny covers are worth money and toss the older good stuff in the free box. Free can be almost anything but it often falls into the ephemera category, i.e. printed material that was produced to be given away and not intended to be saved. Sometimes these things can end up being worth quite a bit. This includes posters and flyers stuck to telephone poles, a box of handwritten recipe cards, old letters, old photos, or any accumulation of older paper including magazines.
Where to find FREE
Free is everywhere but you have to be looking for it. Want it for free? Come back at the end of the yard sale and offer to take away the leftovers. Free is seeing that box of old paper left on the curb for the trash collector and picking it up first. Free is saving the magazine with the good article or interesting story or first appearance by a talented author. Free is recognizing something that somebody else might want, saving it and writing an accurate description.
How to treat FREE
I treat free just the way I treat things I paid for, except there’s always a better margin on free. One of the rules in bookselling is what you paid for it has absolutely nothing to do with what it might be worth. Once it’s yours it isn’t free any more and you set the price.
When to pass on FREE
Pass on free when you are not sure the person giving it to you really owns it; when it has marks from a library but no deaccession (withdrawn) marks and especially when the little voice in the back of your head asks, “Is this stolen?”
PICKY - PICKY - PICKY
I’ve been selling books for almost 40 years and my parents sold books for 50 years before me. In the 1980s I’d carry a lot of inventory and it wouldn’t matter if it sold this year or next year because I was pretty sure it would eventually sell. But books, especially more recent titles in mass market editions, are mostly in a race to the bottom where prices are concerned. It’s hard to make money on things that are common. With that in mind 2016 is the year be more picky about what you take in and a lot more picky about what you actually list.
If it doesn’t have a dust jacket, if it isn’t a first, if there are lots of other copies around and priced under $10, and your copy isn’t signed or notably better in some unique way, then don’t go there -- just pass it up, or you pass it along for free. For me the short list of thanks but no thanks includes: No coffee table books, no modern Bibles, no Book Club Editions (BCE), no broken sets (with a few exceptions).
There’s a reason that “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing” by Marie Kondo was the #2 on Amazon’s “Top 100 list for 2015.” Some of that stuff that someone else is “decluttering” is going to come to you and at a very good price or even free. But most of that junk is really junk and even for free you don’t want it.
These are the trends I noticed this year in my own sales:
*SIZE - Smaller is better - very few sales of big heavy books, no matter how beautiful.
*LESS FICTION - I sold hardly any fiction.
*MORE EPHEMERA - My ephemera sales were strong, especially vintage and antique illustrated regional history. it didn’t matter what region or what period, if it was very specific, older and illustrated somebody wanted it.
*BIBLIOGRAPHY SELLS - Any time I had a decent bibliography of a collectible author or subject to offer it sold.
*OTHER DEALERS BUY - Some of my best customers and some of my top dollar sales were to other dealers
Some links worth checking:
BookThink hosted by Craig Stark is a long running site that bills itself as “resources for booksellers.” There’s a lot of interesting info here. Though not all of it is current or easily accessible it is worth a closer look. This link will take you to his Dec. 2015 article about vintage vinyl. Stark makes the point that not all displaced technology goes away. Click the red type at the bottom of the page to see other recent earlier offerings. www.bookthink.com/0175/175turn1.htm
ABE most expensive book sales in 2015
100 top books on Amazon 2015- how many of these will still be around in ten years?
The publishing industry in 5 charts
Retail sales for 2015 from the ABA
Not entirely relevant to online selling but still worth a look