Littera Scripta

Selling Books Online - an overview for beginners

The basic principles of running a used bookstore are the same, whether you are running a physical or a virtual store. If you're an experienced bookseller, you'll already know most of this stuff. But beginners often overestimate their own time, and underestimate the amount of work involved.

Finding inventory
All dealers get books in the same places... walk-in traffic, garage sales, Goodwill stores, Salvation Army stores, church sales, library sales, estate auctions, newspaper ads, scouts, other bookstores, remainder outlets, etc. But every one of these sources will take up substantial amounts of your time. Generally, the cheaper the source, the more time it'll take up. And yes, every so often you'll score a really big treasure for a pittance. But those won't happen often. Pay more for fewer but better books. You are competing for those higher quality books.

Supply and demand
The biggest problem that a used bookstore faces is the fact that you can't easily apply standard retail wisdom. Books on retailing will tell you that you can go for volume with low prices, or go for service with high prices. But, in order to sell in large volumes, you must have access to nearly unlimited supply. Unfortunately, in this business, there is no easy way to obtain the stock you need. A new bookstore will order and re-order many copies of a bestselling book. A used bookstore can't do that.

What usually happens to a store which tries to go for volume and lower prices, is that they end up with a lot of books that are in low demand. It's very hard to sell a lot of those. And it's magnified on the internet where there are thousands of other booksellers - many of them trying to sell that very same title.

Set your prices high enough on your decent books. Remember that your supply is limited. It's easy to get a lot of low quality books in your inventory. But it's difficult to maintain a stock of really good books. Even if you only deal in paperbacks, this rule will hold. Ever notice how certain books will fly out every time you stock them? You should be charging more for those titles.

If you do not charge enough, all of your good stuff will be cleaned out by either bargain-hunting customers or by other dealers. You will be left with trash, and when new customers come along, they'll browse and decide that it's not a very good inventory.

Condition Rules
Do not buy books that are in poor condition. Even if they are hot titles. Shabby books make your entire store look shabby. Even online.

Reality Bites
Don't depend on recent paperbacks for your income. You cannot possibly supply and process enough to make a decent living. This is not an issue of markup percentages. It's an issue of fair return for time and education. Have you ever added up the actual time spent per book?

In a bricks and mortar store, you will be buying, sorting, pricing, shelving, helping customer find book, ringing up the sale... Let's say conservatively 5 minutes per book (if you're really fast) - that's 96 books per day that you can process (so long as you don't waste time going to the washroom, talking to your children on the phone, tossing out salesmen who want to sell you beach towels...). And yes, I know you can sell more than that in a single busy day - but remember that on a busy day you have to put aside the pricing and shelving work until things get quiet. At an average of $4.00 per book, working flat out all day, the grand total for an 8 hour day would be $384.00. Take out what you paid for the book, the cost of the your rent, hydro, phone, plate glass insurance, liability insurance, wages (do you ever want a day off again?), bank fees, merchant credit card fees, equipment and shelving etc. from that. And account for slow days, books that don't sell (probably 30% or more of your inventory will still be in your stock 5 years from now), etc. Now you're likely down to under $50.00 per day in profit for working harder than you ever have in your life... and being unfailingly cheerful about it.

Now, an online store may have much lower costs (not always though), but much higher usage of your time. So these numbers will change a bit. You need to do the data entry on every book, and in order to do that, you will need to be able to describe the book correctly. That means that before you can call a book a first edition or a book club edition you'll need to know for certain that it is - so you'll need reference books with which to do research (even if you're lazy and use the internet to do your research, it takes time). Your store will no longer be self serve. You will have to find the book for your customer in every case. Communication takes a bit of time - either by email or by phone. You will also have to make up an invoice, pack the book for shipping, and go to the post office. There's record maintenance (removing sold books, uploading new inventory, etc.) So, let's say 25 minutes per book (Which would be a lot better than I can manage...). That's 19.2 books per day. At $4.00 per book, you would sell $76.80 per day. Now take off what you paid for the book, the cost of your ISP, whatever database or auction listing fees might apply, the cost of your scanner/digital camera, some portion at least of the cost of your computer, software costs, merchant credit card fees, bank fees, gas to drive to the post office, shipping supplies like envelopes, tape, etc., your shelving (where are you going to store all those books anyway?)

Using the rule of thumb of 1 sale per day, per 1000 books listed - you'd need 19,000 books listed at any given time to maintain this level of sales.

One of the unexpected barriers you'll run into, is that at some point you'll reach a maximum inventory number, beyond which you cannot seem to go. My own personal barrier seems to be around 5000. As you sell more and more books, you'll have less and less time for cataloguing. And cataloguing is the easiest chore to put off.

The numbers become a lot more viable once you start selling books for over $10.00 each. 19.2 books at $10.00 will give you $192.00. 19.2 books at $20.00 each would be $384.00. And at $50.00 you'd be selling $960.00.

Just try to remember that the lower your prices are, the more you'll work and the less money you'll make. Keep an eye on your average selling price.

And one last point... if you are working many hours for too little, you'll end up falling behind on what's happening on the net. Things change incredibly fast. What worked a couple of years ago, doesn't work now. And you'll also fall behind in your knowledge of books, book collecting, and the rare book market. Knowledge is your most valuable asset. You should cultivate it. Read books.


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Copyright © 2000 by Deanna Ramsay