The Importance of Timing
Not long after I started buying inventory online, I came up with what I thought was a fairly nifty idea. Target a few books that fit into hot niche markets, buy every copy of them that I could find online, then, having created an artificial scarcity, resell them, one by one, at higher prices.
I vividly recall the first book I tried this with - Strange Stories from Sing Sing by former Sing Sing warden Lewis E. Lawes.
At the time, I had just sold a copy of it on eBay for $42. The book had been privately published in the 1930's, had a few interesting photographs of the prison, and a peek-a-boo front cover that simulated the bars of a jail cell. All plusses. Moreover, I thought, well, "prison" is a fairly strong flashpoint. Lots of collectors hovering nearby, so this would be a good candidate. There were about half a dozen other copies available at fixed-price venues, and, feeling almost smug, I bought them all at prices ranging from $15 to $25.
Almost immediately, I sold the first one of these (again, on eBay) for $65, and though at the time I thought I'd experienced one of those aha! moments that marked the discovery of one of the cardinal secrets of bookselling, in hindsight it was probably the worst thing that could have happened to me. I not only had 5 remaining copies, but in the meantime several more had come up for sale online, and I bought those too - at somewhat inflated prices (over $30 each). Despite having profited $40 on my first sale, I was now invested in this title to the tune of almost $200.
It will probably come as no surprise to savvy booksellers that, several years later, I am still the proud owner of 3 copies of this damn thing and have recovered less than half of my original investment. (Oh - by the way, if anybody is looking for a copy of Vincent G. Perry's The Boston Terrier, contact me immediately. I currently have 5 of these in stock in variant binding cloth. Lots of cute pictures! And multiple copies of a few other titles as well.)
For me, this was a hard but extremely important lesson. It wasn't that my original idea was ill-conceived, though I suppose one could question the ethics of hoarding books for profit. The problem was that I'd failed to recognize the central truth of the online book market:
Chop off Hydra's head, and two grow back in its place.
Books that were scarce a few years ago are now uncommon; books that were uncommon are now common; and books that were common are now selling on Amazon Marketplace for one red cent. Predictably, a few months after purchasing my copies of Strange Stories from Sing Sing, many more Hydra heads sprouted in their place - and for less money. If you think this trend is nearly over or even slowing down, think again. If you think certain classes of books are immune to this downward pressure, think at least twice again. Yes, it's true that some titles have appreciated significantly, sometimes obscenely, in recent years, but by and large these are books that are genuinely scarce, intensely collectible, and in any case comprise much less than 1% of the market. How many of these does the typical bookseller sell in one year? Probably none.
Even vintage books aren't immune, though your intuition might suggest otherwise - I mean, isn't there an obvious end to how many more copies of older books can surface? Not one that's in sight. I could cite 100's of almost tragic examples. In 2001, I sold a copy of Frank T. Bullen's classic Denizens of the Deep (Revell, NY, 1904. First American edition) for $285. Similar copies can be had online at this very moment for under $15, perhaps less on eBay. Not all values have plunged this dramatically, but many have, and many more will follow. In the face of this very disturbing turn of events, what can a bookseller possibly do to remain viable?
The first thing to do is to get very, very clear on one thing: timing is everything. Any bookselling plan that has time built into it, in my opinion, is destined to fail, so factor it out until further notice. The time to sell isn't next year. It isn't tomorrow. It's today. Now. Not only that - and this may be even more important - the books to sell first are your best books. If you're sitting on your $100 books thinking that they will either appreciate in value or get you through leaner times ahead, discard this thinking immediately. Your most valuable inventory is the most vulnerable to loss because it has the furthest to fall. And fall it will.
This principle applies no matter what venue you're selling in. If it's eBay, sell your very, very best book first, your second best second, and so on. Not only will you minimize the depreciation of your inventory, but this also dovetails into another principle - selling the books that will deliver the highest profits maximizes return on your time. Time remains the most precious resource you have as a bookseller.
If you're selling at fixed price venues, take a similar approach. Position your best books to sell as soon as possible - that is, assuming all other copies compare tit for tat, price them at or, if certain intangibles apply in your favor, near the low end. If you don't, you'll risk taking big losses on them later on.
I realize this is bitter medicine. I also realize that booksellers almost by nature feel protective of their better stuff, tend to sit on it, pricing it too high or not even offering it for sale. But for the time being there is no other way to get this done. Yes, it helps to establish a reputation by holding yourself to high bookselling standards, also helps to present your books so as to lift them above competing books, but these factors can compensate only so much for the persistent, downward pressure the market applies.
There's an important back side to this strategy too:
Purge the low end of your inventory ASAP.
Somehow, some way, you have to keep your inventory as healthy as possible, and though selling off your best stuff first seems to work against this, there are things you can do on the low end to mitigate the effects.
Non-performing books - and by this I mean those that cluster in the $5 to $10 range - are a drag on your business. They take up space, consume time (even if they sell), and loom like a ponderous cloud over your spirit. There are numerous and (probably to BookThinker readers) obvious methods for purging books - donate them; hold a books-only garage sale, making certain that all book dealers in your area know about it; take them to used bookstores for store credit, etc. Or burn them. A few boxes of books, a splash of charcoal lighter fluid, and in a few minutes you have a quiet, erudite fire to contemplate in front of. Recall also that the Second Labor of Hercules was to kill the Lernean Hydra, a feat he accomplished only by burning the necks.
Whatever you do, get rid of them.
Mid-range books pose something of a problem now. eBay sales have dropped significantly in recent weeks, and even previously "eBayable" titles may be a tough sell at PCR (pre-category-rollback) prices. Given how labor intensive eBay selling is, if you're still a one trick pony, it might be time to consider a move to a fixed-price site. Abebooks, Amazon Marketplace, Alibris - these are the venues that are presently strong, and desirable, mid-range books will move. If you have an especially efficient selling system, even $7 or $10 books may be worth the trouble.
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