1. Does anybody make a living at this?
If you read book forums, this question comes up a lot in one form or another: is it possible to make a good living as a full time online bookseller? Whether you're contemplating getting into the business, have gotten into it full time and aren't making a go of things, or are currently selling books part time and considering taking a whack at full time, the answer is the same: yes. It is possible. I know this to be so because, one, I'm doing it, and two, as Editor of BookThink, I often hear from (and in some cases have gotten to know) other sellers who are also doing it as well, most of whom are so busy selling books that they don't have much time, if any, to post in forums - and thus publicly validate that it's indeed possible to do what they're doing. Because so many of them keep low profiles, this skews, I think, the perception about bookselling because sellers who do post regularly (with the exception, of course, of our own forum members!) are more likely to have a cynical attitude about the potential of bookselling - and, in turn, discourage others from attempting it.
Anyway, I've been giving this some thought lately, and it seems to me that it might be helpful to discuss how full time bookselling differs from part time. It isn't just a matter of doing more of what you've already been doing. It's also a matter of doing some things you haven't been doing, and it's these things (and a requisite, accompanying change in attitude) I'll discuss in a series of articles.
2. Taking Bookselling to the Top
About 3 years ago I purchased several boxes of books for $5,500. I've since sold about 2/3 of them - most of the best ones - for something in excess of $60,000. One of these books sold for a whopping $8,000, not because I thought it was worth that; in fact, I thought I'd done my homework, and several book dealers who claimed to have first-hand knowledge of close-to-identical copies (and offered to buy mine) insisted that it was only worth about $1000 to $1500. However, a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. When I decided to test the waters on eBay first, I made a mistake on the reserve price. Instead of entering $2,000, I put an 8 in place of the 2, and wouldn't you know - a buyer sniped it for exactly that amount in the closing seconds of the auction. While I watched. Almost fainting.
Another one of these books sold for over $32,000 at Christie's last year. Something funny happened with this one too. I'd been sitting on it for over two years because a business acquaintance who claimed to have asked his "contact" at Christie's about it told me it was worth at most a few hundred dollars. Well, during the process of moving my bookselling operations from my house to a newly built cottage in the back yard, I was cleaning off a shelf, came across it again, and thought, what the heck, I'll call Christie's myself before dumping it on eBay. Fortunately, I was able to reach Chris Coover (of Antiques Roadshow fame), and, after he helped me with some detective work, Santa left me an early Christmas present.
Another funny thing: during this same time period, I bought a book from the same, shady acquaintance who'd misguided me on the other book. This time he made the spurious claim that it was a Mormon hymnal and Christie's had assured him it was worth at least $2,000. I paid him $600 for it - odd how he was content with this price - not on the basis of his claim but on my own investigation, which established that it wasn't Mormon at all but Shaker, and was later confirmed by a dealer who specializes in Shaker hymnals. This dealer, who seemed honest (and may well have been), told me it might be worth at most $2,000 and said he would give me $1500 for it. It seemed like an easy way to make $900 - only the funny part is that, in another water-testing move, I decided to toss it on eBay for three days with a $2,000 reserve price first. And it promptly sold for $4,300 to a guy sitting in an Internet café in Germany.
Are you beginning to see a pattern? Bookselling at the top, in my experience, requires a healthy mistrust of experts, and sometimes the only expert you can really count on is yourself - and your good instincts. Anyway, I think that the bloody details of the Christie's sale would make an interesting article or two. Look for this series soon.
Questions or comments?