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BOOKTHINK: Where do you acquire your inventory (no need to be too specific here - just general categories - thrifts, FOL sales, etc.)?

SHANE: I get them anywhere and everywhere. The hunt is the part I enjoy most. The rest is just time and monotony. I get a steady flow from trading with local bookstores, also some referrals from them when someone wants to sell and they are not interested in buying or trading with them. I used to do garage sales but gave it up as it was not paying off, time to quantity. FOL sales are good, but getting way too competitive. Nothing beats GPS and a good phonebook.

DAVE: Thrifts, FOL sales, garage sales. Books are everywhere. Especially cheap books. I told someone the other day that books find me. I wasn't exaggerating all that much.

BOOKTHINK: Roughly, what percentage of your work day is devoted to bookscouting?

SHANE: I usually scout 3-4 days a week, about 7 hrs each day unless on an extended trip.

DAVE: Probably 50 percent. That will increase next year when my wife's class schedule changes.

BOOKTHINK: Do you use a price-lookup tool (like ScoutPal) on scouting trips?

SHANE: Yes, I have four scanners, one extra for me as a backup and two that the family use on a 50/50 split for anything they find.

DAVE: Yes. You can't do this without it because the prices on cheap books change too quickly. And while there are some books that you know on sight that aren't worth selling (like, say, Windows 95 for Dummies) you can't know everything. Even if you know that one of the editions of Golf for Dummies sells for enough to be worth your while, do you know if the copy on the shelf is the right one?

BOOKTHINK: How large is your inventory?

SHANE: Currently it is around 8,000 but I badly need to cull out older items from early on when I was green and learning.

DAVE: Probably 1,500. Ideally it should be less because you want a book to sell the same week you buy it. That doesn't happen as often as we'd like, of course, so it's growing. We know of a few people who are doing basically the same thing locally and most of them have about 4,000.

BOOKTHINK: Where do you store it?

SHANE: We just moved into a much larger house and use the downstairs and extra bedroom as our warehouse and a large garage to store items waiting to be listed. I considered building a shop but find that the closer you have the books, the less time listing/pulling takes.

DAVE: In the spare bedroom and in the basement. I prefer to keep them upstairs where conditions aren't as hostile, but that's not always possible.

BOOKTHINK: What system do you use to organize it?

SHANE: That is one area I actually need to work on. Currently I tag all my descriptions with a shelf number.

DAVE: Roughly alphabetical, which takes a lot of time. We're always looking for ways to improve our efficiency. It takes about as long to find a book as it does to pack it, but we actually have a little control over how long it takes to find.

BOOKTHINK: What about customer service? Does this take a back seat when you're moving as many books per day as you do?

SHANE: Customer service definitely slows things down sometimes. I do try to keep the customers happy but don't do a lot of the dealing over shipping and special-deal emailing back and forth like I used to when I had more time. We keep up our rating by giving no-questions-asked refunds and apologies for any complaint. This cuts into profits but cures most of the bad feedback.

DAVE: A little. No, I don't send mail out to every buyer telling them exactly when the book shipped. Of course, they don't get tracking and insurance for no charge (we'd lose money). But when a customer has a question, I answer it. If a customer has a complaint, I do what I have to do to make them happy (full or partial refunds or whatever). I definitely don't give premium-level customer service but I do what I can to take care of them.

BOOKTHINK: What, if any, are the disadvantages of selling at the low end? Shane, you used the word "monotony" to describe the time you spend on tasks not associated with scouting.

SHANE: Well, the main one is time. If I was doing this and trying to keep another job, I wouldn't have time. Or if I just wanted to make enough to get by and stop there, then I wouldn't bother with the low end. I like to stay busy, so I don't really mind the extra time. Oh, and space, I suppose. Always space.

DAVE: There are some of the tasks that I enjoy less than my wife does and vice-versa, so we try to split those up. Moving our packing operations around every once in a while helps too. We can do our packing and shipping from any room in the house, and the change of scenery can help break the monotony.

It's easier to make mistakes when you're shipping a high volume of books. Would you believe that some ISBNs get duplicated? We found out the hard way - twice - that it happens, usually with smaller Publishers.

I think the biggest downside is dealing with irate customers. When you deal in large volumes, you're going to have occasional problems - the package gets lost in the mail or it gets run over by the truck on the way, the customer doesn't bother to read the description and complains that the book had writing in it, or the customer complains that Media Mail didn't get the book to them in three days. I had one customer give me the wrong mailing address not once, but twice. I'm sure you've had all of this happen to you, but when you ship out 20 books a day instead of four, it's going to happen more often. And it's the torqued-off customers you hear from the most.

BOOKTHINK: Do you invest dedicated time in acquiring book knowledge? Or does most of your knowledge come indirectly from scouting, etc.?

SHANE: Most from scouting. I do stop in the bookstores (campus and regular) and browse what they are pushing so I can spot it easily. I also occasionally glance through the top 200 best sellers for several book categories - same intent.

DAVE: I try to learn something new every day, and I probably spend an hour or so in pursuit of that knowledge. Some days I end up spending more than that, if I find a hot lead. It's possible to learn an awful lot from scouting and there's no substitute for that, but I read a lot of books, and I read everything I can find online. It also helps to spend some time just wandering around Borders and Barnes & Noble just to see what's selling right now. The majority of old best-sellers are worthless, but today's best sellers are lucrative when you find them. And we do find them.

BOOKTHINK: Talk about re-pricing some. Do you use a re-pricing tool? If so, which one? How often do you adjust prices? Do you always lower them, or does it sometimes make sense to raise them?

SHANE: My re-pricing tends to be pretty involved. I do use several tools but am not willing to be specific. Pricing strategy, to me anyway, is what makes or breaks a seller.

(Additional comments.) I appreciate the chance to stand up for the penny book. I do not think it is for everyone and agree that in most cases people listing penny items are just clueless, soon-to-be gone newbies. Let them have their fun. I myself miss the days of listing anything I could get my hands on, regardless of any criteria and doing a happy dance every time I made a sale (even a penny one). I just made my biggest sale ever today - $270 - and did not even do one of the previously mentioned happy dances. The fun is in the game, not the logic.

I did get quite a few good ideas from reading BookThink's message boards. I have been looking for new ideas to ramp up business lately and was scouting around your site for anything about PDA scanners. I noticed I fell into many of the categories that were getting bashed (packaging included). I have been XPAK mailing for weight savings but definitely see the advantages of alternatives after reading the forum.

I enjoyed reading postings on your site. You seem to keep a pretty good reign on the usual meaningless banter. I used to count cards before getting into books and never could find an info site that wasn't just a bunch of blow hard wannabes. Most of the posters on your site sound like the real deal and actually have something intelligent to contribute.

DAVE: I have experimented with re-pricing tools, and I've done it by hand. In a way it's unfortunate that when you join Amazon's reseller program the listings no longer expire, because that always forced me to re-price a book if it didn't sell after a couple of months. I can't tell you how many times a book sold right after I re-listed it.

The more inventory you have, of course, the more important re-pricing tools become. I can re-price 300 books using Amazon's stock listing in 15 minutes, but I'll sit there waiting for the computer nearly as long as it took me to key in all those prices. In theory, the more often you re-price, the more books you'll sell. That's what the people who sell the software say, and it seems to be pretty true.

Sometimes I raise prices too. There's no point in me selling a book for 50 cents when the second-lowest price is a dollar. The question is whether my copy should sell for a dollar, $.99 or $.89 cents when it's up against another dollar copy. You can make an argument for any of them, but if I undercut someone by $.11 cents, and then someone comes along and undercuts me by $.11 cents, the price deflates awfully quickly and that isn't good for any of us.

I'd much rather sell books for a minimum of $4 or $5, since that's still really cheap, but it's high enough that they don't look like junk. I know people think penny books must somehow be a rip-off because it's the first thing people ask me about when they find out I've sold books on Amazon. There's gotta be a catch, right? Is this like that CD club where you have to buy a bunch at regular price too? Or are these just people who take your money and never ship? Or maybe people think the book must not be any good, if someone's willing to sell it for a penny, so they move on to another book. Amazon always has alternate recommendations right there on the page. When you buy something and half the subtotal is shipping, on some level people have to feel ripped off. I don't always get to do it that way, so I do what I have to do in order to compete.

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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