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Condition: The condition issue that concerns students most is a book free of highlighting, writing, and with all the pages present. Unlike collectors, gift buyers and connoisseurs, they are not very concerned with issues like minor rubbing, bumping, flattened tips, a missing dust jacket, and marks on the cover. Extremely shabby books, however, should be tossed.

The reason highlighting is so important is that it represents someone else's judgments as to what is important in a book. Most students tell me that they want to make these decisions on their own. A little highlighting is OK, but it really has to be small amount (under 10% of pages, according to half.com). With textbooks I count the number of pages with highlighting. It can be done quickly and doesn't have to be exact. But the cursory thumb-through I see most people do to check highlighting is entirely inadequate and will miss huge areas of highlighting. I then write in the listing something like, "approximately 20 pages with highlighting out of 450, all in the introduction."

Highlighting or underlining can occur in virtually places in a book, and you can note this in your description. For example, if an author has already emphasized a part of the text by making it bold, italicized, inserting it in a box or inset or using any other graphic or typographic device, highlighting hardly detracts. If I the highlighting is innocuous, I'll write something like, "highlighting only on chapter subheadings, not distracting" in my description.

One of the worst practices I have seen is when a seller says a book "may have highlighting, writing, etc." I wouldn't buy from that seller because the absence or presence of highlighting is significant to how well I learn the material in the course. This is where I get my revenge against corporate thinking, which I define as treating everything the same, even though it's not. Small sellers like me (and I'm sure most of the readers of this article) do treat every book individually, unless they are truly identical. We can say there is highlighting in this book, and there isn't in that book. I always price myself above the "may have highlighting" folks, and never follow their practices.

Grading: Closely associated with condition is grading. I'm a conservative grader. I'd rather have a customer say, "better than expected," than the opposite. I almost never use the "Like New" grade because it really is meaningless to me. Amazon, especially, makes no obvious distinction between "New" and "Like New."

There are two important things to consider concerning grading and textbooks. First, these are not gift items. I allow a bit, but only a bit, more latitude in my judgments when grading a textbook, than when grading books that are likely to be sent as gifts or collectibles. This applies especially to the "New" grade. I get a lot of books from distributors or publishers in shrink-wrap. But they have sloppy or inadequate methods of packing and some arrive a little damaged, suffering a bump or a tiny crease. I usually grade these as "Very Good." But if the flaw is really very, very small, I may still allow for New. My criterion is: Would I be satisfied paying for this book if it was advertised as "New?" If yes, I may go ahead. There are no perfect physical objects in the universe, and if you look hard enough, you can find a flaw in most. Just be brutally honest with yourself.

Another difference between a textbook and a gift item is that, when a textbook is a strong seller, new and used prices are usually quite close. This reflects the highly utilitarian nature of the item. People are buying these books to read and study them, not to possess and admire them. It's not "condition, condition, condition" as it is in the collectible or higher-priced gift world. When new and used prices start to diverge, you usually have a book on its way to textbook oblivion.

Listing (description): I've already said some things about listing in my comments on condition and grading. My basic principles of listing are honesty, completeness and brevity. Tell your customers about the flaws (and virtues) of the book, but don't go overboard about it. Instead of the word "damage," I almost always say "wear." Avoid the use of super-superlatives like "mint," "pristine," and "perfect." These are words set up unreasonably high expectations for you to live up to. I prefer "near like-new," and "unused and unread, with light cover wear," for example.

Textbooks often come with supplemental materials such as CDs and computer access codes for use on the Internet. If these elements are present, mention them. If they are obviously absent, as evidenced by an empty CD envelope or torn out access card, then state that clearly.

Excessively wordy descriptions are a distraction for the buyer, especially on Amazon, where the bibliographic information is supplied on the listing page. Other sites, such as Abebooks, do not supply this information. There, and on similar sites, you may want to put a bit about the book in your listing. For textbooks, the edition is critical. Although the edition number should come up via the ISBN automatically, it can't hurt to be redundant and add this information to your listings.

Pricing: "List Price" is mostly meaningless, except perhaps at the very beginning of a book's publishing life. If you are fortunate enough to obtain a textbook to sell in the early going, price it high, maybe even above list. But as things get started, the discounters will start discounting, the instructor's edition will start popping up, used copies will appear, and international editions (remember, we stay away) will add their competitive pressure. The price will drop. You will notice that many sellers on Amazon Marketplace price well above Amazon. I almost never do that, and I don't recommend it. Those sellers must have their reasons. They are usually mega-sellers with their own sites, sometimes their own stores. They aren't really competing on Amazon; they dump the listing and forget about, IMHO. If anyone has a better explanation, I'd like to hear about it.

My maximum price on Amazon is $4.00 below Amazon itself. The reason for this maximum is that Amazon offers free shipping (on $25 and over items), which gives them a $3.99 advantage over me since I have to charge $3.99 for shipping. Amazon listing practices assume that the customer will receive free shipping on all items, even when they are under $25. For example, if I am at $21 and Amazon is at $24, my listing appears above Amazon's, as if I have a higher price.

There are upward price pressures also. Textbooks are a seasonal business, with most colleges and universities having two semesters, in the fall and spring, plus small mini-semesters in the summer. Textbook sales begin to increase in August and continue through late September for the fall semester. For spring, they begin in December and really take off in January.

Prices will increase on many titles as demand increases. Of course, every fall a whole slew of textbooks will begin their descent into the bargain bin as they are superseded by new editions. The process can be gradual, as some professors may continue to assign previous texts for a while. But watch out for those older editions. 2005 is officially now "old." There still are some 2004 and 2005 books in the market, but there is a precipitous drop when it comes to 2003 editions.

If you have a practice of repricing your inventory regularly, you may want to leave textbooks out of the process except during high season. Some of the market activity during the rest of the year is the result of jockeying between sellers, and can only lower your prices for nothing. Very few customers are around to appreciate those gyrations.

The sale! At this point you have made a sale and your task is to get the book out to your customer safely and quickly. This is where many problems arise with claims of non-delivery, issues of edition and sellers concerns about being abused by customers. In my next article, I will address these issues. I will also discuss how to find textbooks to sell, which is a broad and difficult subject.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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