Bookselling in the 21st Century

by Craig Stark

21 September 2009

Part III: If You Learn How To Do Nothing Else ...

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When I first starting selling books on eBay in the 1990s, there were more things listed/sold without photos than with. And my first efforts at selling online followed suit - no photos. What's more, no HTML. I dumped some black text into a white background and was done with it. Stuff sold.

The truth was that you could get away with it, though you likely wouldn't have maximized outcomes. The broad and deep mistrust of the online marketplace that has consolidated into what it is today wasn't much to speak of then. It took some time for enough buyers to get screwed. And wise up.

Today, the tables have turned 180 degrees, and if I had to single out one factor as being the most important in your success or failure as a bookseller moving forward, it would be, hands down, your ability to establish a trusted online presence. In turn, if I had to single out one factor as being the most important in your ability to establish this trust - this might come as a surprise to some - it would be your skill as a photographer.

There was a time not too many years ago when booksellers could get along fine without this skill. Most books were sold in person or on the basis of a textual description in a catalog. But this time has passed. Gold Edition subscribers may recall a series we did several years ago on how to establish a trusted online presence. Here's what I had to say about photography in Part I (issue #46):

"I almost hate to say this, but I think photos for ALL of our books, no matter where they're listed, may need to be in our near futures. Photos are one of the most powerful trust-building tools booksellers have at their disposal because buyers will believe their eyes long before they'll believe a textual description. Moreover, if your photos confirm the accompanying text, trust is further reinforced. And PLEASE - not just any photo will do. And scans don't get it done either. Learning how to photograph books well, which includes learning how to use an image editor - practice, practice, practice - is one of the most important steps you can take to increase your income. If you're weak in this area, read the BookThink tutorials, also the many technical tutorials specific to image editors online.

"If you take only one thing of value away from this article, let it be this: THE BEST BOOK PHOTOGRAPHERS CONSISTENTLY SELL THEIR BOOKS FOR THE BEST PRICES."

Looking back on this today, I wouldn't change a word. If anything, I would put the following in all caps and bold it:

THE BEST BOOK PHOTOGRAPHERS CONSISTENTLY SELL THEIR BOOKS FOR THE BEST PRICES.

I would also add this: If you learn how to take pictures of books, your efforts at purchasing inventory online will meet with far more success. It won't be as critical for you to find flat-out steals; you'll be able to spend more and still turn a good profit via upgraded presentations. I could cite thousands of examples, but in the interest of brevity, I'll offer a few recent ones that come to mind.

I purchased this set of seven books last year - a history of military operations in the Quasi-War with France - from a high-profile eBay seller who had listed them with multiple photos and a detailed description. Price: $32. A month or so later I listed them on eBay with fewer photos and a less detailed description. Price: $138. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that I realized a better price because of my photos in particular this one (sized down to fit this article):

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