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The Fine Art of Pricing Books on Amazon

Selling on Amazon

by Steve Weber

#107, 12 November 2007

With online bookselling, nothing is more complicated than figuring out your price. What will the traffic bear for the books you're listing for sale? If Amazon is a major part of your sales, it's useful to develop some rules of thumb for pricing on Marketplace.

For fixed-priced sales, if you're selling a common book on a popular Marketplace like Amazon, the market price will be fairly evident: What are the listed prices by sellers with good feedback records?

For rarer books you'll need to consult a price comparison Web site that pulls together prices from various bookselling networks. For super-rare books, it's always helpful to Google the ISBN and title to see if you can turn up any additional copies for sale. Having a few price guides on your bookshelf can come in handy too. Examples include Antique Trader Book Collector's Price Guide and Official Price Guide to Books.

Keeping Your Head above Water

Selling commonly available used books promptly on a reverse-auction marketplace like Amazon often requires some "visibility" on the listing page. In other words, your chances of getting a prompt sale depend on your being somewhere close to the lowest few listed books. Otherwise, shoppers need to scroll to find you, and most of them won't bother for a run-of-the-mill book.

For scarcer books, of course, it's prudent to price your listing in the higher range. Customers who are shopping in this upper price range pay lots more attention to the condition, shipping options, and of course the seller's feedback and apparent care in writing the description. Here you're competing more on service and reputation, not merely price.

If you've got a scarce book, check to see whether there's a pending order for it on Amazon. Go to the book's product detail page (by searching for the ISBN) and click the "Sell yours here" button. Click through to the next screen and, if there's at least one pending order, you'll see an orange box labeled "BUYER WAITING." You can close your browser before clicking to actually list the book.

For scarcer books, you'll need to do more research. It's not unusual, for example, to see two copies of a book for sale at dramatically different prices - for example, one priced at $10 and the other at $100. Both are used, not collectible. Obviously, one is priced wrong. How do you find the correct value?

For most books that are not exceedingly scarce, a quick check at a price-comparison (or meta search) website will yield a more accurate picture of a book's value. Click here for examples.

These sites will show you the lowest prices on all the major bookselling venues. If you still don't find many copies, it's best to play it safe and price your listing high until you can research further.

Out of Print

Out-of-print books are the bread and butter of the online bookseller. When the supply of a title is finite and demand is steady or increasing, prices naturally rise.

Technically, a book is OOP when its publisher declares it "out of print" and stops supplying it to wholesalers and bookstores. This can happen a few years after publication if sales have dropped off substantially. If sales remain healthy for a nonfiction book, the publisher may declare it "out of print" and print a second edition. This cuts the value of used copies, except of course in cases where the first edition is collectible.

If Amazon isn't selling new copies of a title, that's a good indication that it's OOP. Perhaps you could find a few examples of in-print books that aren't sold by Amazon, but these would likely be titles with virtually no demand - and probably dead weight for your inventory.

For our purposes, any scarce book is a potential winner, and whether or not it's technically OOP is beside the point.

Setting your price for out-of-print books is often an art, not a science. The correct price is whatever the buyer is willing to pay, so long as you both believe the deal is fair. Pricing your copy above retail is your only smart option when the title is in demand and copies are scarce.

When you find a scarce book and the retail price isn't apparent, go directly to a meta search website to see what other sellers are asking. Let's say, for example, 6 copies are listed on BookFinder, priced from $50 to $75. In this case, your rule of thumb may be to price the book at $100 to $150 on Amazon.

Ex-Library Books

Selling books that have been discarded from a public library can bring nice prices if they're scarce enough or you can sell at a big discount off the retail price. Although these are typically graded in no better than "good" condition if they still have library markings, that does not mean the book isn't valuable. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Per Amazon Marketplace guidelines, an ex-library book cannot be assigned a higher grade than "Good." However, in the broader bookselling marketplace, an ex-library book is typically assigned a lower grade - e.g., reading copy.] In a few categories, buyers often expect to receive an ex-library copy, like Large Print books, business directories, and encyclopedias. Many of these are expensive, specialized books where it's difficult for the buyer to get a discounted price - or perhaps the book is just plain hard to find.

For a common book, library markings definitely call for a big price reduction and a condition downgrade. You'd want to indicate "Good" condition, perhaps even if the book is like new except for the library marks. And certainly, you'll want to go out of your way to call attention to the flaw. On Marketplace, for example, you might want to add a prominent disclaimer in your seller's comments such as: EX-LIBRARY COPY IN VERY GOOD CONDITION EXCEPT FOR THE USUAL LIBRARY MARKINGS.

However, you usually can't sell a fiction collectible First Edition that has library markings. These totally invalidate the book as a collectible. But of course this is a totally different buyer than someone who's trying to get a deal on a specialized nonfiction book.

For common books, you've got to make it worthwhile for the customer to buy your ex-library copy. Merely offering a dollar or two of savings isn't going to cut the mustard. And, these penny-pinchers tend to be the customers who don't read "seller's comments" and have no qualms about zapping you with nasty feedback.

Signed Books

One matter of endless debate among online booksellers is how much value a signature might add to the value of a book. A good rule of thumb is, if there is good demand for the book and it commands a high price without the signature, the signed edition can be worth considerably more. But if there is not much demand for the book and it's a poor seller, the author's signature might add no value.

Unfortunately, Amazon is not a good venue for selling signed books or other collectibles. There's no effective way of drawing attention to your listing. And besides, selling a collectible book requires at least a photograph and lengthy description, which aren't practical at Amazon following the demise of zShops.

Newer Books

Newer books can be tricky to price for the online used market. Prices for books that are a year or two old can decline precipitously, especially bestsellers. The way publishing works nowadays, new titles get about three months to prove themselves in bookstores. If they don't continue selling like hotcakes, the bookstores return most of them. The publishers don't know what to do with the returns, so they sell them off at pennies on the dollar. These are the lowball copies you tend to see on Amazon Marketplace, selling for $4.99 or so.

When there's lots of overstock of a certain title on the market, one of two things usually happens:

  1. The book starts its descent toward permanent penny-book status if there's tons being returned and demand is insufficient.

  2. The price recovers in six months to a year when the market has soaked up the glut.

For scenario 2 to happen, there has to be relatively strong demand for a book. Being in the top 25,000 in Amazon Sales Rank indicates reasonable demand for the book. But there are so many variables as to whether a book price can recover. Some high-priced books that are remaindered with Amazon Sales Ranks of about 80,000 may have a nice price recovery after 6 months or a year - probably because there was not too many remainder/overstock copies out there. But there is no way for one bookseller to know all the variables.

Cutting Prices

When and how to cut prices is a subject of hot debate among online booksellers. If supply increases, price-cutting may be required to move certain books. For common, lower-priced books that you want to sell as quickly as possible, it may be wise to gently lower the price every week or so, a strategy of trying to sell the book before the price falls too far. But for higher-priced books - say, over $40 - you should be much more reluctant to cut the price. Shaving the price by a penny or two might be OK if it makes your listing more visible. But if the prices of other sellers appear abnormally low, let your listing rest for 6 months or a year. Prices might well rise to your level.

The difficulties in selling lower-priced books are many. Buyers of low-priced books typically don't consult feedback ratings much in their buying decision. So even though you might strive to have high feedback to be competitive against other sellers, buyers of low-priced books either aren't informed enough to consider a seller's feedback or just don't want to take the time to consider any factors other than price. So, to sell a low-priced book you have to compete almost exclusively on price. Most of the buyers for these items aren't going to scroll through to compare listings for feedback, condition, etc.

Over the long term, prices of low-priced books tend to fall, and those of high-priced books are more likely to hold steady or rise. That's because low-priced books tend to become more available over time (more used copies appear for sale online and price-cutting ensues), but higher-priced books tend to be more scarce and, as used copies are purchased, price tends to go up as they become more scarce. This is why OOP books are such a hugely profitable area for used booksellers. Also, the buyers of these books usually pay a lot more attention to the book description and seller feedback, so you don't have to compete just on price.

It's interesting how things go in cycles as books become more available (and price goes down) and then more scarce (and price goes up). Unfortunately, there is no foolproof way of predicting which books will become more scarce in the future. That's all part of the fun of bookselling.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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