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A Bookseller's Guide to Textbooks

by Michael Brook

#127, 25 August 2008

Those who often begin statements about their bookselling practices with the phrases, "I'm not going to ..." and "They should know that ... " should not sell textbooks. Many sellers have sworn not to sell textbooks anymore and some complain about it even though they still do. I couldn't figure out this antipathy when I first heard of it. Perhaps it's because there are some things one has to do that could be considered "over the top" to succeed in this area.

I've never had a problem with selling textbooks. I have never had a scam attempted on me by a student (once by an adult, however), and I've received one bad feedback on Amazon concerning a textbook sale in nearly five years - and that one was my fault. Don't assign me a halo, I have worked in academia for the last 36 years, so I have experience with the books, the teachers, the students, the academic deadlines, even some of the writing and editing process that goes into textbooks.

Excluding textbooks from your inventory is costly. Textbooks replace supply and demand with supply and command. Students are required to purchase these items, and they are expensive. Used prices can often approach new prices. If you find a currently used textbook at a library sale or if a friend asks you to sell theirs, don't look down your nose. List that book right away.

I think textbook selling can be broken down to nine variables: Edition number, edition type, condition, grading, listing, pricing, packing, speed of shipping, assurance of arrival. Each of these requires a bit more vigilance than they would for books read for pleasure. The student must have the right edition, with clean pages on time in their dorm or apartment. Price is important also, but if you can deliver on the other issues, you may be able to occasionally get a higher price.

Edition number: The seller must have the correct edition number. Don't try to sell the 4th edition on the 5th edition's page (e.g., on Amazon or Customers are not required to read your descriptions on Amazon or They have a right to expect that at least it will be the correct book. Sometimes a new edition is substantially different, with different text, chapter structure, pagination, new exercises or old ones deleted.

Edition type: In addition to standard editions, there are international editions, CD editions, digital editions and instructor's editions. Stay completely away from the first three. If students expect a hardcover US edition of a book, they are not going to be happy with an international edition, which is often in black and white only and on inferior paper. It also can't be sold back to the university bookstore at the end of the semester.

If they expect a book, a CD or a download won't do. If someone cheated you on eBay by deceptively selling you one of these, demand your money back from that seller. Don't perpetuate the problem by selling them to students, even if you're doing it honestly.

Instructor's editions are a gray area. They are identical in essence to the regular student edition with the following additions: teacher's notes, additional answers to exercises, other appendices. They have the same page numbers as the student edition.

Amazon bans the selling of instructor's and international editions, but hundreds of sellers do it anyway. has recently begun a vigorous ban and is enforcing it by delisting items and temporarily suspending accounts. I don't know if anyone has been kicked off permanently. Abebooks, Biblio and Barnes & Noble allow them. Alibris doesn't allow them.

With texts in mathematics, physics and other subjects in which there are typically exercise sets at the end of a section, some students prefer instructor's editions. These usually have all the answers to exercises in the back of the book, whereas student editions usually have only the odd numbered problems. Some teachers oppose students purchasing instructor editions because they assign homework to be collected and graded, and they don't want the answers to be public knowledge. Finally, some students don't want instructor's editions because the university and other textbook stores won't buy them back at the end of the semester. This is a financial loss for the student unless the student is an online seller, which does happen with some frequency.

Sellers can sometimes turn the tables in the instructor's edition game. If you are listing a student edition, especially on a page filled with instructor's editions, you could point out its resale value as a selling point. I have done so and furthermore listed these books at a higher price. They sold even though my price was non-competitive at the time.

It's up to you what you do about selling instructor's editions. I don't think it's a sin. One thing I think is very wrong, however, is deception. Some sellers sell instructor's editions and don't tell the customer in advance. That's dishonest and can lead to returns, bad feedback and an unfriendly message from your site administrator. To give a recent example, problems with these types of editions are behind some of the issues recently reported concerning Nebraska Book Company. The recent BookThinker interview with NBC revealed that 3.4% of the books that they buy from sellers are "incorrect" - that is, a wrong edition number, an instructor's edition, or an international edition.

Since I began writing this article I have stopped selling instructor's annotated editions on Amazon. It's against the Amazon policy, and even though there is flagrant violation by other sellers, you never know when Amazon will crack down. From what I have heard from others, when Amazon enforces a policy, they are ruthless. The seller has no "right of appeal" as he or she would in a court of law. It's Amazon's playground, and they make the rules and rulings.

Two of my recent customer service problems have been due to instructor edition issues. One buyer wanted to replace a textbook her son had damaged at school. An instructor's edition just wouldn't do. Another buyer needed the CD that comes with the student version but not with the instructor version. This is an unusual situation, as the instructor version normally has all the student supplements. This one didn't and there was no way for me to know. I had to give partial refund to save this sale.

The last group of items in the edition type constellation are manuals, solution guides and other ancillaries. They often have the same title as the textbook but usually different authors. Many items of this type are typically bundled with the textbook at the point of purchase. Students rarely buy them separately. They may actually have a list price, but as a seller you should not list them. If you do list them where allowed (they are banned on several sites), don't list them in a way that will confuse them with the associated textbook. Someone will buy it thinking it's the book, despite your painstaking explanation, and possibly be very angry. The best thing you can do with one of these is to offer it as a freebee along with the actual book. It may give you a competitive edge in close competition.

There are also laboratory manuals - independent books that are purchased both separately and bundled with the textbook. These exist mostly in physical and biological sciences and not, for example, in mathematics.

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 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.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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