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Bookselling in the 21st Century

Part IV: Identifying Books
That Need to Be Liquidated Immediately

by Craig Stark

#138 5 October 2009

No doubt many of you have already lowered prices some in an attempt to ride out what we're now calling the Great Recession, and I believe that this is a necessary strategy for many of us. But I also believe that, as we work our way into the digital era, at least some print books have already or will soon become near impossible to sell to anybody for any amount. What this suggests to me is that, while lowering prices on one's books generally will boost sales in the near future, something more dramatic may need to happen to at least a portion of our inventories. There are some books that will need to be liquidated as soon as possible - and in almost all cases these fall under the umbrella of commodity books, those purchased for content, as opposed to antiquarian (or collected) books.

So, if liquidation is to be entertained as a strategy, how do we know if a book needs to be liquidated? And, assuming we do know, what is the most effective means of liquidation? I'll address the first question in this article and the second in Part V.

Liquidate Low-Dollar Books

First and foremost - and perhaps most obviously - books with little or no value have got to head out the door. If you're going to compete effectively in the coming years, you'll need to somehow distance yourself from the competition. Selling low-dollar books will ensure that you won't.

Two primary reasons:

First, if you continue to sell low-dollar books, you'll put yourself in a position that will make it impossible to outpace your competition. Most booksellers sell low-dollar books because they're easy to find and require next to no knowledge to market. In turn, if you're looking for meaningful income, you'll have to sell a ton of these things to make anything happen. Consequently, your days will be spent almost entirely performing mundane tasks. Even if you wanted to study, do research, etc., to increase your knowledge of bookselling - something that would help you outpace your competition - there will be little or no time available for it.

Second, the very books you're selling for $1, $2 or $5 today will be the very first to lose their value outright tomorrow. Why wait for that happen?

An aside: I'm not suggesting that you dispose of these books necessarily. There may still be some opportunities to make a worthwhile return on them. More about this in Part V.

Liquidate Underperforming Books

For years I've recommended using some sort of sequential SKU system for organizing inventories. In its simplest form, this entails assigning the number 1 (or 00001 or something) to the first book you list, 2 to the second, and so on. The reason I'm a fan of this system is that it's brutally consistent at reminding you, again and again, of exactly where you've gone wrong - and negative knowledge, in my opinion, is so often more useful than positive because it exposes. (Positive knowledge has a tendency to cloak.) All one needs to do is stand in front of the first bookcase in your shop to see the awful truth.

The last time I did this I found some Polish-language books on my top shelf. They had been listed for over two years, and despite the fact that they were visible on several European venues and had been priced competitively, despite the fact that I had purchased them on the basis of what I considered to be fairly significant flashpoints, there they sat. Maybe you know how to sell Polish-language books, but I've faced up to the realization that, unless I come across something that screams, "Buy me!" in Polish, it just ain't my gig - and I've summarily exited this market sector.

Now, I'm not recommending that you yank everything that's on that first bookcase, but assuming that these aren't low-dollar books, it's certainly worth the trouble to take each one of them in hand and attempt to puzzle out (or do some research into) why they haven't sold. There are many possible reasons. If you come to the conclusion, however, that the reason is that nobody would buy them at any price, you'll know what to do.

Liquidate Outdated Textbooks

If you have textbooks that haven't sold over two or three semesters despite being priced competitively and, additionally, there are newer editions out there and/or their content is plainly obsolescing, liquidating them can make sense because it's a safe bet their value will be heading south. For that matter, if you depend to any significant degree on textbook sales, it's high time to start devising your exit strategy. Best guess is you have about two years to find a replacement income-producer. Note that there is a small class of textbooks that are classics and hold, sometimes increase their value over time. Market research will identify them.

Liquidate Higher-Dollar Books That Appeal to a Narrow Market If There Are Numerous Competing Copies Listed for Sale

Maybe an example would work best here. Say you have a copy of township or county history that was published in, oh, about the 1970s and had a print run of 500 copies. (You wouldn't usually know this number, but most local history books are printed in the 200- to 1,000-copy range.) After searching, you discover that 10 competing copies are listed in a $40 to $100 window. At first glance, because prices are still strong, this might not seem like an occasion to liquidate, but take a trip to Wikipedia for a population count on the town/county then ponder your chances of selling your copy in the next two or five or so years.

The situation is more urgent if the book is considerably older, that is, in the public domain, and there are digitized copies or PODs listed as well or it has been uploaded to an historical society website or, worse, Google Books, where ambitious entrepreneurs have been fast converting digital copies of books to cash on Amazon and other venues . There might be a few collectors who would still prefer an original print version, but with numerous competing copies, finding this kind of buyer won't be easy.

This is what I mean by puzzling things out. Put yourself on the buying end of things and think it through. Investigate. In the above example, in my opinion, it would be far better to grab $30 for your copy now than sit on your hands. Also keep abreast of trends in digitization (BookThink's News Editor Karin Bergsagel has been especially alert to these in her blog, which can be accessed on both the home page and the forum page). At the time of this writing, for example, no major effort is afoot to digitize yearbooks. Pricing these ambitiously and being patient, therefore, often works.

Liquidate Most Cookbooks

There are many exceptions here, but there's no question that huge numbers of cooks are now heading to online sources for their recipes because it's fast, comprehensive and often accompanied by feedback from those who have actually tried them out - and sometimes there's a video how-to as well. This has definitely softened the print cookbook market and will likely continue to.

Liquidate Most Songbooks

Time was I sold a lot of these, especially so-called fake books, often in the $50 and up range. Sales haven't completely ground to a halt but they've slowed massively - and it's only going to get worse. It's not difficult to understand why. Many popular songs released in the last three for four decades are available online now for no charge in tab format or YouTube tutorials. There are definitely exceptions, but check first before you decide to liquidate or not. Also note that newer songbooks are often comprised of songs that haven't migrated to online formats and are often still viable.

Liquidate Some Genealogy Books

I say "some" because the digitization of genealogical records is far from complete, and there are still plenty of opportunities (but not for long-term specialization). Again, check online.

Some Thoughts on Reference Books

I'm sort of upbeat about these in spots. There are still plenty of buyers who prefer opening a dictionary, for example, to checking a meaning or spelling online. On the other hand, the market for general encyclopedias has certainly softened. Specialized examples are another story.

This isn't an exhaustive list of what needs to be evaluated in our inventories, but it presents the more obvious considerations. Next time I'll offer some strategies for getting this stuff sold quickly.

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