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BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling

#149 25 October 2010

by Craig Stark

Why Bookselling?

Hold on - shouldn't this be Chapter 1 instead of Chapter 3? After all, if you haven't answered the question, "Why bookselling?" what was the point of putting us through the torture of format first? But here's a much better question: Was it torture?

If you were selling books on eBay in 2002, you might recall an online bookseller who gained some notoriety after an appearance in a national magazine (and later in a popular bookselling how-to) on the strength of an announced income of $45,000 derived, primarily, from eBay auction sales. This was early in eBay history, and if you weren't there to live it, I can only invite you to imagine how heady a feeling it was to ponder the possibility of making $45,000 from home - or even half that - with absolutely nobody to answer to, no need whatsoever to haul your kids to child care, or, if you were retired and living on a fixed income, here, suddenly, was an opportunity to make a few extra bucks and actually enjoy retirement?! In 2002, $45,000 was hardly the onset of riches, less so today, but in this context was a big deal to some, and it was eBay that signaled the arrival of delicious possibility. Easy to forget.

Setting aside what was meant by "income," also the mitigating fact that this was an (assisting) husband and wife team, not a solo effort, there was significant interest in the front woman among those who were either starting to sell books online or at least considering it. Not surprisingly, she was invited to participate in a forum, to share her know-how, but declined, explaining that 11 pages of eBay auctions left her little free time. This could be interpreted several ways, of course - say, as a testament to the discipline required to run a successful business or as a sobering reminder that this income was hard won. Pick one.

But whether or not $45,000 seems like a lot of money, just enough or not much at all is almost beside the point. There are booksellers who contentedly make $5,000 or $10,000, those who make $100,000 and more and struggle - and everything in between. I wouldn't presume to call any one of them a success or a failure. No, I'm not revving up to tell you that bookselling isn't about the money, but there will be no attempt here to do what so many how-to books do - hook you with an empty promise of riches. We're after bigger fish, you see.

But let's get back to our featured bookseller. I vividly recall looking at her auctions back then and thinking, yup, here's somebody who has it figured out - dozens and dozens of interesting, mostly uncommon books, clearly presented. Who wouldn't bid on them? She was the envy of many - then. But what about now? She is still selling, by the way. Recently, I performed a 12-month search on her closed eBay sales, and the total, ah, was well under $20,000. Instead of 11 pages of listings there were 3 or 4. Now, there could be many explanations for this apparent descent. Books could be getting sold elsewhere, for one thing; or perhaps she deliberately scaled back. Or? Whether I know why or not doesn't matter because there is one telling fact that illustrates something more important than this: Today, she's selling much the same kinds of books she always has (only now market forces have eroded many of them to "common") and presenting them in essentially the same way. Eight years of no change, and you have to believe that profits aren't anything what they once were.

We've heard the story before: I found something that worked, and I'm going to run with it, and ruun with it, and ruuun with it, and ruuuuuuun with it all the way into the ground. Maybe you're one of those booksellers who has come to the same place? What worked then isn't working as well now? If so, I don't have to tell you that you have plenty of company. It's also possible that you're getting tired of doing what you're doing. Tends to happen with repetitive activity.

But you could also be somebody who's just getting started, somebody with a

dream?

As dreams go, selling books is one of the biggies. Romantic, it is. Used to be it was framed differently - opening "The Shop Around the Corner," for example - but that aside, most of us are forever hearing that we should do what we love, and as common as loving books is, well, many share the dream of making a living buying and selling them. A nice fit, eh?

Here's where the bucket is usually hauled in, chucking ice water on everybody but the most fanatical aspirants to the trade (who couldn't do anything else but sell books if they tried, so let them be damned).

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