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Selling Mathematics Books
Winning the Numbers Game

by Michael Brook

#37, 21 February 2005

Mathematics is a unique subject. It grows and advances like other fields but rarely is any "old" mathematics deemed incorrect or even out of date. Sciences like biology and physics are different. Today's theories generally replace yesterday's. Social sciences like psychology and sociology are subject to the same dynamics. In fields where sciences and social sciences are applied (e.g., to computers or education), changes in knowledge can happen even faster.

How do these observations about the nature of knowledge in various fields apply to book buying and selling? Like this: If I am at a sale and I see a 30-year-old mathematics text, I will seriously consider buying it. If I see a 5-year-old book on computer operating systems, I will skip it without looking back.

In this article I will take you through the realm of mathematics books and give you an idea of what is potentially valuable and what to avoid. You do not have to know the mathematics contained inside the books to succeed at buying and selling these profitably. However, as in all fields, subject knowledge does give the bookseller an edge. I simply hope that after reading this article you will be more likely to look at mathematics books than you were before and not be inclined skip over them at sales, if that was your habit.

Mathematics books that one might find while book scouting fall roughly into five categories, some of which may overlap:

  1. Introductory undergraduate textbooks

  2. Supplemental materials associated with #1, such as student solutions manuals

  3. Advanced undergraduate, graduate and professional level books

  4. Popular books with mathematical content (math non-fiction)

  5. Supplemental texts and self-help books (examples: Math Made Easy, SAT prep guides, etc.)

Introductory Undergraduate Books

Currently, introductory courses in college mathematics include (along with remedial courses): Arithmetic, Algebra, Elementary Algebra, Intermediate Algebra, College Algebra, Liberal Arts Mathematics, Statistics, Finite Mathematics, Discrete Mathematics, Pre-Calculus, and Calculus. Many titles in this category review (or elaborate on) high school material, so things may look familiar to you when you page through the books.

With the exception of some calculus students, most users in this category are enrolled in non-math, non-engineering, or non-science majors. Consequently, when the semester ends, most of these books are usually sold, given away, donated or otherwise disposed of. Typically, they are also large and heavy. In the effort to appeal to the largest number of mathematics departments, publishers cram them with everything imaginable. Once every three to four years the publisher will issue a new edition. Some teachers won't immediately use the new edition, so the previous edition may retain some resale value, but rarely will anyone use a book more than one edition old. (There are notable exceptions - for example, Finite Mathematics by Maki and Thompson (4th Edition, 1996) which has been in use for years at many universities.)

Recent textbooks can be quite lucrative for the bookseller. By "recent" I mean publication dates between 2003 and 2006. When I am at a big book sale and time is of the essence, I usually reject any introductory mathematics texts that are more than three years old. Currently, this means I would reject 2002 or older editions if I didn't have time to ScoutPal them.

Supplementary Material
Associated With
Introductory Level Mathematics Textbooks

When mathematics textbooks are published, the publisher makes available a number of ancillary (supplemental) materials to both students and teachers. The most common of these are student solutions manuals. These are books that contain answers, sometimes with carefully worked-out steps, to all or some of the exercises contained in the corresponding textbook. Though not usually required by instructors, solutions manuals are sometimes bundled with textbooks and sold as a package. Generally, tese manuals have nowhere near the market value that the textbooks do, but a few of them bring respectable prices. You will also often see ancillary books produced for teachers, such as test banks, study guides and calculator supplements.

There are several potential problems with ancillary materials. First, while they usually don't have much value, booksellers often mistake them for textbooks in the heat of a sale and buy them anyway. This confusion occurs especially with ancillary books in large (8 x 11) paperback format - a size similar to many current softcover textbooks. Also, Amazon generally prohibits the sale of ancillary materials.

There's no rule against giving them away, however. If you can pick up ancillaries for free or nearly so, say, at a bag sale or if you find them bundled with a textbook, you can offer them as an incentive when you sell the textbooks. This may give you an edge over a competitor offering only the textbook.

Advanced Undergraduate,
Graduate and Professional Level

Back to textbooks per se, but now at a higher level. Here, the situation changes. These books are typically smaller than introductory-level texts. Also, unless you have special training in mathematics, you may not be able to understand what these books are about - in fact, the symbols themselves may not even be familiar. In contrast, when you look at an introductory-level text (with some exceptions), the symbols will usually look similar to those you encountered in high school. Another important difference: publishers issue new editions less frequently, and at very high levels, teachers sometimes use textbooks 30 years old or older. Note that many of these books will not have ISBN numbers, but a recent ScoutPal upgrade enables you to enter book titles and/or LCCN's - that is, confirming values in the field is now possible. The following list includes samples of older, higher level mathematics books I have sold over the last year, along with publication dates, sale prices, and venues they were acquired in. As you read the titles, pay special attention to terminology. Though some of it is familiar (e.g., algebra, geometry, statistics, equations, etc.), some of it is not, and this will give you a feel for what to look for.

  1. Topics in Algebra (2nd edition) Israel N. Herstein, 1975, $65.00 (note that this is advanced, not high school or introductory college algebra) Goodwill.

  2. Partial Differential Equations, Arnold Sommerfeld, 1949, $50. Personal collection.

  3. Fourier Analysis of Time Series, Peter Boomfield, 1976 revised 2000, $41 (several times) eBay (cheap).

  4. Geometry & Its Applications, Walter J. Meyere, 1999, $33 (several times). eBay (cheap).

  5. A Logical Approach to Discrete Mathematics, David Gries, 1993, $25.00. Bargain bin at Borders.

  6. Post-Modern Algebra, Jonathon D.H. Smith and Anna B. Romanowska, 1999, $44. eBay.

  7. Elementary Number Theory, Underwood Dudley, 1978, $29. Library sale.

  8. Introduction to Statistical Theory, 1970, $56. Library sale.

  9. Approximations for Digital Computers, Cecil Hastings, Jr., 1959, $26 Library sale.

  10. Mathematics and Politics, Alan Taylor, 1995, $27. Library sale.

  11. Invitation to Complex Analysis, Ralph Philip Boas, 1987, $50. Library sale.

  12. Statistical Analysis in Psychology and Education, George A. Ferguson and Yoshio Takane, 1989, $75 (cheapest currently available copy - $118.50). Library sale.

  13. Finite Element Analysis, Edward R. Champion, 1987, $40.00 (applied engineering mathematics). Salvation Army.

  14. Measure and Category: A Survey of the Analogies Between Topological and Measure Spaces, John C. Oxtoby, 1980, $53 (cheapest currently available copy - $235.) Paperback exchange bookstore.
If you are not impressed by, for example, 1995, 1999, and 2000 publication dates, you should be. Spans of 10 years typically contain 3 edition cycles, those of 5 or 6 years, 2. Any textbook older than one cycle (approximately three years) and still selling for healthy prices is a rare find. However, books like these can be found in the mathematics field.

Here are three titles that are not strictly classified as mathematics textbooks.

The Emergence of Mathematical Meaning, 1995, $55 (mathematics education). Personal collection.

Whom the Gods Love, Leopold Infeld, $40 (biography of Evariste Galois, mathematician and French revolutionary). Personal collection.

The Pythagorean Proposition (1968 reprint of 1940 original), Elisha S. Loomis, $40 (mathematics history; cheapest currently available copy I have been able to locate is $144). Personal collection.

What not to buy in this category:

  1. Dover Publications titles. During a recent visit to the mathematics section at Borders, I found a substantial number of Dover titles. They are inexpensive, usually issued in trade paperback format, and remain in print for years. Often, these are often reprints of classics and other works that have aged into the public domain. Values, therefore, are usually low, and unless the book has a high cover price and is in new or like new condition, it's probably not worth bothering with.

  2. Conference proceedings and collections of articles. Like groups in other fields, mathematical organizations hold annual meetings. Often, papers presented and/or talks given at a particular conference (called proceedings) are published as books and usually carry a high cover price. Despite the book format, however, their content more closely resembles that of magazines or journals - in other words, the material is usually time-sensitive and quickly obsolesces. Values usually reflect this.

  3. In general, any mathematics book that consists of a collection of essays or articles. Like conference proceedings, these often obsolesce quickly as well. Even if Amazon comparables are high, don't be fooled.

Popular Books with Mathematical Content
Math Non-Fiction

Mathematics books targeted at the general public sometimes rise to the level of professional textbooks, but many of these titles are more superficial - that is, they are essentially attempts to (painlessly) explain more difficult concepts. In the attempt to avoid pain, however, they often avoid the topic as well! For booksellers, the important thing to remember is that more scholarly books (the former) will generally have higher values and less robust sales rankings.

Supplemental Texts and Self-Help Books

Books in this category include general tutorials for improving mathematics skills and more narrowly targeted preparation guides for students taking specific exams - for example, SAT, GRE, etc. The latter are usually published in large, softcover format, and new editions are published annually to accommodate test changes. I have only one piece of advice concerning these books: in my experience, the only titles that have significant value are current editions of test preparation guides in new or nearly new condition. Last year's exam prep book just doesn't cut it. One usually runs across out-of-date editions at library sales, etc. If you are lucky enough to find a source of latest editions of these books, more power to you!

Mathematical Keywords

The following list of mathematics terminology (which, by the way, is not exhaustive) will help you spot mathematics books by title without having to open them.

  1. Mathematics: Algebra, abstract algebra, modern algebra, linear algebra, geometry, calculus, probability, statistics, combinatorics, topology, analysis, number theory, complex variables, differential equations, functional analysis, metamathematics, logic, set theory, chaos theory and knot theory.

  2. Algebra: group, ring, field, linear, matrix, matrices, vector, polynomial, exponential, rational, logarithmic and logistic.

  3. Number theory: prime (numbers) and modulus.

  4. Combinatorics: permutation and combination.

  5. Probability and statistics: factor analysis, regression, correlation, ANOVA, stochastic, normal, binomial, Bayesian and Poisson.

  6. Geometry: Euclidean, non-Euclidean, projective, descriptive, differential and fractal.
Finally, any combination and/or variation on the word mathematics will signal a book worth checking. "Mathematics and ...," "Mathematics of ...," "Mathematics for ...," and "Mathematical ...." For example (these are actual titles): Mathematics and Sex, Mathematics of Juggling, Mathematics for Electronics, and Mathematical Anthropology.

Related Areas

There are several areas worth looking at that are related to or are in some way concerned with mathematics. Subjects will have a highly theoretical component and tend to be abstract. Like mathematics, older books in these fields are often still valuable because the knowledge they contain has not obsolesced as is so often the case with the physical, biological, social and applied sciences. Some of these areas include: statistics, research methods, logic, philosophy, theoretical computer science, linguistics, perspective drawing (in art), chess, games, gambling, and horse racing.

A note about computer science: the emphasis here is on titles with in-depth content that has very little or nothing to do with discussions of specific hardware, software or operating systems. The latter often become obsolete in two or three years, but those that examine computer concepts in the most general way are far more likely to have enduring value. For example, a friend of mine recently stumbled upon an old book on the theory of structured programming that he studied 25 years ago. Today it still sells for $30.

There are two other important related areas - mathematics education and mathematics history. Mathematics education books can be valuable but usually have a smaller (selling) window of opportunity than dedicated mathematics titles. Education titles often have psychological elements, and of course the emphasis is on teaching and learning. History titles examine how and under what mathematical, social, political, religious, scientific and economic circumstances various mathematical developments occurred - that is, elements of mathematics, history and literature are combined. These may be valued, in part, for writing quality.

There are more saleable mathematics books out there than you might suspect. Don't ignore them!

In addition to being a bookseller on Amazon (101_percent_guaranteed), (mbrook1949) and Abebooks (101% Guaranteed Books), Michael Brook teaches mathematics at a large university on the Eastern Seaboard. He also has a Doctorate in Mathematics Education and plays guitar and sings in a trio known as Swing, Samba, Soul. Their CD is available from Michael's Amazon zShop.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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