Winning and Losing at Bookselling

by Craig Stark

#19, May 31, 2004

The Importance of Stepping Up to the Plate

When I'm out at sales on Friday and Saturday mornings, I'm sometimes asked what kinds of things I'm looking for. "Mostly books," I say, usually adding, "I'm a dealer." It helps to put this on the table because it occasionally leads to, well, leads - that is, if somebody knows you're a book dealer, the more likely he or she will try to accommodate you, offer a lead or other information that might help.

Often, the next question is, "Where is your shop?"

"I don't have a shop. I sell online."

"Oh. Do you have a job?"

"You're looking at it. This is my job. This is what I do."

"Really. You mean you don't do anything else?"

"That's right. I sell books full time."



There's usually a pause at this point. Selling books online is one thing; doing it full-time, apparently, isn't everybody's idea of a fast track to success. And maybe it isn't. For that matter, maybe selling anything online full-time isn't. If you have a successful online business that depends heavily on shopping sales for inventory, you already know this: there aren't many others like you.

I live in a metropolitan area with a population of about a million and a half. Not huge, but fairly big. Consequently, there are lots and lots of people who hold garage sales, estate sales, etc., many more who shop them, probably thousands in this two-county region. Of these thousands there's a core of, I'd say, 200 or 300 who shop them regularly. Some of these shoppers I see often, weekly, if not twice a week; others not as often - maybe once or twice a month - and others less frequently.

I certainly can't claim to know everybody's business, but perhaps 50 of these 200 or 300 are dealers, and to my knowledge (which I've accumulated over years of doing this) most of the dealers are either part-time or, if they are full time, have open shops or sell at shows and may or may not sell online too. Off and on, as I've been writing this article, I've been trying to assemble a list of rare birds - full-time online dealers. Not just book dealers. Dealers of anything.

At present there are only two names on it. Two. And I doubt it's going to get any longer. I know that both of these guys do well because I know where they sell (on eBay) and what ID's they sell under - and they sell a lot, sometimes for big bucks. Though also full-time online sellers, they differ from me in that they sell almost anything that will turn a good profit, and only sometimes is this a book. For purposes of this discussion, I'll call one of them Fred.

Now it's entirely possible that Fred and I (and the other guy) aren't the only full-time online dealers in my area. The list could number 4 or 5 or more, but I'd be very surprised if it was in double figures. Frankly, I'd be surprised as hell if it was as high as 5. Anyway, whatever the number is, it's small, and, given these very small odds, it would seem that making a go of it as an online dealer, let alone an online book dealer, might be pretty tough.

The funny thing is it doesn't feel tough. Fred would say the same thing. Has said it. Maybe this has something to do with liking what we do. Things are always easier if they're fun, but then, who doesn't have fun going to sales and hunting for stuff? I can't think of anybody who doesn't. Or, maybe it has something to do with living in the right place - in my case a place where lots of people come to retire (and die) - or other factors/intangibles that are more difficult to measure. But wouldn't these factors also be in place for everyone else in my area? Of course. No, there's something else.

A big part of this something-else is knowledge. The more you have, the better able you are to spot good things, and there's never an end to acquiring more knowledge. The primary purpose of BookThink is to share as much book-related knowledge as possible. Still, knowledge isn't everything, and sometimes it's nothing at all - that is, drop some useful information at somebody's feet, and there is no guarantee that it'll get picked up.

When you coach baseball (something I did for a number of years), or, really, any sport, there are certain words and phrases that come up a lot. Coaches use them as teaching tools. Or to motivate. Some are very specific. "Throw your hands at the ball" probably makes no sense to somebody who's not familiar with teaching batting, but teaching a kid to extend his arms when he's swinging a bat can be greatly facilitated if he can grasp the concept of (mentally) throwing his hands at the ball when it crosses the plate. This gets you into the right position to hit with power.

Some phrases aren't as specific but have broader applicability. "You have to want it" is one of these. This one probably gets used too much, maybe to the point of it not meaning much anymore. However, this doesn't make it any less true; in fact, I think it makes it more true. You do have to want something to make it happen, and in highly competitive situations this is doubly true. In bookselling, which has become in the last year or so more competitive than almost anything I can think of, it may be triply true.

But what does "wanting it" really mean? If we like books, like handling them, reading them, buying and selling them, etc., certainly making a go of a bookselling business will be something we'll want. But "want" is a word that has different shades of meaning and degrees of intensity, and in my opinion, there's only one kind of wanting that will guarantee success as a bookseller. When I coached, I didn't use the phrase "You have to want it." When you're talking to kids, you can look at their eyes and see exactly when they tune out - they wear almost everything on their sleeves - and telling them they had to want it before an important game was almost a sure bet you'd lose them because they'd heard it a million times before.

No matter; I felt that they needed to be taught what "wanting it" meant anyway, so I came at this from a different direction. I started with some hard facts. Everybody knows what it feels like to win. It feels good. Everybody knows what it feels like to lose. Bad. Well, kids who play baseball have it pounded into their heads by well meaning parents and coaches, almost from day one, that winning isn't everything. That it isn't important. That they should go out and have fun. Also - and maybe this is worse - they are often told that, even if they lose, they're winners as long as they give it their best. I can't count the number of times I've heard a coach or parent try to convince a markedly long-faced kid that he was a winner when in fact he'd just got done principally contributing to his team's defeat. Kids aren't stupid, and they know what losing is and how it feels. When you lose, it's the smallest of consolations to know that you did your best, and some kids overtly resent being urged to reject how they feel about losing.

The plain truth is that kids - by nature - love to win and hate to lose, and yet many of them have been successfully conditioned to think that winning isn't important, also that losing can be a form of winning. What I discovered as a coach was that it was very, very difficult to inspire kids to win. Winning was something they felt confused about because, while deep down they may have wanted to win, they'd also been taught to mistrust it, and this mistrust would sometimes be transferred to me if I attempted to place any importance on outcomes.

Since I felt I couldn't go at this from the direction of winning, the only thing left was losing. Coming at it from the opposite side. What I then discovered was that it was indeed possible to teach kids to refuse to lose, and once they learned this, they became consistent winners. The technique was simple. If we lost a game, instead of trying to analyze why, I talked to them about their feelings, asked them what it felt like to lose, then urged them to remember the feeling. Before the beginning of the next game (and often during intervening practices), I reminded them of the feeling they'd felt after the last game, then suggested some very specific things they could do to prevent getting the feeling again.

There are several reasons why this works as well as it does. One is obvious. It hurts to lose, and kids don't like pain, will sometimes move mountains not to suffer it. Paying attention to pain, talking about it when it happens, reminding them of it later - all of these things motivate them to do whatever they have to do to not to re-feel it. It's also easier to work with kids (as opposed to adults) on this because most of them haven't yet formulated strategies for anesthetizing pain.

There's a bonus in approaching things from this direction. A big bonus. When you refuse to lose, winning a baseball game is no longer something you have do; it's something you have to prevent somebody else from doing. It took me some time to appreciate the implication of this, also to stop mistrusting its seemingly negative message, but here it is: when you don't have to perform, when all you need to do is to prevent somebody else from performing, the focus is magically transferred from you to the work that needs to be done. Suddenly, kids know what they need to do with stunning clarity, and surprise, surprise, they go out and do it.

Example. A kid comes up to bat against a hard throwing pitcher. Typically, he's overly concerned with his performance. Is he going to look bad? Swing and miss? Worse, step out of the batter's box to avoid getting hit? Get hit? Be called chicken? He might decide that the easiest way out is to do nothing - stand there and wait to get called out on strikes. Then at least he doesn't look as foolish as he might have if he'd tried to hit the ball and may in fact be able to cling to the false perception that the umpire made some bad calls.

However, what he usually doesn't realize is that the pitcher is concerned about his performance too, and though this phenomenon isn't widely acknowledged, most (young) pitchers are deathly afraid of hitting batters. (This all changes later on, of course.) Also, if they sense fear in batters, observe them stepping away from the plate, etc., this charges their confidence and, in turn, improves their performance.

Well, if you're a batter in a refuse-to-lose frame of mind, you won't be thinking about your performance; you'll be thinking about what you can do to thwart the pitcher's performance. Challenging him. Hitting the ball is one way to do this, of course, but even something as small as moving closer to the plate puts additional pressure on a pitcher to perform because he then becomes even more concerned about hitting you. More often than not, a pitcher will then subconsciously transfer his target away from the batter and begin throwing pitches outside - and sometimes end up walking him.

I saw this happen time and time again, won games because of it, and once a kid got a taste of power over a pitcher, his confidence soared, and in that very moment he became not only a hitter but also a winner. Everything changed, including his body language, and if you were sitting in the stands, you knew that this was a player who "wanted it."

Ok. Let's put baseball aside for a moment. Adults don't like pain either - ok, most adults. If you believe polling data, a majority of adults dislike or even hate the work they do. Or hate not making enough money. Or hate being out of work altogether. This is painful - all of it. Many booksellers, on the other hand, like what they do, got into the business in the first place because they liked it. Big difference so far, and half the battle. Pain begins, however, when they don't make enough money, when they either have to keep a job they don't like and sell books only part time or, in the case of a full-time bookseller, when they are not able to pay their bills.

Like coaching baseball, there are two approaches you can take to this. First, you can focus on winning. Making a lot of money. The problem with this is that it places the emphasis on performance. On you. Once the emphasis is on you, the door is open for doubt to creep in, and on its heels fear, and if you don't think booksellers as a lot (especially eBay booksellers) aren't fearful now, you haven't been paying attention. Once fear grabs you by the throat, performance suffers, and instead of changing the things that brought the pain, the more typical response is to try mitigate it. Bitching about eBay or commiserating with others in the forums may help do this. Scotch and soda may help others, and so on. You might even decide to flee from the pain, go back to a job you hated. None of these strategies produces a good result.

However, if you take the second approach - refuse to lose - everything changes. Instead of medicating the pain, you now meet it directly, feel it, and remember it, for example, when you go out to sales. Which brings me back to Fred.

The summer before last I was in a slump. I would dutifully go out to sales every Friday and Saturday morning and almost always came back with next to nothing or nothing at all. This went on for weeks. It didn't hurt my business because I'd accumulated enough inventory over the years to survive a slowdown, but I knew that, if books continued to be hard to find, it was only a matter of time before it profoundly affected my income.

Well, my answer was to stop going to sales and start buying online - exclusively - because I assumed that the open air market in my area had dried up. I was tired of coming home with the pain of failure, and online I could always find something, though it was more difficult to make huge profits because so many others were looking at the same things I was bidding on. It also meant sitting in a stupid chair more.

Well, Fred called one day, told me he'd been finding books he didn't know what to do with, didn't know how to market properly, and would I be interested in selling some of them for him and splitting the take. These weren't $5 and $10 books, by the way, but had values of $50, $100 and more. I told him, sure, why not, but when I got off the phone, a question nagged at me: where the hell was he finding these things? He'd been shopping the same area I had. Had I lost it? Did I suck at finding books now? Was that why I was in a slump?

It was painful to entertain these thoughts, but I didn't entertain them for long. The next weekend we had our team baseball party, and while I was giving out league championship trophies for the fourth consecutive year, I came to a kid named Mark, who had played on all but one of my teams. In the pivotal game of the season Mark had come up to bat with two out in the last inning and two runners on. We were down by a run. The other team had their star pitcher on the mound, and he was throwing aspirin tablets. In what was the most remarkable at bat I'd ever seen by any kid, Mark stood up on the plate, his toes only an inch or so away, and fought off pitch after pitch after pitch, fouling them off again and again until, frustrating the pitcher at last, he got the pitch he wanted and drove it screaming into right-center field for a game winning double. When I called his name to come up, I said, "This is the kid who refused to lose."

I took this thought with me to sales the following week, and it gave me back a clarity I had lost somewhere along the way. The first thing I saw was that Fred wasn't getting into estate sales before me - I was almost always timely - he wasn't getting to them much at all. I was more likely to see him at garage sales and church sales. This was a significant observation because, in the years I'd been doing this, I had gradually shifted my attention to estate sales, and if I had time to go to a garage sale or two, etc., fine. If not, no big deal because I had convinced myself that I was more likely to find winners at an estate sale. It was true that I had found many good books at estate sales in the past, but the nature of the beast had subtly changed. There were fewer good books showing up at these things now, and the competition for what was there had gotten keener.

One observation led to another, and I reminded myself that a single estate sale can swallow up most of a morning. You need to get there early to be first or near first in line, then wait. And wait. When the window of opportunity is only two or three hours wide, if an estate sale isn't a blockbuster, the entire morning can become a loser. Then I looked at some numbers. On a typical Saturday there are over 300 sales in my area, usually 20 or 30 that mention books in the ad. Sometimes more. Most of these are not estate sales, and up until then, I'd been giving almost all of them a miss.

With a new-found mind-set of doing the things I needed to do to find the books I needed to buy, I tried to pack as many sales as I could into a given morning. Spending two hours on a single estate sale wasn't the way to do it - and I decided I wouldn't do it anymore unless I was almost certain the payoff would be big. The results were almost immediate. Early that first morning I purchased a set of the Photographic History of the Civil War for $5 at a garage sale and sold it later that week for $300. The next day I found a set of the Great Books of the Western World, still in shrink wrap, for $20 and sold it for $425. More similar finds at garage sales soon followed, and it's now a rare weekend when I get skunked.

The point of this article isn't that you should be going to more garage sales for books (for the record, I still go to several estate sales a month). This may be a smart thing to do; it may not, depending on your situation. The point is that you're much, much more likely to see what you need to do (or stop doing), no matter what it is, if you have clarity of vision. Clarity comes when you stop being concerned about striking out and step up to the plate.


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