A Bookseller's Guide to Using the Internet

by Craig Stark

#25, 30 August, 2004

Pricing Inventory
Part I: Where to Search for Comps

Never before in the history of bookselling has there been a more accurate tool than the Internet for pricing inventory. Gone are the days when pricing was done on the basis of consulting dealer lists and catalogs, auction sales records, making physical visits to book fairs, stores, etc. - all haphazard methods at best. Today we are only a few keystrokes away from real-life, timely values - the prices books sell for this very day in every corner of the planet. No more guesswork, right?

Well, not quite - actually, not by a long shot. As information-rich and timely as the Internet is, there's a great deal of misinformation out there as well, not to mention dated or plainly obsolete information, and as booksellers we very much need to acquire the know-how first for finding out where the good information is and second for evaluating it accurately once we find it because sometimes - maybe more often than not - it's devilishly mixed up with if not altogether obscured by bad information.

Logically, the first step in pricing a book is to research comparables or comps, those books currently for sale or recently sold that are similar to your book in condition, edition state, and other value-appreciating/depreciating factors (presence or absence of dust jackets, signatures, errata slips, etc.). Even if it's a book you've sold before, it's still important to do this every time because prices change often, and, more often than not, head south. Though off-line comps may still be helpful in this process, it's usually much faster and more accurate to do this online, especially if you're going to be selling the book itself online.

Depending on relative scarcity, collectibility, issue-point complexities, etc., the amount of time that needs to be devoted to this varies widely. 9 times out of 10 it's sufficient to plug in a single ISBN number or author/title at a good meta search site. A page of listings comes up, you glance at it for a few moments, and you're done. If the book is relatively common, comps are common and readily evaluated. There's no need to visit another site and dump a hundred more in your lap. Occasionally, however, it's necessary to visit multiple search sites, look up titles in library catalogs, perform Google searches, post questions on forums, email dealers, and so on. Not fun, but some books are worth it. Demand it. And sometimes even this doesn't get it done. Sometimes you have to go off-line. Or guess.

The best comps, of course, are those that reflect a done deal - for example, eBay closed auctions. Unfortunately, information on sold books isn't plentiful. Fixed-priced sites, with exceptions noted below, don't provide it, and eBay closed auctions are available for only 10 days post-sale. At present there are no other major auction players in the online market.

Information on books that are currently for sale, however, teems. The problem with this is that quoted prices aren't always grounded in reality. An oft-repeated bookselling saw is that books listed for sale are comprised entirely of books that, after all is said and done, haven't sold, and since the value of a book is the price it sells for, there you are. Still, it's possible to gather useful valuation information on fixed-priced sites notwithstanding. I'm going to discuss several methods for doing this in this series of articles. Today I'm going to talk specifically about where to go.

Meta Searching

Most often this is the search of first resort. A meta search site simultaneously searches multiple bookselling venues and delivers a list of matches in moments. At the time of this writing, there are 3 major meta search players in the book biz - AddALL, BookFinder and FetchBook. Each has advantages and disadvantages.

  1. AddALL is perhaps the most frequently recommended of these. It's comprehensive, user-friendly, and reasonably though not overly fast. It searches new and used books. Results can be sorted by a number of useful parameters, most notably by price but unfortunately not by publisher. There are 48 listing partners listed on the website, though some of these are either no longer alive and kicking or so small as to be of little importance - in other words, '48' is something of a stretch. Most of the major venues are included. The exception is eBay, and it's a significant exception because in cases where there's a need to search this venue (often), it forces an additional step. Both BookFinder and FetchBook, by the way, do search eBay fixed-priced listings.

  2. BookFinder is also comprehensive - 42 listing partners strong (including eBay) - and user-friendly but for some reason distinctly less quick, sometimes by a factor of 2 compared to AddALL. This comes into play hugely when a large number of books need to be searched, and it's the primary reason I don't often use BookFinder much. As with AddALL, new and used books are included and, again, searching by publisher isn't possible. Worse, there are no sort-by options, though a price range can be specified. Another noteworthy weakness of BookFinder is that browsing isn't facilitated. Results are not returned directly but grouped by variations of author, title, etc. - that is, a link must be clicked for actual results under an individual grouping to appear. Each group, in turn, must be investigated separately. Two or more steps to get home, and, sigh, more waiting.

    This latter weakness, however, is in some cases a strength. For example, there are times when it isn't clear what the title of a given publication is, even if you're holding the damn thing in your hands. Different titles may appear on the outside and inside of the book, sub-titles may confuse the issue, etc. Also, a book without an author may or may not be listed with its editor in the author field. Other factors can also confuse things, and it's nice to be able to browse through title groupings before committing to a full search of a single title. This is also very useful for book buying. If you collect books on pigeons, for example, you'll be able to browse through a list of titles to see what's available before looking at individual listings, which may number in the 100's or 1,000's. A similar search on AddALL would deliver all available listings in one adorable dump.

  3. FetchBook lists a whopping 104 listing partners, eBay included. This is a significant leap over the other two meta search sites, and it's often manifested in the quantity and quality of its search results. Conventional wisdom would suggest that the lowest prices for books are typically found on eBay and/or Amazon Marketplace. Once you've used FetchBook for a period of time, however, you'll observe that this often isn't the case. FetchBook delivers its results in order of the cheapest price first, so this site works especially well for finding a good price on new or nearly new books - that is, in cases where factors like condition and edition state aren't likely to be an issue.

This strength, as you might suspect, is also its weakness. Search parameters are limited to 4 - keyword, title, author and ISBN. No publisher sorting. No price sorting. Etc., etc. Also - and this is something that truly puzzles me - results are sometimes truncated for no apparent reason. For example, more than once I've typed in the title of a book that I know for a fact is listed on Abebooks, and nothing, nada, from Abebooks comes up. This phenomenon seems to be more likely to occur with vintage or OOP books.

One more important point about FetchBook, and this is a big positive. Searches also list books that have been recently sold - yes, along with the prices they sold for. This is a bookseller's gold mine because it tells you two very, very important things: the price you can actually expect to sell the book for and a clear indication of its demand. Search a book that brings up 8 or 10 out-of-stocks, and you know you've got a hot one.

The point I'm making here is that, depending on what your immediate needs are, there are good reasons to use all three of these meta search sites. There are also good reasons to search elsewhere, but before I get to this, a few words about Google (and Froogle). It's possible to search books here as well, and occasionally you'll find things that don't surface elsewhere. However, results are far from consistent or complete, even though Froogle was designed as a dedicated shopping tool. This article explains why it's not working particularly well - yet.

Venue Searching

Venue searching - searching only one venue instead of multiple venues - can also be productive because additional information becomes available that can help you in the pricing process. There are 4 important players here - eBay, Amazon Marketplace, Abebooks and Alibris.

  1. Amazon Marketplace. Lots and lots of books get sold here. My own experience with selling in this venue reinforces what I've heard many other sellers say as well - the ratio of books sold to books listed is higher here than it is on any other fixed-price site. This is the destination of choice for many book buyers, the venue they think to visit first. Prices are also very competitive - in fact, this is the only major venue where it's possible to sell a book for a penny. And "competitive," in this context, translates to "realistic." When you look for comps at Amazon, the prices that come up more often than not represent what you're likely to be able to sell your books for. (I'll discuss exceptions to this in the next article in this series.)

    If there's a weakness at Amazon, it's that it's ISBN top heavy. Books without ISBN's (unless listed in notoriously unproductive z-shops) are typically more difficult to list or, more often, simply aren't eligible, though there are strong indications that this is changing, that Amazon Marketplace will soon evolve into a venue receptive to all books. Meanwhile, it remains hot for newer books (approximately 1970 and newer) and generally reliable for purposes of pricing.

    Amazon searches (which, by the way, are fast) also yield additional data that may or may not help in pricing - namely, sales rank and the buyer-waiting feature. Sales rank simply ranks a title in relationship to all other titles on the basis of how many copies are sold. The higher the number, the fewer copies sold. I'll get into more detail about how to interpret these numbers in the next article, but obviously a title with a high number doesn't necessarily mean that the book isn't in demand. It could simply be uncommon. The buyer-waiting feature indicates that one or more buyers have already committed to buying a book as soon as it's listed, provided it's listed at or below the price they are willing to pay. If your title has a buyer waiting, you know that the book is in demand, also that you can price it more aggressively than you might otherwise.

  2. eBay. An entire book could be written about eBay searching. It's that complex - or can be in certain cases. Though it's sometimes helpful to search books that haven't sold (current store listings, fixed-price listings, and BIN's), the real value here is realized in investigating closed auctions because these deliver prices actually paid for books. The 10-day limitation has been previously noted, and of course many, many factors can skew final values on an auction site. However, eBay represents the only significant database of sold books on the Internet, and therefore repays our attention time and time again. Much more about this in the next article.

  3. Abebooks. At 50,000,000+ books listed, the largest fixed-price venue on the Internet, though Alibris isn't far behind. Searching Abebooks for comps isn't crucial, but there are several significant advantages in using it. First, no matter what your book is, you're likely to find it here. Second, searches are fast. Results appear almost instantly. If you have lots of books to research, you can get through them more quickly here than at any other major venue or meta search site with the possible exception of Amazon. Third, Abebooks has the most sophisticated search functions of any of the major venues. Sorts by publisher, publishing date, and many others are available. This can be a huge time saver. Finally, it's possible to search the WorldCat library database for titles that don't show up in Abebooks searches. (See "Searching Library Catalogs" below.)

    For searching comps, the primary weakness of Abebooks is price inflation. Abebooks is one of the oldest fixed-price venue for books and, because it's also the largest, thus contains a significant percentage of dated listings - in other words, lots of inflated prices. If you can spot and interpret pricing patterns, however - another topic that will be addressed in the next article - much of this can be overcome.

  4. Alibris. Also large at 40,000,000+ books listed, also fast, also provides fairly sophisticated search functions. Alibris has grown up quickly in the past year. Thousands of booksellers have migrated to this venue because, like Amazon Marketplace, books get sold hand over fist. It's an especially good venue for searching comps because so many of the listings are relatively fresh, prices realistic. If growth continues at or near its present pace, I'll be stopping here more and more regularly for research.

Library Catalog Searching

Obviously, you won't find pricing information at libraries, but sometimes there are still good reasons for using them in the pricing process. It's certainly the exception when you can't find a particular book for sale - can't find a comp anywhere online - but when this situation arises, it makes sense to see if you can find it in libraries. It also makes sense when only 1 or 2 comps are available, especially if your intuition suggests that they aren't realistically priced. At the very least this will give you an indication of scarcity. If multiple copies are present in a single library system and/or if multiple libraries have copies, this confirms that the book isn't scarce, and this should be taken into account when you price yours. The most probable reason for books showing up in libraries and not for sale online is simply that dealers are currently out of stock. This doesn't mean that copies aren't out there, nor does it mean that they won't surface in dealer's inventories soon. Also note that a significant number of books for sale haven't been listed in online venues - something on the order of 40%. Some tips on how to search libraries efficiently will be given in the next article in this series.

Ok, done for now. These are the best places to look for comps. The next article in this series will get into specifics about how to search for comps once you've arrived at a site, also how to evaluate them. In the third and final article, I'll discuss how to arrive at a price based on comps.

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