Why Bookselling
Isn't Working For You

by Craig Stark

#31, 15 November 2004

Part II: Are You Getting Mixed Up with the Wrong Crowd?

Winning at bookselling is like winning at anything else: there's a method. Steps to follow. If you follow them, you'll win no matter what seems to be working against you. End of story, right? Well, not exactly. Not everybody believes this. Some, maybe most of us, think that there's just too much going on that we don't have control over, that no matter what we do or don't do, there's no escaping the reality of the used book market as it is today - too damn many sellers, too few buyers. Winning, that is, is problematic.

Probably everybody would agree with this market assessment, but this doesn't change the fact that more books are getting sold today than ever before, a good many of them high-dollar books. If you doubt this, do a defined, dollar-limited search of completed auctions on eBay. Pick a number out of your hat - e.g., $50 - and take a look at what's sold for this and more recently. Yup, books. Somebody's making money selling them. Dig deeper, and it'll become apparent that some sellers make repeat sales in this price range. Often. Daily.

Maybe it's human nature for some of us to think that, well, if I can't make this work, there must be something wrong with ... let's see ... anything but what I'm doing! I hear it every day: there aren't any good thrift shops or estate sales in my area anymore, and even if I do find a good book, there's some other seller who's happy to dump it for a few bucks when it's really worth lots more. And forget about buying books online. The ones I want are the only ones that do get bid up! As for those sellers who make those $50 and up sales, get real, I've come to the conclusion that they're just liquidating their inventory, probably selling at big losses, and are on their way out the bookselling door. And so on.

Here's another reality: many books that sold regularly for more than $50 a few years ago now go for $5 or $10. Ouch. This one's very hard. It's hard enough to find better books to sell, but if good books are fast devolving into bad books, what's the point of trying?

No, it isn't easy today, but who said it was supposed to be? If you were selling books online a few years ago, it probably was easy, maybe intoxicatingly so, but c'mon, the truth is that some of us caught a good wave, had a very good ride, because we got our start at the beginning of what became a widespread transition from open shop to online bookselling. This was one special, probably-never-to-be-repeated moment in the history of bookselling when luck did matter. We ... got ... lucky. Now, the transition is over. The word is out. Competitors are everywhere. Now, we've now arrived at the place where this was all headed anyway. There's a new reality, and it's not going to be easy to make things work. But this doesn't mean they can't work. This doesn't mean there isn't still a proven method for winning. It just means that now it won't be something you can do with your eyes closed.

Winning at bookselling is like winning at anything else, baseball included - and this brings me back to where I left off in Part I of this series. Before I started managing the teams my son played on, he knew a lot about losing. Too much. I'm sure that the coaches he played for wanted to win, but wanting something doesn't get it done. To be fair, some of these coaches were up against it, having to compete against teams that had been stacked with the best players, having been thrown into situations they hadn't asked for because there were no other parents who were willing to coach, etc., but ultimately, I don't believe any of them really knew how to make winning more likely than not to happen.

When I started managing, finally, things changed. For the first time my son came face to face with winning. Tasted it. Every last team I managed during the next 4 seasons won its league championship. In fact, when all was said and done, I never managed a team that didn't. By the time he started high school baseball, his trophy shelf was a thick forest of brass-plated plastic batters mounted on faux-marble bases, a state regional championship trophy he would never part with towering above everything else.

Ok, big deal, but here's the important thing: in many ways baseball is a microcosm; it mirrors what happens everywhere else. I had absolutely no idea how I'd do when I first started managing, but I had a clear idea of what I thought would work. A method. And this method wasn't anything remotely like what other coaches were doing, even the ones who'd had some success. There are, no doubt, countless coaches who have more coaching talent than I do, but if they don't have a method - and very few of them do - winning is at best a hit-and-miss proposition.

What was my method? Very simply, this: don't teach the kids how to win; don't even try. And whatever you do don't try to go out and make things fun for them. Instead teach them how to compete, and winning will take care of it itself. And so will the fun.

My thinking was that winning wasn't something that was possible to teach. Certainly, a pattern of winning seems often to perpetuate itself, but how many times have you heard coaches insist that winning is an attitude? It isn't. How can it be? Certainly you can feel like a winner, but that feeling, if it's genuine, can only come from one source - winning itself. No matter how hard you try to instill an attitude of winning, it won't happen until winning takes place.

Not so with competing. Teaching kids how to compete, develop an attitude of competitiveness, isn't easy, even with a method, but it can be done by putting them into competitive situations over and over again, at the same time clearly communicating your expectations, demanding that they perform at a high level. Sooner or later, a connection between competing better and winning is made, and since winning is fun (and even losing, when you've given every ounce of competitive energy to the task, ain't as bad as it could be), competition becomes something desirable to seek for its own sake. Fun. And the best part is that it lifts everybody else to a higher level.

Obviously, going in, some kids are naturally more competitive than others, some aren't at all, and interestingly, the ones who are intensely competitive aren't necessarily the so-called "best" players. The first step of my method was to identify the ones who were the most competitive already - watch for them in tryouts, and if possible draft them, even if their baseball skills were limited. Based on the coaching I'd already done, I knew that it was easier to teach skills to unskilled, competitive kids than it was to teach competitiveness to skilled, uncompetitive kids - in fact, sometimes accomplishing the latter is all but impossible.

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