New Strategies for Selling Books on eBay

by Craig Stark

#35, 24 January 2005

Part II: A Field Guide to the Ebayable Book

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Love it or hate it, eBay is, at present, the only viable online venue for auctioning books. For all practical purposes, if you don't sell on eBay, you're left with one alternative - sell on a fixed price venue. The absence of a competing auction venue isn't for lack of trying. 100's if not 1,000's of auction websites have been launched in the past half dozen or so years. Most have met their demise, some very quickly, and it's likely a long shot that the remaining ones won't meet the same fate, though also probable that many new websites will surface to try, try again.

The problem isn't that no one else can design a more stable, more user-friendly website than eBay. The problem isn't that no one else can beat eBay's fees. They can. And have. Time and time again. Given the growing discontent among booksellers who sell on eBay, having much to do with rising fees and the recent tinkering with its conventional category structure, the obvious question is this: why hasn't anybody managed a successful challenge?

I think you can answer this question yourself, first by putting yourself in the position of a seller: why would you want to auction a book anywhere but where the most buyers are likely to see it - and thereby maximize both the likelihood of its selling and its final value? Second, by putting yourself in the position of a buyer: why would you want to waste time looking for a book to buy at auction anywhere but where the most sellers are likely to list it - and, because of increased competition among those sellers, maximize the chances that you'll get a good deal?

I know what you're thinking. This is contradictory. Sellers come to eBay seeking to make more money? Buyers come with the intention of spending less? Somebody's not going to be happy. Still, this is what the thinking is - this is what our thinking is, no matter which direction we come at it from - and it's a force that gathers strength with each passing day because so many new buyers and sellers are entering the market and heading where else? Straight to where the action is.

Of course, these aren't the only reasons buyers and sellers come to eBay. For example, some booksellers are looking for the fast nickel (as opposed to the slow dime they're more likely to make on fixed-price venues). Some buyers are hunting for the uncommon or unique item, and where else to do that but at the planet's biggest garage sale? This and many other reasons make the market behave with more complexity, but it doesn't change the overall dynamic which, with each passing day, makes eBay less, not more vulnerable to its competition: everybody wants to be where the action is.

No doubt there are things eBay could do to adversely affect their position. Some think that they already have - or at minimum have put policies in place that will eventually lead them down the road to ruin. Seller discontent seems especially intense and widespread now. There are calls everywhere in forums and newsletters for protests, boycotts, etc., and groups have formed that attempt to lure sellers away from eBay and create an alternate venue. Or migrate to an existing one. It's you and me who make eBay what it is, not eBay (the argument goes), and we have the power to fire them without notice.

True, but. BookThink isn't part of this movement. Not yet anyway. In the first place, booksellers are fortunate in that we can make a go of things without eBay. There are numerous sellers who do very well selling only at Amazon Marketplace, Alibris or Abebooks. Or all three. Or more. Fees aren't exactly low at most fixed-price venues either, but at least they're usually back loaded - that is, we either pay nothing or a small monthly fee up front for the pleasure of listing our books and only pay the more substantial portion of our fee if and when things sell. At eBay, we spend, spend, spend, whether we make sales or not - and spend again when we do.

So - why bother with eBay at all? Isn't it essentially a wholesale market anyway? Sometimes it doesn't even rise to this level. Who needs that? This is especially true of the books segment of the market, where sellers seem to far outnumber the available buyers. At eBay, this is the hard, almost universal reality: more often than not, books sell for less than what they will sell for in an open shop or fixed-price online venue.

Personally, I'd take a hike from eBay here and now if this was my reality. But it isn't. Like many of you, I sell on fixed-price venues too, but month in and month out, still, after all so many years of incrementally rising fees and growing, increasingly aggravating website complexities, I make most of my income selling on eBay. And just to clarify - I sell almost exclusively books.

How can this be? Well, there's a small class of books that defy the eBay pattern. They don't sell at wholesale or below prices; they sell at retail. Sometimes more. Sometimes obscenely more. Sometimes this is due to scarcity, either of title or condition, but sometimes relatively common books behave the same way. A question for you: if could sell nothing but this type of book, wouldn't it be grand? No more fast nickels. Or no nickels. For that matter, no more slow dimes. For once you'd be on the fast track, and forget about nickels and dimes altogether; you'd be living in the world of the fast quarter - selling eBayable books.

Easier said than done? Maybe. In the first place, it's not so easy to find eBayable books, is it? Heck, unless you do tons of research, it's not so easy to know what they are to begin with. Maybe not easy on both counts, but I'm here to tell you: it's doable. Very doable. Of course, this means two things: working hard and working smart. Nobody but you can make yourself work hard, but you can't work smart at all unless you first have the knowledge that makes it possible.

The purpose of this article is to provide you with some of that knowledge. Half the battle is won by defining, as precisely as possible, what an eBayable book is. At first glance this may appear to be almost impossible. Some eBayable books are densely illustrated, others have nothing but text, some are old, some are new, some are even beat up, and their respective contents could hardly be more diverse. Believe it or not, however, there's a principle afoot, something that all of these books have in common. Once you gain an understanding of what it is and refine it via application to specific titles, you'll be able to spot eBayables with much more consistency, whether you've done any research or not.

This principle can be stated in one short sentence:

What makes a book eBayable is the presence of one or more critical and readily communicable visual elements that point to value.

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