Selling Textbooks
A BookThink Primer

by Teresa Kopec

#61, 30 January 2006

The Bread and Bane of Bookselling

If you cruise enough book selling boards, you will see complaint after complaint about selling textbooks - students trying to "scam" you, buyers leaving you bad feedback, prices dropping when new editions come out, etc. Lots of sellers choose to stay away from textbooks altogether. Let me tell you, they are making a big mistake.

Textbooks are one of the most consistent moneymakers out there in the bookselling world. And you can usually pick them up in thrift stores, yard sales, and library sales for next to nothing. The key to making money on textbooks - and not losing your reputation or your sanity - is to follow a few simple rules:

  1. List the book by the correct ISBN. Don't ever, ever try to sell a 4th edition under the 5th edition listing hoping that students will read the description and see this is an older version. Be really careful when listing to make sure that even if the ISBN number is correct, that your book matches the description on Amazon. Some textbook publishers will use the same ISBN number on workbooks and textbooks. Also, some textbooks are produced in special editions for particular universities and may have been condensed or changed. If it does not match, don't list it.

  2. Always state in your description something like: "5th Edition as shown." Students are wary of getting ripped off by sellers trying to dump older editions on them. Some will email you to see if what you have is the edition they want, but by the time you have a chance to get back to them they have bought another book. Also note in the description if the book includes a CD or not, also if it has a Infotrac or a Web Access card (typically a postcard inserted in the book with a special code to access additional resources on the web). If the student needs it and you didn't note that it wasn't there in your description, you are asking for bad feedback.

  3. Know the rules of whatever site you are selling on. Some sites allow you to sell instructor's copies or review copies and some (cf. Amazon) don't. Sure, lots of people do list instructor copies on Amazon, but lots of people also get permanently kicked off the site when someone turns them in for doing it. No book is worth that hassle.

  4. Include something like this in your description: "Choose expedited shipping for delivery in 2-3 days. Standard delivery is 4-21 days." Doing so will up by 50% or more the number of students who will pay for the expedited shipping and reduce your chances of receiving negative feedback for slow shipping. And do your best to send the book out the same day if at all possible. Look at it this way - it is only two months a year!

  5. Send the book by Priority Mail even if they don't pay for expedited shipping. I know no one wants to hear this, but it will save you a ton of trouble. I always put a note inside saying, "I upgraded your shipping in case you need this for class." Although students may know way ahead of time what books they need, they usually buy them at the last minute anyway. I have gotten several 5s for this, including one with the comment "thanks, I did need this right away for class". What would I have gotten from him had it arrived 14 days later? You will be amazed at how many textbooks can fit in a Priority mailer for $4.05. Even if they don't, suck it up and pay for the priority shipping anyway. Just mark your price up enough to cover it. I have had students buy a book early in the day, pay for media mail, then email me that they need it tomorrow to do their homework. Generally, most freshmen are buying books online for the first time when they buy textbooks and have no idea what shipping times for media mail are like.

  6. Recognize that older editions do still have a market and don't lowball them. Don't buy a book that is more than one edition behind for resale, but don't leave money on the table by ignoring a 4th edition book just because the 5th was recently published. Textbooks generally change very little between editions, and most professors will use an older edition that there are still plenty of copies of down at the campus bookstore - especially when it means not having to change page numbers on the assignments on their syllabus. (Believe me, I know, I am married to a professor!) A quick glance at the copyright page will usually give you a good idea of how many editions there may be ahead of your copy before you buy it. For example, if you see a copyright date string of "1998, 2000, 2002, 2004," you can be almost certain that a new edition is coming out in 2006.

  7. Don't pass up high school or even elementary textbooks. When Junior loses a textbook at his local school, the school will generally not hand over his report card until he pays for or replaces the book. Guess where Mom and Dad come looking for a replacement? There is good money to be had in reselling these books.

  8. Treat students nicely. I have sold hundreds of textbooks and have yet to have a "scam" situation. Occasionally a student will order the wrong book for a class. I always tell them I will refund their money once they send the book back and I verify that it is in the same condition. (I don't refund shipping if it is their error.) Stuff like this happens more often with textbooks than with other kinds of books, but it is well worth the bother to reap the rewards. Lots of times kids will change classes or mistakenly order the wrong book. There is no ill intent on their part; it is just part of being in college.

    Finally and most importantly:

  9. IGNORE textbooks when re-pricing your books. Although textbooks will sell occasionally year round, the big textbook seasons are in August and January, when semesters begin. Rookie sellers will panic because a book is not selling in October and start dropping prices to ridiculous levels. You have two choices: either buy the books yourself when the price drops low enough for resale or ignore the price drop. Cheap copies will sell off quick, and then they will buy yours. The following cautionary tale definitely applies:

I'm usually pretty good at not low balling textbooks and am happy to price mine high and wait for the cheaper copies to sell off. In July, though, I listed a "like new" textbook at $55 on Amazon because new copies were going for $30 or so. (Amazon sells it for $105.00). There were at least twenty new copies below mine at that point. Well, a mom bought it in August for her daughter for $55 and then 3 weeks later wanted to return it because her daughter claimed the CD that came with it was broken. (The CD was sealed when I sent it.) I did the return for her. She had already left me a 5 in feedback when the book first arrived, so I knew it was not a scam. Unfortunately, the mom shipped it back poorly packaged, and it was now pretty beat up around the edges. So now, instead of a "like new" book, I had a "good" textbook - clean, tight and unmarked but with no CD and dents on the edges. With a big sigh, I went to relist it hoping to recoup at least a little of my money. Guess what the books were going for now? New copies were now starting in the $90 range! So I sold my "good" copy a few days later for $79.99. In other words, for $25 MORE than when it was "like new" a month ago.

Happy Book Selling!

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