The Empirical Bookman

by Jaime Frontero

#102, 3 September 2007

The Hunt: A Gentle Art Expressed ...

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So we want to sell some books, do we? It occurs to me that therefore we'd like to have some of those things on hand. No?

Hmmm. So put yourself here with me, in this paper place we inhabit ... there are books - books all around us. Smell them. Reach out your hand (close your eyes now) and let that paper guide your touch ... it is there! ... one of them is signed! The disturbances in the vibrations of the room are clear. And there! ... a true first! The portents and the aura surrounding it are unmistakable. Just grab it.

Sounds easy, huh?

Oh, sorry - were you lost in thought there? Too bad. Because I'm right behind you, reaching over your shoulder. And I ain't into 'pretty' - I'm into dough. Sucker.

Bugs Bunny - remember? Maybe we'd better back up a little ...

Maybe we'd better back up a lot.

Each of us needs to start with one simple and unarguable concept to define our goal of moving up in the world of bookselling, and the reason for that desire. We will have differences here, but for myself it's easy - I'm lazy. So I came early to the understanding that in order to do better, I must sell better books. Because if there's anything about selling books I hate, it's selling books. Packaging, shipping, display, taking pictures, cataloging, washing windows, HTML, dusting, writing descriptions, juggling different on-line accounts or keeping financial records - I hate all of that with a passion.

For me, it's all about the social and intellectual parts of the trade: the hunt and the research. And I enjoy matching wits head to head with buyers or sellers who have something I want. The rest of it is an annoyance. I was born to do book shows and sell over a glass case. Too bad the money's on the internet.

What about you? So you hit a couple of FOLs every week, and more garage sales in your state than McDonalds has coffee. If the goal is to sell better books, can you achieve that by doing five FOLs and expanding your rounds to three states? Sure, you'll get more sellable books, and you'll sell more of them. But they will be essentially the same books. Will you be able to double the number of books you find, list, sell and ship without doubling the time you spend doing that? Nope. Then will you hire somebody to help so you can double your sales but only increase your profit by 10% or so after paying their salary? Sounds like work - and not very profitable work at that. Let's get this straight right off the bat: The reason to sell better books is that you can sell fewer of them while still making the money you're making now - or that you can make more money by selling as many as you do today. You can keep it a one-person operation. You'll feel better, your acne will disappear, and you'll lose 22 pounds of ugly fat the first week! It's easier.

If you are currently selling books with an average price of $50, that means your range is somewhere around $10 - $150, heavily weighted toward the $10 end with an occasional $300 book every now and then. And you have instinctively figured out that all those $5 books you see in the garages just aren't worth your time. They're not even worth picking up for a quarter to take to some bookstore you know will give you a dollar in trade for them. Really. They're just not.

Look! Over there - see it? There's a $15 book in that box! 15 bucks, all day long. Yup, you've always been able to depend on the garage sales in this neighborhood for a goodly supply of $15 books. Smile at it. Now just keep walking. After some practice, it won't hurt at all. And as long as you're walking on, walk somewhere else. Try a neighborhood with a more aged demographic - someplace where the houses are older than the ticky-tacky built in the boom right after WWII. Did you ever notice that the parts of the country which get decent snowfall in the winter tend to have better books for the finding? Think about that.

Move on. Cull the herd. Set a goal that cannot fail to result in both finding and selling better books. Make that goal an easy one to achieve. What's your cut-off point for listing a book on the internet? $10 is probably the most common. As of next January 1st, make it $20. And the next year, $25. List all the $10 books you have right now - for $5. Get rid of as many as possible before the New Year - they're hurting you. Then, after the 1st, take every book you own that has no expectation of meeting your new target to a used bookstore and trade them in for a few books that are better. If there are some that bookstore won't take, recycle them. Be brutal - and consider the theoretical loss of income as a valuable lesson. But remember that you haven't lost anything real - only theoretical - and what you've really lost is the opportunity to work for close to nothing. Nothing.

Be honest - what do you pay for a $10 book? 2 bucks? A buck? What does it cost you to sell? Lemme see here: cost of goods plus gas plus time spent driving and finding it plus 3 to 5 minutes to scan, name, manipulate and upload the JPEG; then there's 5 to 10 minutes of description, answering e-mails, ABE/Amazon/eBay's cut, PayPal's cut - then wrapping time and materials, gas to the post office, time to the post office, more e-mails ... So what are you making on a $10 book if you sell 50 a week? A couple of bucks an hour? Maybe?

One of my mentors once said to me: "Just about all my heroes are American, and way high up on the list is Willie Sutton." Ah, Willie Sutton, who, when asked why he robbed banks, apocryphally replied: "Because that's where the money is." But Willie's dead now. So's that mentor. And so is the idea of going "where the books are" - if you want to find better books. Perhaps we tend to get trapped by that idea itself, as old and venerable as it is. But whatever level of bookselling you may wish to achieve, you will not do so by finding your books in the same way that you did before.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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