Bookselling Research

by Craig Stark

#121, 26 May 2008

A Brief Guide to the Guides

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Time and time again I've urged booksellers to take the time to do dedicated bookselling research - and by this I mean that you take an hour out of your day here, a few hours out of another day there, etc., and do absolutely nothing but learn this crazy, ever-changing market. Unfortunately, most booksellers seem much more content to learn by doing - that is, they buy some books, take them home and research them, list the ones that seem likely to deliver a profit, and somehow dispose of the rest. If one of them sells, they'll likely recall it and look for it again. In the course of doing this, they do indeed learn at least something about what sells and what doesn't, but it could take years to build up a substantial body of knowledge using this system (something I call learning by osmosis), and even then, given the volatility of book values, much of this knowledge would obsolesce.

It's a lot more work to do dedicated research, but the breadth and depth of knowledge you'll take away from it will quickly set you apart from other booksellers, most of whom can't be bothered with it - and set you on a path that will greatly increase your chances of succeeding in this business.

But how do you go about this exactly? Typical forum advice suggests searching closed/sold eBay auctions by price, say, at $20 and up, or, if you have a specialty in mind, also searching by category. Fine as far as it goes, but this won't help you understand the market much because you'll end up with nothing but a list of titles and prices and have no clue whether or not you'll be likely to find any of them when scouting, let alone understand why they have value.

The all-important "why" is the basis of BookThink's concept of flashpoints - or value indicators. These indicators can be any number of things - a publisher, an author's name, a binding type, and so on - but whatever they are, as you begin to build your knowledge of them, your overall knowledge of the market will grow exponentially because a single flashpoint can often point to many thousands of additional books that also have value.

Needless to say, there are many, many approaches to research, but today I'm going to discuss one that's worked unusually well for me.

First, let's suppose that heretofore you've been a generalist bookseller, have been struggling some lately (as lots of generalists have), and have come to the conclusion that specializing in a niche might be a better way to go, might even be what you'd need to do to survive in this business - and I think you'd be right. Let's face it, a generalist dealer, by definition, can know a little about a lot of things but rarely a lot about anything, and since it's your knowledge that's ultimately going to fuel your success, set you apart from other booksellers, win the trust and loyalty of buyers, etc., it just makes sense to narrow your focus. And I bet each of you generalist booksellers already know what you'd love to specialize in. The passion is already there, right? Of course it is. You don't just love books generally; you love certain types of books.

Maybe field guides? Nah, probably not, but let's suppose that this is indeed what you'd like to specialize in. Let's also suppose that, though you loved reading and collecting field guides as a child, perhaps some Golden Guides or Petersons, you don't really have a good working knowledge of the niche. You need, therefore, some major help.

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