Bookselling in the 21st Century

by Craig Stark

5 October 2009

Part IV: Identifying Books
That Need to Be Liquidated Immediately

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No doubt many of you have already lowered prices some in an attempt to ride out what we're now calling the Great Recession, and I believe that this is a necessary strategy for many of us. But I also believe that, as we work our way into the digital era, at least some print books have already or will soon become near impossible to sell to anybody for any amount. What this suggests to me is that, while lowering prices on one's books generally will boost sales in the near future, something more dramatic may need to happen to at least a portion of our inventories. There are some books that will need to be liquidated as soon as possible - and in almost all cases these fall under the umbrella of commodity books, those purchased for content, as opposed to antiquarian (or collected) books.

So, if liquidation is to be entertained as a strategy, how do we know if a book needs to be liquidated? And, assuming we do know, what is the most effective means of liquidation? I'll address the first question in this article and the second in Part V.

Liquidate Low-Dollar Books

First and foremost - and perhaps most obviously - books with little or no value have got to head out the door. If you're going to compete effectively in the coming years, you'll need to somehow distance yourself from the competition. Selling low-dollar books will ensure that you won't.

Two primary reasons:

First, if you continue to sell low-dollar books, you'll put yourself in a position that will make it impossible to outpace your competition. Most booksellers sell low-dollar books because they're easy to find and require next to no knowledge to market. In turn, if you're looking for meaningful income, you'll have to sell a ton of these things to make anything happen. Consequently, your days will be spent almost entirely performing mundane tasks. Even if you wanted to study, do research, etc., to increase your knowledge of bookselling - something that would help you outpace your competition - there will be little or no time available for it.

Second, the very books you're selling for $1, $2 or $5 today will be the very first to lose their value outright tomorrow. Why wait for that happen?

An aside: I'm not suggesting that you dispose of these books necessarily. There may still be some opportunities to make a worthwhile return on them. More about this in Part V.

Liquidate Underperforming Books

For years I've recommended using some sort of sequential SKU system for organizing inventories. In its simplest form, this entails assigning the number 1 (or 00001 or something) to the first book you list, 2 to the second, and so on. The reason I'm a fan of this system is that it's brutally consistent at reminding you, again and again, of exactly where you've gone wrong - and negative knowledge, in my opinion, is so often more useful than positive because it exposes. (Positive knowledge has a tendency to cloak.) All one needs to do is stand in front of the first bookcase in your shop to see the awful truth.

The last time I did this I found some Polish-language books on my top shelf. They had been listed for over two years, and despite the fact that they were visible on several European venues and had been priced competitively, despite the fact that I had purchased them on the basis of what I considered to be fairly significant flashpoints, there they sat. Maybe you know how to sell Polish-language books, but I've faced up to the realization that, unless I come across something that screams, "Buy me!" in Polish, it just ain't my gig - and I've summarily exited this market sector.

Now, I'm not recommending that you yank everything that's on that first bookcase, but assuming that these aren't low-dollar books, it's certainly worth the trouble to take each one of them in hand and attempt to puzzle out (or do some research into) why they haven't sold. There are many possible reasons. If you come to the conclusion, however, that the reason is that nobody would buy them at any price, you'll know what to do.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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