How to Improve Your Bookselling Business in 2013

by Craig Stark

2 January 2013

25 Proven Ideas

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1. Learn Latin.

I bet you weren't expecting this one, but did you know that the majority of early printed books (and many not so early) were in Latin? If English is your only language, you'll be at a distinct disadvantage if you handle books printed in Latin - and almost inevitably you will. One of the best primers I know of is William E. Linney's Getting Started with Latin: Beginning Latin for Homeschoolers and Self-Taught Students of Any Age. This is a remarkably user-friendly book that introduces vocabulary and grammar gradually, in intuitive steps.

Linney also maintains a website with additional free resources, including MP3 files for learning how Latin words are pronounced. And of course there are Latin smartphone and/or tablet apps that can accelerate the process.

Also, it's important for booksellers to learn Latin abbreviations. In the manuscript period preceding the introduction of printed books, abbreviations were often used to conserve paper, speed up what was an unusually laborious process and allow flexibility for producing even margins, and this special "language" was often carried over into printed books. There are many online resources that compile them.

2. Familiarize Yourself with Important Books.

By "important" I mean books that have, historically, maintained an unusually strong and lasting appeal to collectors. This is an especially good example of a hidden barrier that most booksellers never even attempt to hurdle, perhaps because they rationalize that they will never handle these books, at least as first editions, so why bother? I say, bother. You will gain an understanding of exactly what it is that makes them important, and it's this understanding that will illuminate the books you will be handling. They share patterns, that is, and if you can teach yourself to spot them, you can build value into your books via showing your buyers what they are, who will in turn demonstrate their appreciation with their pocketbooks.

One can - and should - study online auction results at top and to some extent middle tier auction houses for this purpose (or their print catalogs), but consulting books that are dedicated to featuring the best and brightest books is perhaps a more efficient means of getting started. Here are several recommended titles:

Printing and the Mind of Man. This book was featured in a recent two-part BookThink series [link].

How to Buy Rare Books: A Practical Guide to the Antiquarian Book Market. This is part of the Christie's Collectors Guides series, and its 60-page, densely illustrated Chapter 2, "Tastes and Trends in Book Collecting," is one of the best introductions to important books I've seen.

Books That Changed America. Robert B. Downs takes on 25 books that have had a profound impact on us, discussing them at a detail level that will give you a solid understanding why they are important.

3. Study These Two Textbooks of Bibliography.

Okay, so this isn't what most of us would call fun, but sooner or later this has to be taken on if you want to advance in this profession. The most often used textbooks in academia (for good reason) are Philip Gaskell's A New Introduction to Bibliography and Fredson Bowers' Principles of Bibliographic Description.

Gaskell is an authoritative, comprehensive textbook, and the only one that addresses modern as well as classic topics in bibliography. It's also dense - that is, inch for inch packed with content, illustrative and textual. Get this first. Approach it deliberately - a few pages a day will do - and you'll get there soon enough.

Bowers is the bible of bibliography but far from a walk in the park. Get through this, and you'll leave 99% of your competitors in the dust. If you want to ease into things some, read the first two chapters of BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling and/or Terry Belanger's essay (Chapter 6) in Jean Peters' Book Collecting: A Modern Guide.

4. Subscribe to One or More Research Services.

I realize that we're talking about spending more than a few bucks for these, but the payoff is substantial. You'll get historical pricing, for one thing - prices books have actually sold for - and in many cases issue points and bibliographic citations that you can use in your own descriptions. Basing your prices on books that haven't sold is not the way to go, ultimately, so this is an important and necessary step to leaving this behind. American Book Prices Current (expensive the first year but far less so when you renew) and Terapeak are two of the most useful.

5. Study the Marketplace.

Research tools won't help you unless you use them often to enhance the study what's going on in the marketplace. One of the more painless and instructive methods for doing this is to buy inventory online because you will be continuously researching books that you're considering bidding on or buying against what they have previously sold for. BookThink's popular series, "How to Buy Inventory Online," shows how it's done.

6. Build, Build, Build Your Reference Library.

This is a career-long activity that should never stop. Chapter 11 in BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling introduces many of the first books, including some of the classics, that should be acquired. Also, G. Thomas Tanselle's Introduction to Bibliography is an invaluable aid for pointing booksellers to the wealth of material available

as is Joseph Rosenblum's A Bibliographic History of the Book.

Additionally, begin the process of acquiring dedicated author bibliographies, many of which are listed in Appendix A of Allen and Patricia Ahern's Collected Books.

7. Rent a Bookcase at an Antique Mall.

I'm not suggesting this because you'll make a killing - some booksellers do okay - or suggesting that you do it for more than a year or so, but it's a very effective learning tool. Many mall owners will rent you shelf space for a modest amount, and as you observe what sells and what doesn't over time, you'll develop a good instinct for what to bring to buyers in online venues, especially those bread-and-butter titles that we sell time and time again because they are both desirable and common. By the way, many of these $30 and up titles are featured in BookThink's 50/50. And don't forget to leave a stack of Cash-for-Books business cards on one of the shelves.

8. Cull Your Inventory.

This long dead horse has been beaten many times over at BookThink, but please, stop selling low-dollar books. Beginning booksellers can perhaps justify this at first as a sort of apprenticeship, but do leave it behind as soon as possible. It's all about ASP's, guys, the average selling prices that will all but determine what you'll take to the bank. You can do this in stages. Pick a ground floor price of, say, $10, and cull all books priced under that from your inventory. This immediately raises your ASP. A year or so later, pick a higher price and do the same thing. This all but guarantees that your income will rise over time.

9. Group Your Culls, If Possible, into Lots.

Before you toss your culls, consider grouping them into intuitive lots, if possible, and selling them at or above your new ground floor price.

10. Start a Soft Liquidation of Your Commodity Books with an eBay Store.

In addition to culling inventory and raising your ASP, it's essential that you begin what I call a soft liquidation of your commodity books - that is, those books that have value primarily on the basis of their content, as opposed to antiquarian books, which have value primarily on the basis of their appeal as collectible objects. The distinction is important because the value of commodity books will almost inevitably head south; whereas the value of antiquarian books is far more likely to head north. This is a long term strategy for success. By "soft liquidation" I mean get these out the door before they lose their value - and they will - by pricing them slightly below competing copies. eBay makes this very easy to do with two tools - Best Offer and Markdown Manager - but you'll need to open a Store to take advantage of the latter tool.

11. Add Photos to Your Listings.

All major venues now encourage this - and eBay requires it - for a very good reason: They know it increases sales. Traditional booksellers who have sold books on the basis of textual descriptions alone, perhaps for decades, may be slow to come to this party, but trust is such a huge issue in e-commerce that anything we can do to build it will help the cause. This is one of the best means. If your photographic skills could use some improvement, here is a free BookThink tutorial.

12. Learn HTML.

Much easier to master than Latin, I promise, and yet the payoff is potentially big. This is a powerful tool for upgrading your presentations, preparing ad copy, building a website and more. Here is a great online resource for learning it, and CoffeeCup HTML Editor is an excellent application for speeding up HTML-based design.

13. Design a Professional HTML Ad and Run It on craigslist.

There are two great things about craigslist: It's free, and there's a lot of traffic. Running a regular text ad soliciting books, etc., will work okay, but running an HTML ad will enhance your legitimacy - build that all-important trust and pay off better over time.

14. Install a Reader and Set Up craigslist Feeds.

Speaking of using craigslist as a tool for inventory acquisition, I strongly advise you to set up an automatic search system that will periodically identify the ads that will most likely lead you to the books you're looking for. This involves setting up feeds that will load into a reader - a process that's explained in detail in issue #59 of BookThink's Gold Edition here.

15. Build a Website.

Compared to what you pay in fees to bookselling venues, building and maintaining your own bookselling website is cheaper by a mile. And you don't have to be an expert to do it yourself. There are many templates and tutorials out available. Expect sales to be modest at first, but if you add content regularly over time, traffic and sales will increase.

16. Sell on More Venues.

There are several viable venues that cost you nothing at all in fees (or next to nothing) unless something sells - Alibris (there is a modest annual fee if you maintain an inventory of less than 1,000 books), Amazon and Biblio, to name several. If you aren't already selling on all of these venues, why not? Only one thing can happen if you do: You'll get more sales.

17. Subscribe to an Inventory Management Service.

This could be the best investment some of you make this year. In addition to auto-removing books that sell on one venue from other venues, these services streamline the listing process, eep track of expenses, reprice your books, and offer numerous additional tools that will help you organize your business and maintain firm control over it. The Art of Books and FillZ are two strong players in this market.

18. Learn a Spreadsheet Application.

Few tools are more powerful than this for inventory management, doing taxes and the many other things associated with being self-employed. Time will be saved by the boatload. And most venues now offer monthly / quarterly / annual reports in formats that can be opened directly in Excel, Numbers and other spreadsheet applications. Easy to learn, and you'll be glad you did.

19. Stop Worrying: Learn How to Do Your Taxes

If you've been doing your own taxes and yet praying each time you send them out that you won't be audited - and penalized - perhaps it's because you don't really know what you're doing. To avoid trouble and gain peace of mind, I recommend one of two things - get an accountant or take the time to learn how to do them yourself. There are many tax classes for small businesses offered across the country, also no shortage of how-to books. Simon Elisha's Taxes for Online Sellers: A How-To Guide for Individuals on Federal Tax for Internet Sales is an unusually clear and detailed primer.

20. Get legit.

While you're at it, if a business license is required in your area, get one, also a sales tax number. This will add a layer of legitimacy to what you do - and make you feel better, more serous about what you do - keep you out of trouble, and save you money when purchasing inventory.

21. Print Business Cards.

This is old school, but networking, which includes passing out business cards at every opportunity, is still very effective. Opportunities for acquiring good inventory will multiply as you hand out business cards to dealers, estate sale liquidators, lawyers, real estate agents and more.

22. Buy Some Magnetic Cash-for-Books Signs and Put Them on Your Vehicle.

I don't do this myself, but I know another bookseller who does. Because of this, she gets calls I don't.

23. Take the Plunge: Get a Smartphone.

I've seen more smartphones out there recently, but surprisingly, many of you still go without. And it's difficult to exaggerate their importance when real money is on the line at an auction or sale. If you're put off by the cost, there are now some reasonable plans out there, and plenty of used smartphones in the secondary marketplace. Also, there are several vendors who offer a dedicated data plan - that is, you pay for and use your phone for web access only at $20 or $30 a month. Expect to see this type of service grow and become even more competitively priced.

24. Participate in Bookselling Forums.

The familiar maxim, "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach," doesn't apply to bookselling. The most successful booksellers are often the best teachers. This is not a coincidence. Participating in forums in a teaching frame of mind is one of the best means of teaching yourself about bookselling. For one thing, it reinforces and often clarifies what you already know; for another, it presents opportunities for learning what you don't know - that is, when somebody asks a question you don't know the answer to, and instead of waiting for somebody else to answer it, you find out. Do this for a few years, and you'll be surprised at how much you'll learn. BookThink's forum was recently re-launched and can be accessed here.

25. Subscribe to BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling.

BookThink's content is based on years of experience in bookselling and is largely based on principles instead of perishable content. Most of our products are durable, therefore, and if material does become dated, it's periodically updated. In addition to our Guide, we offer many reports and report packages that can help you grow your business.

Best of luck in 2013!

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