Five Reasons to Think Twice
About Listing a Book

by Craig Stark

30 August 2015

Restraint Can Be Your Ticket to Better Outcomes

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When is the last time you heard another bookseller complain about not having enough books to list? When is the last time you complained about it? Never? If anything, the story is more likely to be, "I have all of these darn books I haven't listed yet, and I keep buying more." And, so often, the spouse is complaining that books are taking over the house.

Like any other business, bookselling is a numbers game, but which numbers are we talking about? There is a natural inclination for booksellers new to the game to think that listing more and more, building an inventory to a certain thousands-strong level, will somehow ensure that a satisfactory income will result - and their buying habits, of course, support this. The truth is that bookselling venues are awash in low-dollar, largely unsalable books listed by sellers who operate on the assumption that book selection takes a back seat to getting stuff listed, no matter what it is, and the money will somehow take care of itself. These aren't the numbers I pay attention to.

I have a question to pose: If you knew that the last book you listed will never sell in your lifetime, how would you feel? I concede that the process of listing some books can be an educational experience in itself, and if this is the case, okay, time well spent. But how often is it? A more specific question: If you knew that only five or ten of the last hundred books you listed would sell in your lifetime, how would you feel? I don't know about you, but I'd be thinking long and hard about the criteria I was using for listing books, not to mention buying them. Time is too precious not to.

One more question: If it took you ten minutes to list a book you paid a buck for, and you knew it would never sell, what would be the bigger loss? The buck or the ten minutes? I'd come down on the ten minutes every time. You may get the buck back, but you'll never get the time back.

There's a certain poignancy in this. Also a lesson. From Thoreau's Walden:

Not long since, a strolling Indian went to sell baskets at the house of a well-known lawyer in my neighborhood. "Do you wish to buy any baskets?" he asked. "No, we do not want any," was the reply. "What!" exclaimed the Indian as he went out the gate, "do you mean to starve us?" Having seen his industrious white neighbors so well off-that the lawyer had only to weave arguments, and, by some magic, wealth and standing followed-he had said to himself: I will go into business; I will weave baskets; it is a thing which I can do. Thinking that when he had made the baskets he would have done his part, and then it would be the white man's to buy them. He had not discovered that it was necessary for him to make it worth the other's while to buy them, or at least make him think that it was so, or to make something else which it would be worth his while to buy.

So here is a short list of reasons not to list a book. Who knows? It might help take a 5/100 bookseller to a 50/100 or better bookseller. I like the latter number a lot better.

Low Value

You knew this would be first. Somebody famously made the case once that - on average - if you sell books online at an ASP of $10 that you paid a buck for, you'll do no better than break even. At first glance this doesn't seem right, but this is factoring in all expenses, direct and indirect - and don't forget about the lawn guy and every other person or thing you buy time from. I've seen the math. I believe it. And this is assuming that every book you list will sell.

Poor Condition

There is a bookseller who posts often on the Abebooks' Bookseller Forum who makes the case for listing modern or hypermodern First Editions at $15 or so that seemingly, if one investigates what other copies are being listed at, have little or no value. Seems like a low bar to me, but she sells a lot of them, and her methodology is to select only copies in F/F condition and describe them in enough detail to separate her listings from the pack. It's a trust thing. Obviously, most if not all of the lower-priced copies are either in less desirable condition or are so poorly or under described as to leave doubt as to what's going on.

Condition lives on something of a sliding scale, of course. As books age, condition inevitably worsens, and things like scarcity may come into play and trump poor condition. To some extent. But if you've already got a book in hand and are thinking about listing it, consider its condition carefully compared to what else is out there (and for how much), and if it falls short, especially if will be competing against many copies, better one moment tossing it into the can than ten minutes gone forever.


A missing leaf or two in a 15th century book isn't a deal breaker; it's difficult to imagine how it wouldn't be in a 21st century book, even if it's a blank leaf. And it's not enough to examine pagination for completeness; illustrative content is often not paginated. Plates will detach - or be detached - over time, and maps will fall out of pockets. A front free endpaper might be excised when it's deaccessioned from a library. It happens a lot, and I speak from experience. When I buy books online that are mis-described and have to return them, more often than not it's due to incompleteness. Always examine a book for completeness, and know that rarely is it worthwhile listing one that isn't complete.

Low Demand

It's relatively easy to assess demand of high profile books; there will be plenty of historical comps to work with. But if you're looking at an obscure book with no other copies listed, seemingly no comps of sold copies and in some cases no copies showing in the WorldCat database, it's more difficult. In these cases the book itself needs to be examined on its merit as a book. Is it something anybody would want? Why? Does it have useful historical content? Appealing illustrative content? An important signature? Etc. If there are no apparent redeeming qualities, why list it?

To some extent all books should be evaluated on this same basis because, especially in the absence of historical comps, prices of other unsold copies don't always tell the tale. I use a SKU system that has given me a valuable education on this. The first book I ever listed I assigned a SKU of 000001 to. The second book 000002. And so on. Over time an interesting phenomenon occurred. Unsalable books unerringly migrated to the first aisle and upper shelves of my shelving. They're all there, beautifully organized, in all their glory. Almost none of them are common books; almost all of them are obscure books with little or no demand. When deciding whether or not to list something, remember Thoreau's Indian baskets.

Too Many Competing Copies

When I buy books online for resale, one of the key factors I consider is how many competing copies there are. Example: If I'm looking at a book I think I can buy on eBay for $25, and there are a dozen copies listed elsewhere for an average price of $100, more often than not - in the absence of exceptional circumstances - I'll pass on it. The mere fact that there are many competing copies usually implies several things, none of which are good. Take two. One, there is almost certainly a built-in market momentum that exerts a downward pressure on prices, and it's likely that the $100 average price will soon be lower. And two, if those copies were moving quickly at a $100 price, there wouldn't be a dozen of them - and in this sense it becomes a low-demand issue as well.

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