The State of Bookselling, 2023

by Craig Stark

31 January 2023

Still Profiting From Other Booksellers

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By Craig Stark

I've been selling books since the late 1990's. Most of it has been online, though, like almost every other bookseller I know, I once experimented with renting space in an antique mall. Without resounding success, by the way. I've sold books on many different venues, some now long gone and forgotten, and I continue to do so - at present on five different venues, all of which have been doing business for many years. This is sort of funny, I think. Lots of new bookselling venues have popped up in the intervening years, but not much has stuck. The difficulty, it seems, isn't so much finding sellers to list their stuff as it is to find buyers to buy it. Traffic. And of course, there are challenges unique to bookselling that militate against designing a successful venue. It's both complicated and complex. Just look at the mess Amazon has made trying over and over again to fit square pegs into a round holes. I've also consigned a lot of material with auction houses and will continue to do so. Nothing new here, but again, these are venues that have been established for years.

What has changed, I'd say dramatically, is how I acquire inventory. Early on, I bought much of it at sales - estate sales, mostly - but also garage sales, thrift stores, occasionally FOL sales, etc. Oh - and bookstores. You could do that at one time, before most of them became computer driven. And more savvy. Gradually, as I established more and more contacts, I was invited to pre-shop estate sales and go on house calls. In the circle of dealers I ran in, this was generally accepted among your peers that you had arrived. You were known. You were trusted. And you had expertise. This often meant that you got your foot in the door first with little or no competition - and got a wide open shot at the good stuff. It also meant flagging valuable material for liquidators and paying finder's fees.

But a forced move four years ago wiped all of that out. At first I worked some to re-establish contacts in the area I moved to, but it's a slow process anywhere you go, and then - then the pandemic arrived. If I was going to continue in bookselling, I knew that I had to plant my ass in a chair in front of my computer and buy online. Fortunately, I'd been doing some of this for many years and had enough experience to make things happen. And thanks to advances in technology, it's so, so much easier to do now. You may have noticed.

There's at least some good bookselling news for me now: Print books continue to sell robustly, collectible books especially. Of course, the goalposts are forever moving in the collectibles market. It's always true that a percentage of collectible books have what I would call durable value, but even among these, prices continuously fluctuate.

Even if you don't sell books, it's something of an eye-opener to look up prices on historical pricing databases (which I highly recommend doing). In many cases, certainly, prices drift down over the years, in fewer cases up, but what's always encouraging to me, if not somewhat astonishing, is how much spread in outcomes there remains for copies of books sold more or less contemporaneously in a similar condition and state. If we're antiquarian booksellers (booksellers who sell books for primarily collectible, not consumable value), this "spread" is often where most of our profit is because we can bring our know-how to the table. I've often said, "Give 10 booksellers identical copies of a book to sell, and there will be 10 different outcomes." It was true when we founded BookThink in 2003, and it's true now, 20 years later. More true, I'd say. The bottom line is that, partly because of this spread, not to mention recent technological advances, you can do this bookselling biz just about anywhere; geographical limitations have all but vanished.

Personally - and despite the fact that the pandemic has eased up - I don't venture out to buy books much anymore, even though I now live in an area richly populated with them. I shop almost exclusively online. There are many advantages to this. Perhaps the biggest advantage is that you have the luxury of seriously evaluating material, taking as much time as you like, before bidding on or buying anything, all but eliminating bad buys. And if things don't work out with sellers, return policies are often generous - and enforced by most venues. Another advantage is that you can buy books every day, at any hour of any day without leaving home, not just when or where opportunities arise. With a judicious use of filters and other tactics, you can shop much more efficiently, investigate books that present more potential for profit without plodding through endless junk. I spend about two to four hours a day shopping online now and look at far more books than I ever did when I bought books in the wild - and the books themselves are of consistently higher quality. I do miss the comradery of interacting with other sellers at sales, but shopping in the wild necessarily involves the expense of traveling and many hours of time waiting in lines, searching through mostly garbage once inside, rushing from sale to sale, struggling to beat other competitors to the punch and so on. And lifting and lifting and lifting. In order for this home-based stuff to work, of course, there must be at least a potential spread in outcomes, and there's no substitute for knowledge when taking advantage of this.

Which brings me to other booksellers. And this is the curious part. Maybe it was naïve of me to expect that, in the early 2000's, what was mostly wild west bookselling would gradually evolve into something more professional - that competition would weed out many amateurs over time, leaving primarily booksellers who actually took the trouble to learn the trade and get paid consistently in kind. My gosh, there are so many educational resources in place either online or available for purchase now that were nowhere to be found years ago. There are no secrets to success in bookselling anymore. It's all waiting for you on a silver platter. Which is not to say that it's easy. Some learning happens by osmosis simply by participating in the process of buying and selling. But a heck of a lot of knowledge can only be had by deliberate study via hard work - still. That's what, more than ever, separates the amateurs from the professionals, and I would add that a good print reference library remains essential in this pursuit because so much isn't yet available online.

Despite the wide accessibility of bookselling knowledge, the state of bookselling today, if anything, is less professional overall than it has ever been. Professional, I mean, in the sense that bookselling is accomplished as a trade and not a widget-driven exercise in flipping. Take eBay. I still buy some inventory there. I still resell a lot of what I buy there on eBay. That much hasn't changed in several decades for me. What has changed is the percentage of booksellers who know what they're doing. Or seem to care much, really. It might seem counterintuitive to say this, but on eBay I do depend on amateur sellers to supply at least some inventory.

I can't tell you how many times I come across listings with numerous, mostly unedited photos and yet lack the very photo that would tell me what I most need to know about the book, say, one that showed a copyright or title page. This could be deliberate misdirection or devious non-disclosure, of course, but I have to believe it's most often a matter of simply not knowing what's important and what isn't, if not wanting to take the trouble. Which brings me to sellers who don't even write descriptions anymore; they snap photos with a disclaimer that their photos are their descriptions and, yes, it's your responsibility to ask questions if something isn't clear. Remember this statement and consider its impact on sales outcomes: The burden of evaluating what's offered for sale is subtly transferred to the buyer. Here's the thinking: "So, dude, you don't see what you need to see in my photos? Ask questions. Implication: Then, then, if you don't get what you thought you were getting, it's your fault." And no surprise, there are so many sellers who don't "accept" returns now. Fortunately, eBay (and most other venues) will force a return if you can establish that the listing in question didn't match the description. And the bar of establishing this is pretty low. These returns are usually preceded by a seller's assertion that something is a first edition but in fact isn't. Or it's described as "Very Good" and turns out to have one or more fatal flaws. Easy. What's a pain in the ass, however, is having to return 15% to 25% of what I buy.

Other issues abound, but the sense I get now is that almost everybody is in a hurry to flip junk. Patience is hardly the rule of the day, even on the sourcing side of things. Scouting tools are more sophisticated than ever, and resources like historical pricing more available than ever, wherever you are. As time marches on, a greater and greater percentage of books in the wild will possess bar codes. With a few tutorials, a seller of virtually anything produced, books or not, in the past 40 or 50 years can be up and running - and making some money - in a matter of a few weeks. No apprenticeship necessary, thank you. It's become nothing but a numbers game for many.

Granted, there are some things in place now that militate against making worthwhile money that weren't in play when I first started. In the 1990's and early 2000's there were still plenty of open shop bookstores that operated on seat-of-the-pants pricing and didn't bother to investigate things online, let alone have the means to do so. And thrift shops? They were something of a gold mine once. I haven't darkened many thrift shop doors in recent memory, but I suspect that there aren't many of them now that don't pre-scan much of their donations and market the more valuable items online, where better outcomes can be realized. It makes perfect sense. We can't begrudge them. Technology ever advances and becomes ever more efficient, and those at the top of the sourcing pyramid reap the most benefits - until they themselves are replaced. Oh - and one more thing: The competition among fellow sellers has only increased.

Human nature doesn't change much, I guess. It's still the easy stuff that most pursue, and when one easy thing goes away - and you can bet the farm it will - one looks for a new easy thing. And so on. In my mind this spells one thing: burnout. This is because, in order to keep an easy thing alive, one must focus on increasing things like efficiency, turnover, handling speed, etc., until you just can't compete anymore. Then it's on to the next - if you can find something "next" at all. And throughout this entire process of endless sourcing, listing, packing and shipping how much learning is happening? How much teaching, for that matter? Flipping is what's happening, days packed with nothing more than busy work. The goal for many isn't to work smarter; it's to work more. To this end one concludes that, to make more money, inventories have to be increased. That's the calculation, right? Those with the largest inventories make the most money? Those gaylords of books become more and more appealing, not to mention technology that hastens their processing.

The thing is, in my observation, fewer booksellers are doing the job of bookselling than ever before. What is that job? Exploiting the spread. No matter if you're buying from other booksellers, estate liquidators, auction houses, etc., it just doesn't matter as long as you exploit the spread. How does this happen? For one thing, you buy often from sources that don't put forth the effort to add value to books. How do you add value to books? You teach. You show potential buyers why what you're selling has value. And as long as there aren't a million competing copies in the marketplace and your copy is at least somewhat uncommon, you can teach for profit.

In fairness, photos potentially help teach, but you can't teach with them if they're not the right photos, and even if they are, if they're naked, without an accompanying description, things get lost or overlooked or worse, mistrusted. In early years I maintained a list of clueless sellers who perhaps unwittingly obtained good inventory with some consistency. Today, a list has become totally unnecessary because these sellers are the rule, not the exception. What's happening here? Why can't so many booksellers not be bothered by crafting a clear and complete description? Sadly, many can't even be bothered with supplying basic bibliographic information like - I don't know - how many pages does the book have?

Inevitably, we're in phase of bookselling now that will evolve into something different, and I for one have no crystal ball to see what that will be or even whether or not bookselling becomes moribund. What I do know is that we're living in a time when many of us are looking for alternative means of making a living, and this trade could still be your answer.

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