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The Empirical Bookman

The Hunt: A Gentle Art Expressed

by Jaime Frontero

#102, 3 September 2007

So we want to sell some books, do we? It occurs to me that therefore we'd like to have some of those things on hand. No?

Hmmm. So put yourself here with me, in this paper place we inhabit ... there are books - books all around us. Smell them. Reach out your hand (close your eyes now) and let that paper guide your touch ... it is there! ... one of them is signed! The disturbances in the vibrations of the room are clear. And there! ... a true first! The portents and the aura surrounding it are unmistakable. Just grab it.

Sounds easy, huh?

Oh, sorry - were you lost in thought there? Too bad. Because I'm right behind you, reaching over your shoulder. And I ain't into 'pretty' - I'm into dough. Sucker.

Bugs Bunny - remember? Maybe we'd better back up a little ...

Maybe we'd better back up a lot.

Each of us needs to start with one simple and unarguable concept to define our goal of moving up in the world of bookselling, and the reason for that desire. We will have differences here, but for myself it's easy - I'm lazy. So I came early to the understanding that in order to do better, I must sell better books. Because if there's anything about selling books I hate, it's selling books. Packaging, shipping, display, taking pictures, cataloging, washing windows, HTML, dusting, writing descriptions, juggling different on-line accounts or keeping financial records - I hate all of that with a passion.

For me, it's all about the social and intellectual parts of the trade: the hunt and the research. And I enjoy matching wits head to head with buyers or sellers who have something I want. The rest of it is an annoyance. I was born to do book shows and sell over a glass case. Too bad the money's on the internet.

What about you? So you hit a couple of FOLs every week, and more garage sales in your state than McDonalds has coffee. If the goal is to sell better books, can you achieve that by doing five FOLs and expanding your rounds to three states? Sure, you'll get more sellable books, and you'll sell more of them. But they will be essentially the same books. Will you be able to double the number of books you find, list, sell and ship without doubling the time you spend doing that? Nope. Then will you hire somebody to help so you can double your sales but only increase your profit by 10% or so after paying their salary? Sounds like work - and not very profitable work at that. Let's get this straight right off the bat: The reason to sell better books is that you can sell fewer of them while still making the money you're making now - or that you can make more money by selling as many as you do today. You can keep it a one-person operation. You'll feel better, your acne will disappear, and you'll lose 22 pounds of ugly fat the first week! It's easier.

If you are currently selling books with an average price of $50, that means your range is somewhere around $10 - $150, heavily weighted toward the $10 end with an occasional $300 book every now and then. And you have instinctively figured out that all those $5 books you see in the garages just aren't worth your time. They're not even worth picking up for a quarter to take to some bookstore you know will give you a dollar in trade for them. Really. They're just not.

Look! Over there - see it? There's a $15 book in that box! 15 bucks, all day long. Yup, you've always been able to depend on the garage sales in this neighborhood for a goodly supply of $15 books. Smile at it. Now just keep walking. After some practice, it won't hurt at all. And as long as you're walking on, walk somewhere else. Try a neighborhood with a more aged demographic - someplace where the houses are older than the ticky-tacky built in the boom right after WWII. Did you ever notice that the parts of the country which get decent snowfall in the winter tend to have better books for the finding? Think about that.

Move on. Cull the herd. Set a goal that cannot fail to result in both finding and selling better books. Make that goal an easy one to achieve. What's your cut-off point for listing a book on the internet? $10 is probably the most common. As of next January 1st, make it $20. And the next year, $25. List all the $10 books you have right now - for $5. Get rid of as many as possible before the New Year - they're hurting you. Then, after the 1st, take every book you own that has no expectation of meeting your new target to a used bookstore and trade them in for a few books that are better. If there are some that bookstore won't take, recycle them. Be brutal - and consider the theoretical loss of income as a valuable lesson. But remember that you haven't lost anything real - only theoretical - and what you've really lost is the opportunity to work for close to nothing. Nothing.

Be honest - what do you pay for a $10 book? 2 bucks? A buck? What does it cost you to sell? Lemme see here: cost of goods plus gas plus time spent driving and finding it plus 3 to 5 minutes to scan, name, manipulate and upload the JPEG; then there's 5 to 10 minutes of description, answering e-mails, ABE/Amazon/eBay's cut, PayPal's cut - then wrapping time and materials, gas to the post office, time to the post office, more e-mails ... So what are you making on a $10 book if you sell 50 a week? A couple of bucks an hour? Maybe?

One of my mentors once said to me: "Just about all my heroes are American, and way high up on the list is Willie Sutton." Ah, Willie Sutton, who, when asked why he robbed banks, apocryphally replied: "Because that's where the money is." But Willie's dead now. So's that mentor. And so is the idea of going "where the books are" - if you want to find better books. Perhaps we tend to get trapped by that idea itself, as old and venerable as it is. But whatever level of bookselling you may wish to achieve, you will not do so by finding your books in the same way that you did before.

Ignoring money for a moment, it might be helpful to consider that there are just two types of books in the hands of those people who have the ones we want: the books they value, and the ones they don't. Those are also two entirely different kinds of people, aren't they? Any time you go looking where the books are and where they are valued - estate sales, FOLs, auctions, bookstores, antique malls, and even garage sales - the competition will be fierce, you will pay more, and you will do exactly as well as your knowledge of books allows. You won't have the time to learn, either. Of course, at some point in your career you have to accept the idea that finding customers is as important as finding books - and the more expensive the book, the more important the customer becomes. But that worry is usually later in a bookseller's career - much later, now that we have the internet. Those are 5-figure books and up, and that's actually not the most difficult level to get to. It's almost inevitable, actually.

No, the hardest level to break in bookselling is the $500 - $1,000 mark. If you can consistently find and sell those books you've pretty much got it licked. But where do we find them?

Well, if you stop to think that you're not doing much better (or doing too much differently) than you were last week or last year, perhaps looking for these books "where they are" is the wrong approach. Maybe we should look where they aren't. Hmmm - no that doesn't work ... I know! Instead of trying to find them, why don't we arrange for those books to find us? Consider: There are probably more than 100 million dwellings in the United States, but at last count there were only 117,378 libraries (Google is your friend ...). 2.4 million people die in this country every year, and yet fewer than 3% of their inheritors have the need, experience or wherewithal to even consider an estate sale or auction. What happens to all those books (and keep in mind there isn't one dwelling in the country that doesn't have books inside of it)?

Also, somewhere around another million people "downsize" in their golden years, moving from large, single-family dwellings into condos, assisted-living environments, hospices and the like. As they downsize their possessions, the first to go are always the books. Books are disposable. And the people who dispose of them are seldom their owners; they're more likely to be relatives, concerned only with weight, time and convenience.

Death and downsizing are the great movers of books. Nothing else is even close to the scores of millions of books those two circumstances churn every year, in our country. And these are precisely the books we want. They have been off the market for 30 to 50 years, they've been cared for by a single person, they are easy to evaluate because that person's taste and preferences are instantly apparent to the practiced eye, and they are almost all of them books of the type discussed above - the kind that are not valued. So, they are cheap. Or free.

So what happens to these books? Well, take 60% off the top just to start with - they get trashed immediately. Pitiful, ain't it (but don't give up on them quite yet)? Some are picked over by relatives looking for something to read, grace their shelves, or serve as a memento. Most of the rest go into boxes in a basement, eventually meeting one of three fates: they get taken to the local used bookstore and sold, they are picked over one last time and then sold or recycled, or they turn into a damp moldy mush and are likewise fed to the landfills.

But more to the point - how do we get our hands on them? OK, this gets complicated, and perhaps sometime later a more interactive Forum thread about it might have value, but the point of view behind it can be explained by example. And in passing, may I note that there really aren't too many secrets worth keeping in our world. We're actually better off helping each other out than trying to hide relevant truths from each other. There's a difference between getting there first and sending the other guy over a washed out bridge. It's a small world ...

I know this guy. He's dirty, and maybe one step away from being arrested for vagrancy - and frankly, I have my doubts as to his complete grasp of the written word. He works for a mortgage company with a real estate arm that specializes in abandoned and foreclosed properties. He goes into homes, condos and even commercial properties, and cleans them out. The real estate firm that employs him doesn't pay him very much, but they make it clear the stuff he removes doesn't matter. They just want it to go away so they can send in the carpenters and the painters. I get all his books. Somebody else gets the furniture, someone else the technology, the vinyl, the bric-a-brac and so on. I pay him well, and I've spent awhile training him to do a reasonably competent first sort based not on authors or titles, but on binding, heft and prettiness. He does good.

I know a woman - a true Bookman who spent the first 20 years of her conscious life more devoted to the trade than anyone I've ever known - and who, at the age of 32, took employment as a sorter for a paper recycling company. Sometimes we'd go out for a beer after work, and she'd pull a book out of her purse ... It took her a bit under 3 years to accumulate almost a million dollars worth of stock that you could fit in a pickup truck.

A few years ago I ran across a guy who traveled from small town to small town in the Midwest, just behind the ads he put in the tiny local papers: "Downsizing? Emptying out a house, and don't want to pay recycling fees? WE TAKE BOOKS!" He charged a buck a box to pack and remove books - but two bucks for LPs because they were heavier. His theory was that he had to charge them or they'd feel like he was hustling them. Nothing's free after all, is it? A year or two later he stopped having to pay for the ads because the word got out.

Here is the key, and that which connects these minor stories: Books have a flow to them, and we booksellers are only locks on the canal they follow from one sea to another. To find better books you must interrupt the flow. Everyone and his uncle is waiting at the ocean - waiting for those books to float into their reach. The same way they always have - waiting at the Goodwill, the FOL and the estate sale - so let them have what escapes your grasp.

But see to it your grasp is firm, your reach is wide and your imagination sets no limits.

Oh, wait ... Do you know, it's just occurred to me that we might need to back up one more step. Now that we have all these books, to whom - exactly - will we be selling them? Oops. Maybe we should have thought of that first.

Stay tuned...

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