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Bookselling in the 21st Century

Part XVI: Visualizing What You Need to Do to Make Bookselling Work: $50 Books

by Craig Stark

#144 24 May 2010

I'm going to begin by repeating the last two paragraphs of Part XV in this series (referring to the $25 book business model):

Is this a sustainable business model? Yes, as long as you aggressively pursue the acquisition of inventory and develop reasonably efficient listing, fulfillment, etc., methods. If there's a downside, it's that the realities of this business - given in particular the nature of your competition, even if it has dropped off some lately - are that you won't have much, if any, energy/time left to take your business to the next level. You'll be working too hard doing the busy work of bookselling. If you acquire business-enhancing knowledge at all, it will more likely be by a sort of osmosis that occurs by way of noticing, for example, which books you have luck with and which you don't than it will be by dedicated application.

Why is this important? Because if you want to increase your income beyond adequate, you'll almost certainly need to raise your ASPs even further, say, to $50, and frankly, this is where the demands placed on you change their spots. Most of you will not be able to get to this level without acquiring additional bookselling-specific knowledge via dedicated application.

Okay, somewhere between the $25 book and the $50, the game changes. Every bookseller will sell at least the occasional $50 and up book, especially if there's a focus on textbooks, but how many average $50 per sale? One in ten? One in a hundred? I'd guess that it's closer to the latter. And what's the most likely response if you suggest to a struggling bookseller that raising his or her ASP to $50 (for starters) is the key to successfully operating and growing a bookselling business?

Something along these lines, I'd bet: I'd be happy to raise my ASP, but I can't find enough $50 books to do it.

And yet the inescapable reality is that at least some booksellers can. Some booksellers can raise it to $100, $1,000 or more. What's their secret? I think many booksellers would argue that it's sourcing. These booksellers somehow have access to books that others don't. If you believe this to be so, I would invite you to at least consider for a moment that, for the most part, this isn't true - that the books these booksellers sell for $50 and more are more or less available to anybody. Consider this explanation instead: Additional - and often specific - knowledge is required to buy and sell books consistently and profitably at $50 and up.

If you're a $25-and-under bookseller who wants to become a $50-and-up bookseller, you'll need additional knowledge to get there. What form does this knowledge take? In the coming weeks I'll get into considerable detail about this, but for the moment I'll leave you with an example from my own bookselling history.

It wasn't too long ago that I would regularly search venues for copies of Webster's Second New International Dictionary, buy them if they were priced at or below $10 or $15, and immediately auction them on eBay for $50 to $100 or more.

For a number of years I could pretty much count on few hundred dollars a month in additional sales doing this - and it was as simple as pulling the trigger on a copy as soon as it became available, snapping a few photos of it when it arrived, and uploading an appropriately revised auction template to eBay. Maybe ten or so minutes of labor?

Among booksellers, this is called arbitrage - buying in one venue and reselling for profit usually but not always in a different venue. In this particular case, sometimes I would buy copies on eBay to resell on eBay. How could this possibly work? Answer:

Additional - and often specific - knowledge is required to buy and sell books consistently and profitably at $50 and up.

To put this more specifically: I knew some things about this dictionary that many other booksellers didn't, and I was profiting exclusively on this knowledge. To many, a dirt common dictionary that was originally published in 1909, published subsequently and often with occasional revision and as often in different bindings, and was supplanted in 1961 by Webster's Third New International Dictionary would likely have about as much value as an obsolete, tired set of mid-century encyclopedias - i.e., next to no value. But the truth was, as long as condition wasn't an issue, it had value in just about any of its many manifestations.

For those of you who don't know what's going on, here are two excerpts from my eBay listing template:

1. "At over 600,000 entries, this was and remains today the largest unabridged dictionary of the English language ever published, significantly larger than its ca. 1961 replacement, Webster's Third. This edition includes a huge array of obsolescent, obsolete or painfully obscure words that were omitted in later editions, a few that had only a single citation in print. In addition to its historical value, it's prized by those with an interest in maintaining the purity of language: It was the last and best prescriptive dictionary - and a valuable resource for home schooling as well.

2. "Vintage dictionaries are sometimes viewed as noble guardians of language as it should be spoken and written - indeed, how it was before it became "corrupted" by slang, sloppy usage, and so on. I'm old enough to recall the storm of protest that broke out when Merriam Webster published its Third New International Dictionary in 1961. Editor Philip Gove believed that a dictionary's function is to record language as it stands at any moment in time, not to serve as an instrument for dictating how it should be. The result was a production that radically departed from Webster's Second, for decades the standard bearer of correct American English, simply because us chickens weren't speaking/writing that language anymore.

"This is one important reason why vintage dictionaries retain their value as well as they do, also why Fowler's Modern English Usage is reprinted ad infinitum. They record what is commonly perceived to be a purer form of English, and having, say, Webster's Second on one's desk - and using it daily - is to some a noble, though perhaps quixotic, defense against creeping permissiveness.

"But there's another, more subtle reason why "obsolete" dictionaries retain value, and this is often overlooked if not altogether misunderstood. If language becomes corrupted over time, some would point out that this is an indication or marker that society itself has become corrupted. Decadent societies, to continue the argument, are increasingly composed of those who have abandoned the principles that made them great, and, once abandoned, exhibit a weakened capacity to so much as understand these principles, let alone live by them. Language tags merrily along with this, accurately betrays what's happening, and over time - this is where things get sinister - dictionaries like Webster's Third subtly reinforce the march to ruin."

[Originally excerpted from a BookThink article.]

There you have it - why it wasn't a sourcing issue that was preventing other booksellers from obtaining and profiting from this book. For the most part, I was using sources available to all booksellers, though of course I did - and still do - grab it locally. (By the way, I don't often buy it online anymore because opportunities for purchasing it at the right price have diminished significantly - and no doubt this is partly my fault for selling this information in a previous Gold Edition!)

A few more examples next time.

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