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BookThink's Guide to Online Bookselling


by Craig Stark

#146 19 July 2010

This is not a quick-start guide, a guide to getting rich or a book of insider secrets. Books like these already over-populate the marketplace, often promising what they can't deliver. In bookselling, there is no such thing as a quick-start, most booksellers never get rich, and today's insider secrets are tomorrow's public knowledge. My purpose is to deliver what can be delivered -essential knowledge (and the principles to apply it) that will enable you to become a successful online bookseller.

By essential knowledge I mean the skinny.

The skinny is what you absolutely must know to compete, and if you don't know it - cold - you'll compete at a disadvantage. Be warned: Part of what you must know includes some things you might think you can get by without - for example, collation. Those of you who have even glanced inside the cover of Fredson Bowers' standard guide, Principles of Bibliographical Description, know how daunting collational formulae can get.

Some of you may recall a delightful hippie-era book titled How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. Very few copies of the first edition have survived without significant oil staining because this was a book most often purchased by somebody who didn't know the first thing about working on a car and consulted it under fire, that is, while lying in the grass under the rear end of a Beetle, oil dripping, holding a wrench - a hands-on guide in the truest sense of the word, and it was written with a sense of easy clarity that immediately took the mystery out of tuning an engine. In its honor (and more in keeping with the skinny approach), I've titled my discussion of collation How to Collate a Book: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot. I won't show you how to collate the 1640 folio of Sandy's translation of Ovid, but you will learn how to readily collate and/or paginate most of the books you'll encounter in one somewhat painless lesson.

First edition identification can be similarly daunting, sometimes for intermediate booksellers as well as beginners. But you don't need to possess knowledge acquired over a lifetime or an outrageously expensive reference library to accurately identify most books. What isn't often understood is that any identification protocol can be greatly expedited by learning something about books that aren't first editions. Therefore, it's no accident that this guide includes an exceptionally detailed discussion on identifying book club editions. Similarly, keys are presented that will enable you to quickly eliminate second and later printings of trade editions. And what about reprint publishers? You'll get the lowdown on these as well. Armed with this knowledge, you'll be able to quickly eliminate from consideration many books that resemble first editions but are in fact not. Time is a bookseller's most valuable resource, and saving it on the front end will enable you to spend it where it's most needed - on the back end, and only on those books that need to be researched further.

Speaking of first editions, do you know what a First Edition Thus is? Well over half of the definitions I've seen for this term over the years are incorrect - and yet it's important for your long-term livelihood to understand exactly what it means. As you probably know, there is no shortage of book-related websites that host glossaries of bookselling terminology, and yet most of them are riddled with ambiguities or errors and often include little-used terms and just as often omit more pertinent terms. What is presented here is an essential glossary - the most relevant terms clearly defined, with accompanying illustrations when applicable. Mastering them will be a solid first step toward accurately and effectively presenting a book for sale.

Which brings me to a crucial part of the selling process - book description. Knowing terminology is essential, certainly, but knowing what information to include, what to exclude, what to present first and last - all of these can make or break a sale. And book photography is no small part of the descriptive effort. In this virtual environment we do business in it's hugely important to develop the ability to take photographs of books. In fact, it's no exaggeration to assert that no other bookselling skill will impact your sales more than this. Specific equipment, software, and practical techniques that will enable you to excel will be presented in depth.

Sometimes it's some aspect of the selling process itself that gives booksellers pause - for example, buying and selling signed books. How do you know that what you have is authentic? Should you pay somebody to authenticate it? When is a signed book worth more than an unsigned book? These and many other questions about signed books will be answered fully, and if you've previously felt uncomfortable selling them, this will get you started. And anybody, now matter what their level of experience can get started sooner than later.

But hold on. What's the point of learning all of this stuff if you can't consistently find quality inventory in or near your hometown at prices that will enable you to realize a worthwhile profit? Surely this is the key to bookselling success? Well, it is and it isn't. It is in the sense that for most of us book scouting will probably take place to some extent locally, but local sourcing in some locales can range from very productive to utterly unproductive. Or seasonally hot and cold. If your area isn't optimal, what then?

There's not only hope for you, but there's also a good chance that, as long as you're committed to making this work, you'll be "forced" to do what other booksellers might not have to do yet (or will never do) - learn so much about books that you'll enjoy a competitive edge purchasing them in very public, very accessible online venues. And those other booksellers, who are still scouting close to home (because they can for the time being) will never catch up to you when their sources inevitably dry up. Moreover, the knowledge you acquire will enable you, in turn, to build value - actual dollar value - into your books when you offer them for sale. If there's a centerpiece in this book, value-building is it, and much effort has been devoted to it.

Is this book for you? For beginning booksellers, hobby booksellers and part-time booksellers, sure, all of the above. But what about intermediate booksellers? If your business is struggling, there's a reason. Maybe several reasons. Taking a look at the following list of topics addressed in this book may help you decide if you can benefit, but perhaps taking a hard look at your own situation at the same time will help identify a need. Over and over again I hear from booksellers who are puzzled at why what seemed like such a promising (and enjoyable) undertaking at the outset is now looking downright dismal. Feeling dismal. You may not even be able to think clearly about your business anymore, let alone figure out how to turn it around.

More than anything else, my purpose is to identify the specific reasons bookselling businesses struggle and/or fail and provide the means to get back on the path to success.

The following alphabetical list of topics is not exhaustive but will give you a sense of the scope of this guide:

Book Cleaning and Repair

Book Storage Solutions

Branding Your Bookselling Business

Buying and Selling Ephemera and Other "Book-alikes"

Buying and Selling Signed Books

Cataloguing and Describing Books for Sale

Customer Fulfillment and Service (Communication, Policies, Packaging, Shipping, etc.)

Essential History of the Book (and Why Booksellers Absolutely Need to Know This)

Full-time Bookselling

Generalist Bookselling

How to Grade Books

How to Identify First Editions

How to Price Books

Inventory Acquisition

Is Bookselling for You?

Part-Time Bookselling

Specialty Bookselling

Supplies, Tools and Sources

The Business of Bookselling (Business Plan, Recordkeeping, Taxes, etc.)

The Future of Bookselling

Where to Sell Books

Many additional resources will appear in appendices, some of which include:

Checklists (e.g., Easton Press, Limited Editions Club, etc.)

Glossary of Bookselling Abbreviations

Glossary of Bookselling Terms

List of 100 Publishers You're Most Likely to Encounter and the Methods They Use to Designate First Editions


Recommended Reference Books

Top 100 List of Common Books That Sell for $50 or More

Top 100 List of Most Profitable Authors of Modern Fiction

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