Close this window to return to BookThink

Buying Book Collections

#150 8 October 2010

by Timothy Doyle

Part II: Finding Available Collections

In Part 1 of this series, I talked about the Why of buying collections. There were a number of reasons discussed, including the importance of establishing multiple streams of inventory to make you less vulnerable if one source or method dries up. I noted that if your business relies on sourcing inventory on a book-by-book basis and your inventory count has stopped growing, then the only way to expand the business is to spend more time scouting at more venues. This could mean expanding your scouting range with an increase in mileage and travel time. And it puts you in even more direct competition with every other scout in the area armed with a cell phone and scanner. I also talked about scouting individual books and finding a significant book of value every few months, and suggested a comparison with scouting collections and every so often finding a significant group of valuable books. One or two lucky breaks could take your business to a whole new level. I'll have more to say about "luck" later.

I used the drawing from Le Petit Prince of a snake that has eaten an elephant to illustrate the trepidation I first felt at going on a house call to make an offer on a large lot of books - where do you start, and how do you handle something that big? Today's article will help you to "see inside the snake," and give you some ideas that will make the idea of buying collections less intimidating.

Finding Available Collections

The first step to finding collections to purchase is straightforward: advertise. This can be as simple as telling all of your friends, relatives, and co-workers that you are a bookseller, and that you pay cash for used books. Get some nice business cards printed (do not cheap out by printing your own - professionally printed business cards are really quite inexpensive), and hand them out to anyone who will take one. In fact, give out several at a time, and ask them to pass the cards on to everyone they know. Getting the word out in this manner is really only limited by how many people you know, and how comfortable you feel with self-promotion.

In criminal cases, investigators are told to "follow the money." My suggestion here is to follow the books - where and when do people tend to get rid of their books? One answer is when people move - collections of books are bulky and heavy, and people often take moving as a chance to lighten the load. Draft a cover letter introducing yourself and your business, and offer to make house visits to purchase books. Send a letter with several of your business cards to anyone in the area you can think of who might be involved in the moving process: real estate agents, moving companies, apartment building managers, self storage companies, bulk trash removal companies, and retirement homes immediately come to mind.

You should also consider your local brick and mortar bookstores as a resource. People looking to sell their collections will often turn first to the local used bookstore. Introduce yourself to the owners in your area and talk to them about collection buying. While many will be your direct competition, there may be some who are not interested in pursuing collections for themselves or who might end up needing a partner in purchasing a large collection. Ask if they would keep you in mind for any collections that come their way. You could also offer a finder's fee to sweeten the deal.

There are also many forms of general advertising available. These include the classified sections of your local newspaper(s) and advertisers, local bulletin boards where you can tack up a business card, and online resources such as craigslist.

Because your time is limited, you are going to want to figure out some way to determine which house calls to make, and which to pass on. One way is to develop a set of questions to ask the owner.

  1. The basics: how many books (individual counts or count of boxes), and location (how far will you have to travel). What kind of books - hardcover vs. paperback, fiction vs. non-fiction, recent vs. older, book club editions, etc. Is the collection themed or specialized in any way - in other words, does it consist of general books accumulated over 30 years of reading, is it the working library of a retired academic or professional, is it the collection of someone who specialized in polar exploration, etc.

  2. Is the person you are talking to in a position to actually make the sale? You don't want to get into a situation where you've committed time and effort in looking at a collection, only to find that there are other people involved who will have to be consulted. Another way to put it: If you decide to buy the books, would you be able to take them with you that day? On one of my most frustrating trips, I actually went with the elderly owner to a storage unit and loaded the boxes into my truck, then drove them back to her apartment and carried them up for her. I spent a couple hours looking at the books, and left to do some research - a strategic mistake as it turned out. I called her the next day with an offer, to learn that she had spoken with her out-of-state son and that he was driving up that weekend to take all of the books. My point is not that I missed out on purchasing the books - they were hers to do with as she pleased - but that I wasted the better part of a day in doing so.

  3. Where and how are they stored? If boxed up, how long have they been stored? Five hundred books out on shelves will be easier and faster to go through than the same number stored in boxes. Twenty boxes of books stored in a basement for 10 years could be a problem. I once went on a house call where the books had been stored for a few years in a backyard shed. They were in remarkably good shape, but there were several instances of insect and even bird activity in the stacks.

  4. Why do they want to sell the books, and how soon do they want the books gone? If the seller is highly motivated to get rid of the books, it is more likely that an offer will be accepted. The motivation for the person cleaning out the house of a deceased relative by the end of the week is very different from the part-time eBay book seller who wants his garage back but also wants to get as much money as he can for the books. Which leads to the next question:

  5. Is (or was) the owner a bookseller? It could be a bad sign if the collection represents the leftovers from an online business - in other words, the stock that didn't sell. They may also have an inflated idea of what the books are worth. On the other hand, it might make your job easier if they have a computerized inventory available. And if they understand the business they should not be surprised (or offended) by an offer of 10% to 25% of resale value.

  6. Has anyone else looked at the collection, and has anyone "cherry picked" it? Will the owner allow cherry picking or is it all or nothing? Highly motivated sellers who are willing to take a low offer will usually want the whole collection to go - yesterday. And while it is often true that just one percent of the books may more than justify the entire purchase price, that still leaves 99% to be handled and ultimately disposed of.

Again, this is not meant as a definitive list of pre-house call questions. There may be others that make sense given your particular circumstances. At the same time, the weight you assign to each of these questions will vary. For example, a seller with a brick and mortar store might well look at a collection of books very differently than an online-only seller.

In the next and final installment of this series, we'll look at the actual visit. I'll go over some general rules of thumb for evaluating a collection, useful in a situation where you don't have the luxury of researching titles. Finally, I'll discuss the factors that go in to estimating potential value, and arriving at an offer price.

Read Part I of this series here.

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC