Close this window to return to BookThink

A Guide for New Users

by Craig Stark

#36, 14 February 2005

EDITOR'S NOTE: the following article is based in part on my own experiences with ScoutPal, in part on some valuable suggestions made during an interview with ScoutPal owner Dave Anderson and his wife Barbara. Barbara, by the way, was the original ScoutPal guinea pig - you can imagine the strange looks she got in the early days! - and has been using it successfully for over three years.

Like any other tool, ScoutPal is only as good as its user. If you know what you're doing, ScoutPal can be a powerful tool indeed for buying inventory; if not, much less so, but BookThink's New User Guide will bring you up to speed in no time.

I. How Not To Use ScoutPal

First, what not to do. If you're new to bookselling, the worst thing you can do is go into a thrift shop or attend a sale and start checking every last book. At most venues, the odds of finding a saleable book are usually less than 1% or 2%. This means that, on average, you'd have to check 50 to 100 books, possibly more, to find a single title worth buying. Factor in the time it took to find that book, and you've already lost.

A better strategy is to use your instincts (such as they are at this point in time) to select books that appear to have value and check those and only those. You'll miss some winners at first, but you'll be much more efficient overall and find more and better inventory sooner. This approach also helps you to refine your buying instincts - to build a mental library of flashpoints. Whether you use ScoutPal or not, you'll always need good, knowledge-based instincts to succeed at bookselling. For more information on flashpoints, read this issue of the BookThinker


ScoutPal does NOT level the playing field for new and experienced booksellers. Its value is maximized in the hands of the user who has acquired a deep, extensive knowledge of books.

If you've come to ScoutPal, in other words, thinking that it's your instant ticket to bookselling success, forget it. There are no short cuts to success in any profession, and if anything, bookselling requires a longer apprenticeship than most.

If you're totally clueless about which books might have value, this article will give you some general guidelines.

II. Practice Makes Perfect

Practice, practice, practice. Practice is necessary for learning how to use any tool, and ScoutPal is no exception. At first, I would definitely not recommend practicing in a store or at a sale, especially if you're an inexperienced bookseller. If you do, it's likely to be a frustrating experience, and what's more, you won't know how to take advantage of ScoutPal's full potential.

Fortunately, there is a great place to practice, and it's right at your computer. First open two more browser windows. Then you will have three windows open including this one.

In the second browser window, put in this URL -

Sign in with your user ID and password. This will take you to a page titled "Services for ScoutPal Users." Click the top box ("Format Your Results"), and you'll be taken you to a page titled "Format Editor."

In the third browser window, put in this URL -

This page allows you to type in an ISBN and view results exactly as they will appear on your cell phone. You'll need to sign in here too.

Ok, you have three browser windows open. Go to the Format Editor and familiarize yourself with the options. Most of them are self-explanatory. The ones that aren't are explained in the notes at the bottom of the page.

Once you're satisfied that you understand everything, it's time to experiment. Get a stack of books, a dozen or so preferably newer titles (1950's to present), and, using the default format already in place, log in at the second browser window and type in an ISBN or LCCN from the first book in your stack. Go through the results line by line and try to make sense out of what's there. Most of it is pretty intuitive, but if something isn't clear, refer back to the Format Editor page for help. Go through the rest of the stack. This will show you how results differ from book to book and give you a better understanding of how to interpret them.

Next, go back to the Format Editor and start experimenting. Change one or more items, add something - whatever - and plug in the same ISBN's and observe how this affects the results. A half hour or so spent doing this, and you should be able to come up with a format that will work best for you. As you gain experience with ScoutPal, you may discover that some formats work better in one venue, some in another. Up to 9 different formats can be saved, all of which can then be changed on the fly simply by entering the format number plus 200 (e.g. 201-209) in the search box and "Fetch."

III. Formatting Recommendations

When making buying decisions in the field, it's clearly best to have as much information as possible about the books you're looking at. For this reason, one of your format choices should include everything that's available: Amazon Marketplace prices, counts and sales rankings for new, used and collectible copies; buyers waiting; Abebooks prices and counts; PriceGrabber prices and counts; information about all editions; and the price graph. If time is of the essence (and it often is at FOL and estate sales), you can eliminate some of this information - say, confine your searches to Amazon Marketplace and opt out of a few other features - and retrieve abbreviated results more quickly, but keep in mind that the resulting information may be misleading.

Here's why: there was a time when you could research ISBN titles at Amazon Marketplace and be reasonably certain that the prices found were a benchmark for the Internet - that is, if your book was listed in Marketplace for $10, chances are that was the best price anywhere. Or close to it. Well, if you haven't noticed, those days are gone. If you're a regular user of FetchBook's search service, which retrieves and ranks the lowest prices from dozens of different venues, you're aware that Amazon Marketplace listings are often not the first to appear on the results list, and sometimes they're not even on the first page. There are many more competing venues now, some with unusually competitive prices. This is why using ScoutPal's PriceGrabber option is so important. PriceGrabber's results aren't as comprehensive as FetchBook's, but they include a number of important players, among them eBay and Alibris.

Using the Abebooks option is also important. Two reasons: it delivers still more comparables and, more importantly, allows you to enter LCCN's for books that pre-date the ISBN era. This brings into play huge numbers of books published in the 1950's and 1960's that were previously not searchable with ScoutPal.

IV. Interpreting Results

Example. Suppose you're at a thrift shop. You type in the ISBN for a book that looks promising, and this price comes up: $128.33. It's also the only copy. You're thrilled, right? Not so fast. This price should be a red flag. If you or me had listed this book (assuming it really was worth this much), we most likely would've priced it at $130 or $129.99 - or something that made, well, more sense. The fact that this is an unorthodox price should suggest to you that this is a drop shipper - a seller who doesn't have the book in inventory but, if a sale is made, will purchase it from another seller and have it shipped to you. Drop shippers often (automatically, via software) compute their asking prices as a fixed percentage above lower priced books available, and the somewhat puzzling and obscenely high outcome reflects this. If you investigate their feedback, it often contains numerous complaints about books not being available. Also, drop-shippers congregate at Amazon Marketplace because canceling sales isn't as punitive as it is on other venues. Having access to Abebooks and PriceGrabber prices, therefore, can be very important.

Another example. Suppose you're at that same thrift shop, type in another ISBN, and this price comes up: $4.95. This time there are four copies. You're distinctly un-thrilled, right? Again, not so fast. If there had been 100 copies, chances are good that this price would have indicated a book with little or no resale value, but the fact that there are only three other copies means that it's time to check the price graph. The price graph, which is actually a series of numbers, shows you this: 1779. What does this mean? Each number in this string represents a price rounded up to the nearest $10. Therefore, there is one copy under $10, two copies priced between $60 and $70, and one copy priced between $80 and $90. This should get your attention. It's time to find out why there's an anomalous copy at $4.95. To do this, you'll need to click the price and look at the description. If it turns out that this is an ex-library copy with a detached front board, extensive highlighting, and a pronounced cigarette odor, there's a good chance that the book you're holding (assuming it's in good condition) is a winner.

Counts and sales rankings can also be important. If a book has relatively few copies available and a sales ranking under 10,000, more than likely this will result in a quick sale for you. On the other hand, if there are many copies available and the ranking is well over 100,000, your prospects aren't nearly as good. A high number, however, isn't necessarily a bad thing, even much, much higher than 100,000. In the case of an uncommon book, it can mean that the sales ranking isn't good simply because so few copies surface in the market. It's also possible, of course, for a book to be uncommon and in low demand, but if your instincts aren't sending you a clear message and the price is right, it's usually a good idea to take a chance on an uncommon book anyway.

If there's a lesson here, it's that ScoutPal can't do everything for you. It won't flash "Buy!" on your cell phone. (Wouldn't that be a programming feat!) But, if you'll take advantage of all of its features, it will almost invariably deliver the information you need to make an intelligent buying decision.

  1. Look at the back of the book first for the ISBN number. This is quicker than opening the book to the copyright page. Often, it's printed on the dust jacket above the bar code or somewhere near the bottom. Note that there are instances when this ISBN doesn't match the ISBN on the copyright page, so be alert to the title that comes up in the search (it may be different) or, if the ISBN on the dust jacket doesn't deliver any results, be sure to check the other number as well.

  2. Set your format options to allow for multiple ISBN entries. Entering three or four numbers, for example, then fetching results will be quicker than repeating this procedure for every book. Some experimentation will give you an indication for what works best for you, but you can select any number from 1 to 30. Take it from me: 30 is way too much.

  3. In my formative years, I worked as a bartender/manager in an intensely busy night club, and cocktail waitresses would often come to the bar with orders for half a dozen or more drinks, sometimes as many as 9 or 10. If they had to take the time to write their orders down, it slowed them down, and they made less money. Since they also shared a portion of their tips with bartenders at the end of their shift (the amount they gave you depended on how good a job they felt you did for them) it was very much to a bartender's advantage to eliminate the need for them to write anything down at all. This was easy to do with 4 or 5 drinks, but 10 - no, definitely not. However, I was motivated to learn how to make this happen, and I finally came up with a pneumonic technique that worked exceptionally well for larger numbers. I hope I can explain it - and don't ask my why it works! Split the number into two groups, memorize - that is, make a mental snapshot of - the first group as you would any group of numbers, then silently repeat the other group over and over again in your head, as though you were talking to yourself - "6,7,8,9,10 ... 6,7,8,9,10 ..." and so on until you're done with whatever the task is. Apparently, these things happen at two different places in your brain, probably because one step is visual and the other aural? Anyway, it works great with LCCN's and ISBN's as well and eliminates the need to glance back and forth between the book and your number pad. For me, it speeds things up considerably, and I'm able to do other things as well, like returning a book to a shelf and grabbing another.

  4. If memorization isn't your forté, learning to enter numbers on your cell phone pad without looking at it may be. Practice some, and you might be surprised at how quickly you can pick this up, not to mention how accurate you can be.

  5. If a book has both an ISBN and a LCCN, type in the LCCN. There are fewer digits, sometimes four fewer. Do keep in mind, however, that, unlike ISBN's, LCCN's are not edition sensitive. They often apply to first and later editions of the same title, which may or may not have comparable values.

  6. If you can afford it, get a scanner attachment. Using a bar-code scanner that attaches to your cell phone speeds things up considerably. At the time of this writing, unfortunately, the scanner previously offered by ScoutPal has been discontinued by the manufacturer. Dave informs me that he's working on his own design, also that another company will be introducing another model soon, so hopefully this situation is only temporary.

VI. Miscellaneous Tips

  1. If you're an experienced bookseller and have the time, spend at least some time checking titles you wouldn't have bothered with in your pre-ScoutPal days. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised at the strong values some of them have, and there will be the added bonus of improving your command of flashpoints.

  2. One of the most volatile and difficult market sectors for a bookseller to master is textbooks. Values can plunge, literally, overnight, and it's extremely difficult to stay abreast of this. Also, instincts will often lead you astray. With ScoutPal, however, you can afford to re-double your efforts here because you can always get an instant confirmation of value. Paying special attention to textbooks will - I guarantee it - pay off handsomely.

  3. Finally, don't confine yourself to books. If you see some software that looks interesting, a DVD, VHS tape - anything with a bar code - why not check it. You might be surprised at the variety of used items that are sold at Amazon Marketplace now, some of them for very respectable prices. NOTE: when entering bar codes, enter all 12 digits - that is, the single, separated digit that begins the string, the 10 digits that are clustered in the middle, and the single, separated digit that ends it.

VII. What To Do If There Are No Results

Inevitably, there will be times when you enter an ISBN and no results are delivered. There are three possibilities.

  1. If ScoutPal returns the message "Invalid, Check Entry," this means that the number violated the rules of ISBN composition, failed the checksum text - in other words, you probably goofed and just need to re-enter it.

  2. If ScoutPal returns the message "Not Found," this means that the ISBN is valid - that is, it passed the checksum test - but it's not in the Amazon database. If the book has an LCCN number, try entering it. If not, enter 411 and "Fetch." This will take you to a title search screen where you can enter the title. Title searching on a conventional cell phone pad is indeed time-consuming, but if you've got an uncommon book in your hands, the chances of it having at least some value are pretty high, so it's often time well spent. Obviously, you can also enter titles of books that have neither ISBN's or LCCN's all day long, but this isn't a productive use of time unless the book is screaming, "Buy me!"

  3. Finally, if ScoutPal returns the message "NA," this means that the book is in the Amazon database but no copies are available at Amazon, Abebooks or PriceGrabber. There will often be a sales ranking, however, and this may help your evaluation. In any case, this is a book that clearly deserves your attention, and a close inspection of its contents is in order.

VIII. Keeping a Low Profile and Other Matters

Another thing you'll probably notice when you start using ScoutPal - or, rather, feel, is conspicuous. Possibly even anxious. Believe me, this feeling will pass, and soon you won't think twice about pulling out your cell phone and going to work.

But where does ScoutPal anxiety come from? If you're a regular visitor to book forums and/or interact often with other booksellers, you've no doubt noticed that not all booksellers - for that matter, not all store clerks or sales assistants - seem to be terribly fond of ScoutPal users. Personally, I've been using this service for six months; I use it almost everywhere I go; and I have yet to have a problem with anybody, bookseller or otherwise. Barbara hasn't had any problems worth mentioning either, and she's been at it for much longer than I have. However, do keep in mind that there is at least some chatter out there that indicates that ScoutPal users have been asked to leave sales or thrift shops and/or had unpleasant encounters with others. It's a good idea - and this advice comes from Barbara as well - to be as discreet as possible. Minimize the possibility of a problem. For example, if you feel as though you're being watched, turn your back. If somebody comes into your aisle, go to another. If you're standing in line or up at the register with an inexplicable variety of books that no sane person would have an interest in reading and somebody asks you what the hell you're doing, don't explain. Do what Barbara does: call somebody on your phone and talk for a few minutes until you're on your way out the door.

IX. A Final Word About ScoutPal Animus

Speaking of forum discussions, I'm almost astonished at the intensity of disdain some booksellers, especially veteran booksellers, have for ScoutPal users. I say "almost" because I think I understand why they feel the way they do. They, like me, grew their businesses long before Barbara baptized her first cell phone at the Salvation Army, in some cases before titles could be readily researched online. They lived and died by their instincts. Some of them lived very well by them - still do - and, understandably, take great pride in their ability to spot valuable books without "mindless" aids. Now that it's possible to leap frog over what formerly took years of dedication to develop and become, almost overnight, a viable bookseller, they may resent the fact that the value of their lifelong investment has been so markedly devalued. To succeed at bookselling, I'm trying to say, you no longer have to be brilliant.

What's unfortunate is that some of these sellers are so resentful of these changes that they stubbornly refuse to get on board, unfortunate because it's the experienced bookseller who has the most to gain by using ScoutPal. I repeat: it's the experienced bookseller who has the most to gain by using ScoutPal. I cheerfully confess that, in my pre-SP days, I had a pretty high opinion of my ability to spot good books. I worked very, very hard at refining my instincts, committing flashpoints to memory, etc., and I felt that I could compete with the best of them. Well, ScoutPal humbled me. I think it will humble you too. I still use those instincts to my advantage, but now I also come home with books, high-dollar books, that I wouldn't have glanced at before; and, better yet, I do NOT come home with books that once had value but have since become victims of the great bookselling flood - and are near worthless. Remember that it's just as important to unlearn obsolete flashpoints as it is to learn them.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

Copyright 2003-2011 by BookThink LLC