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Selling on Amazon
Part I: An Introduction to
Amazon's Buyer's Waiting List

by Steve Weber

#68, 7 May 2006

Have you heard the grumbling?

"It's impossible to make money selling books anymore. Lowballers are everywhere!"

"Penny sellers are driving me crazy! Look at this: 255 copies on Amazon for one cent!"

Yes, sometimes it seems we're in a race to the bottom, competing to find book buyers before they find a lower price. But there's a reason why certain titles are listed for a penny: Not enough people want the book.

Don't you wish you could flip this around? Wouldn't you like to find the books other sellers don't have? Instead of lowering your prices, wouldn't you like to raise prices and let the buyers compete? Add the right books to your inventory, and you'll find buyers virtually lined up, credit cards ready.

One tool you can use for this is Amazon's Buyers Waiting list. More than 2,000 buyers join it every day, but these aren't your Dad's book collectors. These buyers are looking for stuff you've never heard of:

German-Americans in the World Wars by Tolzmann - one buyer will pay $1,500.

Introduction to the Physics of Nuclear Weapons Effects by Bridgman - wanted for $1,000.

There's even a self-published book near the top of the list: Such Things are Known by Dorothy Burdick. Four buyers will pay an average of $1,240 for this 1983 vanity press book.

And another four buyers will pay an average of $2,000 for Sumo, a coffee-table book that comes with its own coffee table.

Amazon's Buyers Waiting list totals about 50,000 orders from Amazon customers who all have a wish: that someone - anyone - will list their favorite book for sale on Amazon at an acceptable price and condition. You can view this list of orders by downloading a spreadsheet from Amazon after entering your Pro-Merchant ID and password here.

If you don't have an Amazon seller account, you can view the list on my website.

I've sorted the list by price, highest to lowest, but orders priced under $25 aren't shown; there are just too many. Buyers place these orders after visiting an Amazon product page and, seeing the book is unavailable (or at least unavailable at the desired price), clicking the "Order it used" button.

In the pre-Internet era, book dealers kept "want lists." Most of their sales were generated from rare-book catalogs that were printed and mailed out every so often. Don't bother printing Amazon's Buyers Waiting list. Even if you had enough paper, the list would be obsolete by the time your printer warmed up. Every minute of every day, new orders arrive and old ones expire unfilled (usually after 90 days).

During my first few years of selling used books on Amazon, I was lucky enough to come home with several books on the list, totally by accident, from my trips to library sales, estates sales and used bookshops. I'd discover the order after listing the book and clicking the "Sell Yours Here" button.

Unfortunately, there's no way for a seller to contact a waiting buyer - that is, there's no opportunity to negotiate - so you've got to map your strategy as soon as you know you've stumbled onto some waiting buyers. For example, let's say today you're listing a copy of the 1973 book Strength of Biological Materials by Yamada. After clicking the "Sell Yours Here" button, you see an orange box, shouting "BUYER WAITING!" After a brief joyous dance, you then notice the message: "Average pending pre-order price (based on your condition) $270."

Here's where it gets fun. Now you must decide whether to go for a quick, sure sale, or to hold out for a higher price. So far, we know that the average pending pre-order price is $270, but we don't know how many pre-orders there are. It could be one order for $270. Or it could be two orders - one at $135 and one at $405. Or it could be three orders and ... well, you get the idea. To find out, let's look at the Buyers Waiting list. On my site, for example, you'd see this:

Strength of Biological Materials [Hardcover] by Yamada, Hiroshi 3 buyers waiting.... Average price: $270 Minimum acceptable condition: Any

Remember, the list is sorted by dollar value, so you'll find this book about halfway down this page.

Or, if you've downloaded Amazon's Buyers Waiting spreadsheet, the number of pre-orders (in this case 3) appears in the "Quantity" field.

With three pending orders, there's clearly lots of interest in this book. What this tells us is that it can easily sell for more than $270, even though most book dealers have never heard of it. So let's try doing some research. Can we find other online listings for this book? Try typing the ISBN, 0683093231 in the blue search box (FetchBook) on BookThink's home page.

No copies for sale. How about AddALL? Nothing. BookFinder? Nada. Let's try entering the title and author name into BookFinder's advanced search. Still nothing. Let's thumb through Tedford's Official Price Guide to Books. No dice.

The next step is to list this book on Amazon for $500. If you have an eBay Store, put it there too. Odds are it will sell at your price within a couple of months. We already know that at least one customer comes along every month who wants the book so badly that they place a pre-order on Amazon, and some of these buyers aren't blinking at $270. So one of the next few buyers who comes along might think your $500 price tag is just dandy. Sure, you could probably sell the book today for $300. But why leave $200 on the table? You can always lower the price later if you decide you've priced it too high, but you can't raise the price after your pre-order pops its cork.

You'll find plenty of these books if you keep digging, and this reminds me of the first time I found a Buyers Waiting book. I was on my way out of a small library sale in the Virginia countryside when a box of dog books under a table caught my eye. $5 for all, and I didn't even bother looking at the titles. The next day, at the bottom of the box, I found a copy of The Inheritance of Coat Color in Dogs, which sold for $100 to a waiting Amazon buyer. Yahoo!

At this point, you be might be wondering whether you can use the Buyers Waiting list as a shopping list or scouting report for your next book-buying binge. Could you walk into a used bookstore and find some of these books after scanning the list? I'm not sure if it can work this way. I know I can't memorize 50,000 book titles. But you can use the Buyers Waiting list to learn to recognize the kind of offbeat titles that tend to be on it - the things that Amazon buyers pay big bucks for. Examples:

Measuring Risk in Complex Stochastic Systems

Stock Index Futures and Index Arbitrage in a Rational Expectations Model

Theories of Elasticity in Old Chewing Gum

OK, I made up that last one, but you get the idea. Practice, and you'll be spotting these titles from across the room.

Next month, I'll continue with Part I of our look at the Buyers Waiting list. We'll examine how these buyers differ from traditional collectors. We'll look at the pitfalls of handling pre-orders. And we'll look at some new technology that can alert you to Buyers Waiting pre-orders while you're at your next library sale.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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