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Report from Beginnersville
The Adventures of a Clueless Bookseller

Adventures of a Clueless Bookseller Series

by Brenna Hopkins

#96, 4 June 2007

In the last 2 days, I've spent $9 on two books I hope to resell for around $36. The two books have underwhelming Amazon rankings - in the 300,000 - 400,000 range - so I'll probably have them for a while. The most exciting thing for me, however, isn't the books I bought; it's the books I left behind. It took about 30 minutes, but I managed to talk myself out of other books that, just a week ago, I might have bought. What a difference a week makes.

The difference was six solid days of book-scouting. With my attention now focused on identifying what triggers my interest in a book, I quickly uncovered a few obvious bad habits that I aim to change.

Bad Habit #1

Looking Through eBay Colored Glasses. Put enough space-age modern furniture in a decorating book, and I'm sure that, with the right key words, I can sell it on eBay. Often, though, I fail to factor in listing and final-value fees when I decide what I should pay for it. There will also be a fair amount of work in getting the right keywords, especially if isn't common, and lots of pictures are always required. Given this, I should keep my spending limit pretty low or save my money for truly spectacular examples.

Bad Habit #2

Champagne Tastes. I have a nose, it seems, for expensive books with astronomic sales rankings. On the face of it, this seems harmless if I buy such books cheaply enough. The more I reinforce this attraction, though, the more my energy is focused in some tough-sell areas I'm already a sucker for - art, in particular. I would be better off gambling in unfamiliar areas, where at least I'll learn something through my mistakes.

Bad Habit #3

Avoiding Exercise. The meta-lesson was the real payoff: The only way I'll get better at book scouting is by book scouting. If I want to improve my ability to avoid buying the wrong books and to start seeing the right ones, I'll have to look for books - every working day. Fortunately, looking for books doesn't seem like a hardship. I'm winning often enough to keep alive my belief that I can learn to find better books. I'm chipping away at the signals that tell me to buy a book when I shouldn't. The expense of my mistakes is credited as tuition in the School of Bad Books.

Bookselling seems to be a pursuit where educated hunches are a necessary skill. There is no substitute for the education. The intuitive GO signal telling you something is right, even when you have no hard information to go on, is easily obscured by uncertainty and guessing. Keeping my money in my pocket is one sure way not to stir up the bottom while I learn to see for myself. Right now, the books I don't buy are my biggest winners.

Here is list of my purchases and sales to date (with informal notes):

1. The House of Ideas (1974). $2/sold for $25.00

    The Dream: Loads of projects for mid-century interior DIY, in nice condition - this should equate to a ready sale on eBay.

    The Reality: It just takes one bidder on eBay to make me happy. $25 for this book in its condition is a very fair price.

2. Children's Stories by (Mabel) Lucie Atwell (ca. 1931). $5/sold for $28.00.

    The Dream: A total gamble. Condition is only fair, and it's a Whitman edition, so there may be lots out there. I'm thinking eBay, with pics of the great line drawings. Is it a $15 book? Maybe.

    The Reality: With the help of eBay's bookseller's forum, I finally found comparables for this book, and listed it on eBay at the low end with good pictures. It has 1 bid for 19.99 on eBay right now. I owe the group moderator a Diet Coke.

I went back the next day for a book I had picked up, passed on (wasn't sure, no neat pictures in it), and then researched when I got home:

3. Convent Life by Lexau. $1.50/sold for 29.99

    Reality Check: It was worth the gas to go back.

4. Better Homes for Budgeteers 1941 edition. $3.80

    The Dream: A total gamble. Condition is only fair, but this book seemed special - a very early publication of truly contemporary house plans. Turns out this pre-war edition is scarce, and a fair price for it is $50. That's where I'm starting.

    The Reality: So far, I haven't found a buyer for this book. I have to think through the how to list it - it also may just not be an eBay book, despite it's apparent bells & whistles.

5. The Designing Life by the Staff of W. $10.50 - ouch - big BIG bucks.

    The Dream: Is this a $30 eBay book, I ask myself? It could be. Huge designer collections & insider articles about them all collected from W (Women's Wear Daily). I know I will have to work to find that sale, if it's there.

    The Reality: This book did not sell for me on eBay - yet. It received a respectable number of hits. I may be a little early with this book - the 80s are just re-surfacing. I'm going to put it in my eBay store.

6. Early American Dress: Colonial and Revolutionary Periods. $3.

    The Dream: Anything this complete is either a score or a common as dirt dud.

    The Reality: This book has a very low rank and reasonable supply, with respectable prices on the lower end - a scud (score + dud). I put it on Amazon for $20. I want to look around at the historical re-enactment areas on eBay to see if the right keywords could help sell it there.

7. Grococo, a French Crow. $1

    The Dream: Ex-lib. 1961 children's book, in Mylar, married illustrators w/Soviet block sounding names - seems like a good gamble.

    The Reality: Not a huge payoff - one sold for $8.95 on eBay, similar prices on Amazon. ON THE UP SIDE, illustrator just published a well regarded memoir of her life in occupied Europe with her husband Artur. It may be that interest will grow. It's a skinny book; I don't mind keeping it for a while.

8. New York Times Book of Interior Design. $8 - again, the big bucks.

    The Dream: Very upper end, amazing pop art & space age interiors. I guessed that it could be a $25 - $30 eBay book, so I bought it.

    The Reality: Comparables are $25 - even on Amazon. Now, should I try it on eBay for $50?! Why not? The other reality is your humble reporter burned out before she did her listing justice. It did not sell. I'm going to pump up the keywords and pics this weekend and try again for 10% lower.

9. Fifty Years of Collectible Jewelry. $6 Collector Books.

    The Dream: This book is in great shape, and Collector Books usually doesn't reprint their books, so if there IS a demand for it, it will have a solid price on it.

    Reality Check: Looks like this is a $18-$20 book in the condition I have it in, which is very very good. Rank is pretty good. I will come out ahead eventually.

10. Denim. $8.

    The Dream: Why I bought this I don't know. The cover is rubbed pretty seriously. The clerk almost bent it in half looking for the price. Is this a $25 book? We'll see. The book I'm most skeptical about.

    The Reality: There is another very hot, expensive book called Denim - it is NOT my book. I don't mind - if I had been right, it would have been a very good investment of $8. This book is going to my local used bookseller, or thrift. I am just not willing to work hard enough to try to sell it - the payoff isn't there.

11. The Logic Book. $3.49

    The Dream: More like an hallucination - maybe, I thought, logic being sort of immune to technical advances, a lucky hit on a logic book might be reasonably likely.

    The Reality: This book is worth 30 cents.

12. The Universal History of Numbers (2000). $5.99

    The Dream: See Wiley. Buy Wiley.


Gross Cost of Goods - $84.24 (excludes gas, sales tax, etc)
Gross Sales (so far) - $82.99 (before fees)
Average Price per Book - $5.27
Median Amazon Price - $19.83

Reader Feedback

I, too, am a resident of Beginnersville. I have been selling books for almost a year on a part-time basis. Regarding the acquisition of books, I can say you never know where books will turn up. Although book and library sales are great, you can also find good books at garage sales and church sales that advertise books. Especially at church sales, you can find bargains as people buy up the fiction at these types of sales. The non-fiction is usually left, and if you hit the bag sale all the better. You can stuff your bag full and not worry you might be buying books you can't sell! And who knows, you might just find a diamond among the costume jewelry. If someone should offer to give you books free, always take them. You may discard some of them, but there usually will be some books you can sell. Keep going and have fun!

Linda Gardiner


Hello, I have a stash of Charlie Lovett's great book for beginning collector's & dealers (Everybody's Guide to Book Collecting), which I give to beginning dealers and collectors. It's pre-internet but covers all the basics in an easy Q & A format.

I bought the last of the books when it was going out of print so I'd have a supply. I've donated them to the Colorado Springs Book Seminar and to the Tucson Friends of the Library Book Sale team as well as many individuals.

I would like to send Brenna a copy of the book (at no charge, of course). I can either send it to her c/o your address or to her direct.

Please let me know if this is acceptable,

Barbara Young


Welcome, Brenna. I'll be watching your progress with interest.

Looking at some of the questions you posed in your article, I realized that the only correct answer to every bookselling question is, "It depends." There is such variety within bookselling, it's very hard to say more than, "This is what works for me."

The basics every bookseller has to cover are:

1) Organizing work space

2) What and where to buy

3) How and where to list

4) Pricing and repricing

5) Customer service after the sale

6) Bookkeeping and taxes

Organizing now can make your future bookselling easier. SKUS, storage and retrieval of your listed books, bookkeeping system, packing system, organizing office supplies so it's easy to see when you need to reorder, etc. However, if organization isn't your strong suit, just start wherever you feel comfortable. Eventually what needs doing will make itself felt.

I've been at this part-time for five years now, and in a lot of respects I'm still in Beginnersville too. Even within the niches I've evolved into, there are still lots of areas patiently waiting to be explored.

I've found BookThink a very tolerant place to ask my many beginners' questions, and I hope you do too.

Gay Reeves

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