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Why are these books so cheap?
January 1, 2011 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Why are these used books on Amazon so cheap?

I want a copy of Ramsey Campbell's Lovecraftian anthology Cold Print, and I looked at the used copies on Amazon and saw that several are being sold at stupidly low prices before shipping- four cents, twenty cents, a dollar- and I'm wondering: why are these copies so cheap? Are they tattered? Are they crap? Is it just some arcane quirk of used book retail?
posted by Pope Guilty to Shopping (20 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
It's because Amazon pays you to ship them. And because you want them out of the house. And because thrift stores no longer even want books, because people can buy them so cheap off Amazon it's not worth taking up store space with them hardly, and they have too many. And even libraries don't want you to donate them for their Friends of the Library book sales because honest to god, we're up to our buttons in books here!

And I, personally, don't ever want to throw away books, so I'll sell a book on Amazon for $.39 because I get $3.99 to ship it and it only costs $1.75 - $2.75 to ship first class or media, so I just made $1-$2 for the book. I don't know where Amazon is moving money around to pay me $3.99 for shipping.
posted by toodleydoodley at 12:19 PM on January 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

High volume sellers can afford to make a low profit margin on each book, and amateur sellers often just want to get rid of the books. Amazon's shipping credit is $3.99, and most books ship for less than that via USPS media mail rate, so most of their profits are from the leftover shipping. I've bought a lot of books this way, and for the most part, the condition descriptions are accurate. Buy "good" condition or better, and you should get a copy you'll be able to enjoy.
posted by decathecting at 12:19 PM on January 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

Amazon requires book sellers to charge a fixed amount for shipping. For small books it can cost less than the required shipping charge to post the book (media mail). Is this book smallish? Perhaps the seller is only hoping to clear a very small amount? If you sold enough books this way I guess you might be able to make money.
posted by R343L at 12:21 PM on January 1, 2011

It costs $4 for S&H via Amazon- shipping costs closer to $2-3 in reality. They make their money in bulk.
posted by jmd82 at 12:25 PM on January 1, 2011

Books that were headed for the dumpster are now generating a profit of 1-2 bucks for volume sellers. All of the profit comes from the shipping credit.

I don't know where Amazon is moving money around to pay me $3.99 for shipping.

There is a huge market for used books on Amazon and it doesn't cost them a dime (excluding bandwidth, site maintenance etc) to run the program. Since they make a larger profit on more expensive books, it all comes out in the wash.
posted by special-k at 12:25 PM on January 1, 2011

High-volume sellers will often list some books for almost no money because as others have said Amazon gives them 3.99 for shipping. A couple of the sellers of this book have over 100,000 ratings, so they're definitely high-volume. And the book is a Mass Market Paperback, so it's small and won't cost them much to ship.

As for quality, no it's probably not tattered, and I would pay attention to how they describe the condition. I order a fair number of used books on Amazon and find that the actual condition of the book usually matches what they list, but not always. I try to order from sellers who add their own description of the condition, but the high-volume sellers don't usually have time to do this.
posted by daikon at 12:31 PM on January 1, 2011

I ordered a $.01 book from Amazon two weeks ago. I got a paperback from 1965 (the book is very famous and still in print. For $16.) with an ancient binding I can tell will fall apart the first time I read it. But it has the "used bookstore smell" and better cover art so I still think it was worth it.
posted by Cyrano at 12:34 PM on January 1, 2011

There is a huge market for used books on Amazon and it doesn't cost them a dime (excluding bandwidth, site maintenance etc) to run the program. Since they make a larger profit on more expensive books, it all comes out in the wash.

Oh, okay, so basically by subsidizing, at very little cost, the cheap stuff, they build up their position as the place you go for used books (instead of, say, alibris) and get your business when you want to buy something pricey. Thanks, folks.
posted by Pope Guilty at 12:51 PM on January 1, 2011

No, it's not a subsidy. This isn't like walmart moving in and selling a product at prices lower than they buy from manufacturers, just to put local businesses out of sale.

As others have mentioned, it costs Amazon next to nothing because they have the existing website architecture and customer base. But Amazon also gets a certain percentage of sales. I'm sure that overall they make money on small ticket sales, just a very small amount (even a fraction of a cent per sale, for some sales).
posted by lesli212 at 1:02 PM on January 1, 2011

There are a zillion bajillion used books out there, an awful lot more than there are people looking for them.
posted by Slinga at 1:05 PM on January 1, 2011

toodleydoodley: "It's because Amazon pays you to ship them ... I don't know where Amazon is moving money around to pay me $3.99 for shipping"

daikon: "Amazon gives them 3.99 for shipping"

According to the quotes above and words like "credit", people seem to be suggesting that the buyer only pays the, say, $0.04 even though the seller gets the additional $3.99 for shipping (total of $4.03 minus Amazon commission).

In the UK (and from what I can tell from the US site) this is not what happens at all. All second-hand books cost the buyer a minimum of $4.00 as every item has a $3.99 shipping charge applied to it. As noted above, the difference between the shipping charged to the buyer and the true shipping cost is where the profit to the seller lies.
posted by turkeyphant at 1:13 PM on January 1, 2011

Hmm, now I wonder why you're looking for a copy of Cold Print....

(Say hello to Y'Golonac for me!)
posted by JHarris at 1:24 PM on January 1, 2011

It's the latest Make Money From Home gig - In the Philly area I've run into a few people that hit just about every library book sale bag day and thrift store in the region, going through the books with a fine-tooth comb. One guy even brings an old iPaq with a bluetooth barcode scanner so he can get the current pricing info.

Like raising mink, it'll continue until there's absolutely no profit left in it, and possibly a bit longer due to inertia. People will continue writing books on how to do it a little longer, because PT Barnum was right.

So far, the people stay in it because that occasional Buy-at-$.25, sell-at-$250 transaction makes up for a lot of $2 sales. That and, near as I can tell, they're all either freelancers or laid off.
posted by Orb2069 at 1:28 PM on January 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

According to the quotes above and words like "credit", people seem to be suggesting that the buyer only pays the, say, $0.04 even though the seller gets the additional $3.99 for shipping (total of $4.03 minus Amazon commission).

no, I get that if I'm charging $.39 for a book, the buyer pays $4.38 for the book and that's where the shipping price comes from. I just think it's cool that Amazon acts as a facilitator for my online book sales and covers my (their, obv) advertising costs, etc, etc, and shoves a check into my bank account every 90 days without my having to do anything except type in ISBN numbers and carry books down to the P.O. Pinch me, it's magic!

I mean, Amazon's just crowd-sourcing its used book inventory, but seems to me that if Wal-Mart was running it I'd have to pay them a subscriber fee just to keep my inventory up there.
posted by toodleydoodley at 1:57 PM on January 1, 2011

One reason that books may become very cheap on Amazon is in cases where a large number of copies of the same volume are on sale. The retail price for a new copy of a bestseller might be $10.00 and the first person who comes along with a good-condition second hand copy might decide to put it on the market for $8.00. When somebody comes along with another copy to sell their best tactic for selling it is to undercut this rate: they need only offer it for maybe ten cents less to encourage a quick sale (and others have explained why many sellers are more concerned about shifting the book at any price than they are about profit).if the supply of the book is limited then the $7.90 version will go -and the price will go up. However, for a bestseller, it only takes a few dozen further transactions with a reduction for the book to get down to 0. In the UK, at least, the lowest value you can list a book for is one penny. So that is what it goes for.

Amazon, the buyer and the seller can all be happy with this figure- authors, publishers and rival sellers - not so much.
posted by rongorongo at 4:10 PM on January 1, 2011

Caleb Crain has an essay about this on his blog. May go dig it up.
posted by grobstein at 4:38 PM on January 1, 2011

In addition to the above angles, be aware that Amazon takes a hefty percentage of the sale price as a commission fee, but no percentage of the shipping. That's why some people find their take of the shipping (after actual shipping costs) is the most profitable part of selling on Amazon.
posted by ROTFL at 5:08 PM on January 1, 2011

When it comes to bookstores doing this: the thing is that if you have 15,000 books in your store and there are 5,000 of them you can't move, so all you'll get is $0.10 plus whatever you clear on shipping above the actual postage cost, you're going to make some money on the deal.

Which is better than throwing the books out or continuing to pay tax on them as an asset. And the guy you've got putting the 10-cent book into an envelope is the guy you're paying to be in the store anyway, not somebody you've hired for this job, so it isn't adding to your overhead.

So if you buy the four-cent Ramsey Campbell, that bookstore is a) getting rid of excess stock, b) making a profit of four cents plus however much they clear on the shipping, c) making a connection with you as a potential customer for more advantageous sales. All of this without adding a penny to their overhead. No downside.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:43 PM on January 1, 2011

And from Amazon's side, they're willing to take these listings, even if their share is just going to be a penny, as a way of keeping themselves as the leader in used book sales. Again, it doesn't add anything to their overhead and it expands their market.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:45 PM on January 1, 2011

somewhat relevant: a way to find the deals on the cheap amazon used books....
posted by Theta States at 11:01 PM on May 12, 2011

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