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How do I price my used books accurately?
March 26, 2008 1:25 PM   Subscribe

How do I accurately price used books?

We have a charity shop and get way more books than we can sell there. I am trying to sort the books by price by looking up the ISBN, edition, book condition, author etc. on abebooks.com but often times I find multiple copies of a book with wildly ranging prices. What's going on here?

I'm aware that the very highest price ones are brand new books that have sat at the publisher's their whole lives, but excepting this, why such a price range?

The goal is to sell the more rare and pricey books to friendly book dealers.
posted by By The Grace of God to Work & Money (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
How rare are the books and what is the value range we're talking about here? It just seems to me that you might be better off giving all of the books one price and letting the dealers have at it (or one price for softcovers and one for hardcovers). Your time is probably more valuable unless there's not much else to be done at the shop.

While I can certainly understand your desire to maximize the return on the books, please do not let your shop become one of those thrift stores that overprices common items because they are perceived by an unknowing staff to be "antiques" or "collectibles." Part of the joy dealers have in combing secondhand stores is finding treasure; if the sifting and finding has already been done, why would dealers come to your shop?
posted by MegoSteve at 1:52 PM on March 26, 2008


I am selling SOME of the books directly to the dealer MegoSteve; we have two flat prices for the many, many books we sell in the shop.

Value range is generally $5-$20 or $10-$100, with about 10 copies on abebooks.com.
posted by By The Grace of God at 1:57 PM on March 26, 2008


You have at least two things going on here:
1) I'm aware that the very highest price ones are brand new books that have sat at the publisher's their whole lives, but excepting this, why such a price range?

That is almost always not true at all, books that sit on publishers shelves for years are remaindered, that is sold for a buck or two to used book dealers and resellers, because there is no demand for them, they are not rare at all. The reason there is a price range (not the only reason, but a very common one) is that people are trying to find books that have no one else selling any copies at all and then setting a very high price in the hope that someone will come along who "has to have the book" for research, because their boss demanded it, etc. That's why you will find books that don't have real collectors value with astonishingly high prices listed on abe and amazon.

Then someone who is scouting for books that have a good resale value comes along and sees this not too rare book listed for 80 bucks and says, oh I have that, I can list it for 40 and I can get the sale. Then someone else comes along and says, shit I have six copies of that, let me list it for 30 and so on down the line until a more sane price is established.

2) Much of the used book selling online is actually automated so if someone offers a book for 80, someone else's bookselling software will adjust their own listing to 79.95 and then someone else will list it for 78.95 and so on down the line (in the bad old early days of the automated listing software you could actually set two bots bidding each other down to a penny.)

The prices you find in the middle, which are listed by people with good feedback (on Amzn, I forget if abe does feedback, but I suspect it does) are in the give a good value for a good price and wait 'till the book sells model, those are good clues as to the price but you have to bear in mind that those are "retail" prices, dealers won't buy the books for those prices.

I suggest you diversify your research, use amazon and abe and ebay and another site (I'm out of the loop a little here) and then go to your friendly book dealers and ask them to make an offer with some idea of what you would be willing to accept. Other than that you can get into the online used/rare booksales yourself, but I have to tell you that game has a ton of transactional and labor overhead.

If you have more specific questions I could probably refine my answer.
posted by Divine_Wino at 1:58 PM on March 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


Much of the used book selling online is actually automated so if someone offers a book for 80, someone else's bookselling software will adjust their own listing to 79.95 and then someone else will list it for 78.95 and so on down the line (in the bad old early days of the automated listing software you could actually set two bots bidding each other down to a penny.)

To clarify this a little, the original lister usually just slaps the book up there for 80 and leaves it and then the snipers come in with their software. Some sneaky people also just list a book that has no copies available at a huge price without even having it and then hope they can find it if someone bites or else they just cancel the sale.
posted by Divine_Wino at 2:00 PM on March 26, 2008


I work in the same sort of shop, a charity book shop.

What we do is take the middle-range figure and mark the book with that, but sell it to anybody--dealers included--for half of what it is marked.

Does this strategy work? No, and I will try to explain why.

Personally, I miss the old days of just 2 or 3 years ago when we sold a huge amount of books for a very low set price according to whether they were hard cover or soft. It has become laborious to look up things and price them. Then, there is the attendant anxiety over whether we'll get the price, whether the pricier books will be stolen, etc.

It's funny, but there are so many "dealers" now--people who sell on ebay and so forth, in addition to those who own a physical bookstore. I miss the days when I sold to people who would buy a book to just damn read it.

Now, so many of our customers come armed with isbn scanners. We haven't invested in one, and won't since your business is faltering and we can't justify the cost. Imagine that!

It's failing because somehow we lost our way--"sell a lot for little" was replaced by mercantile crapsterism.

Our town had at one time close to the highest per capita number of bookstores in the country. Last year a few more independents closed. Their owners were amongst our customers.

Ever since my boss adopted our current smarty-pants pricing strategy, with the increased labor and cost of not moving as many books as we used to, many more books end up unsold while our take remains pretty flat. In other words, a lot more work for no payback.

Because anybody and everybody now can look up the "price" of a book, it appears that every book has a price, no matter how small. Personally, I think we did a better business when we sold everything dirt cheap and let the customer sort out the "value".
posted by subatomiczoo at 2:00 PM on March 26, 2008 [1 favorite]


@subatomiczoo: you can totally pick up a used CueCat for $7. I use that to catalog my book collection via ISBN codes at my house.
posted by waylaid at 2:33 PM on March 26, 2008


Library Book Sales
Cleaning House or Cleaning Up?
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March 2008


Some good resources for appraising books are reviewed.
posted by mlis at 2:46 PM on March 26, 2008


I wonder if it would be possible to find a local bookseller or two whom you trust and who appreciates your charity and ask them to come in once a week and just eyeball your books for an hour, pulling out the ones that should fetch more than your flat price? It would probably work best as a volunteer effort, but you might consider letting the dealer take a book or two as a token thank-you. The dealer gets the chance to find a gem, you get the benefit of the dealer's knowledge, and you don't have to spend all that time on all those books when the vast majority of them are probably not going to sell for more than your flat rate.

This would probably go over better with a bookseller who'd like to support your charity in a meaningful way, rather than proposed as a great opportunity for finding rare treasures.
posted by kristi at 3:56 PM on March 26, 2008


@waylaid: How much tinkering does it take to use it for cataloging books specifically? I remember the cuecat and I have a similar need, but can it be used "out of the box" for books?
posted by thebrokedown at 4:02 PM on March 26, 2008


well, i use it with Library Thing. www.librarything.com
posted by waylaid at 4:47 PM on March 26, 2008


Bookfinder is a good way to check out the range of prices on a book.
posted by waterlily at 5:00 PM on March 26, 2008


thanks waylaid!
I'll tell my boss about it.
posted by subatomiczoo at 5:02 PM on March 26, 2008


And Divine_Wino is right on looking for the group of mid-priced good feedback sellers.
posted by waterlily at 5:10 PM on March 26, 2008


often times I find multiple copies of a book with wildly ranging prices. What's going on here?

Short answer: The upper-range prices are STOOPID INSANE.

Longer answer: The monetary value of the book at hand is almost certainly at the lowest end of the range. Remember that the prices you're seeing listed are the ones for books that *haven't* sold yet. If the lowest price listed for a given book is $15, you can bet that there have been multiple copies selling quickly for $10 over the past few months.

Caveat: Condition and edition. Ex-library copies are much less desirable, e.g., and go for much less. Exclude those prices in your calculation if your copy isn't ex-library. Also, be sure you're comparing apples to apples with regard to year of publication, edition, etc.

I deal with used books like this every day. If you want your books to accurately reflect market value, ignore the fuck out of those higher range prices.
posted by mediareport at 7:10 PM on March 26, 2008


The online revolution in bookselling has had the effect of basically eliminating the middle ranges of pricing from the market. There are a very few books that are quite valuable, and almost everything else is worth between almost nothing and nothing. If you are in a situation, as I gather you are, where you have limited time and knowledge with which to price your books, you are almost certainly better off pricing all of them by default (X pounds per hardcover, half or a third of cover price for paperback). The time and effort you spend looking up prices online will not be repaid by the few instances in which a book is both more valuable than the default and happens to find a buyer at that price.

Premium prices for collectible books are set according to what a highly motivated buyer would pay for a copy in premium condition, and the odds against the perfect combination of collector and book occurring in your shop are steep. A dealer can't afford to pay anything but a fraction of that price in order to cover the costs of doing business. Better that you gain a reputation among dealers and book scouts as a great place to find stock than that you exhaust yourself chasing a few needles in the haystack.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:42 PM on March 26, 2008


The online revolution in bookselling has had the effect of basically eliminating the middle ranges of pricing from the market....There are a very few books that are quite valuable, and almost everything else is worth between almost nothing and nothing.

I don't think that's true at all, unless by "nothing" you mean "under $25." New hardbacks routinely go for $12-15, and there are quite a few relatively quick-selling books our store finds worth listing at $15-30. What the "online revolution in bookselling" has done is *clarified* what many books are worth - some that were previously thought to be rare (Pogo paperback first editions, e.g.) turn out to be fairly common, and vice versa. It doesn't take long to sniff out the kind of books that still have value in that "middle range."

In other words: Yes, there are a ton of people selling dime-a-dozen books on Amazon for whatever profit they can eke out on the shipping charge, but there's still a wealth of stuff out there that's worth significantly more than "nothing."
posted by mediareport at 7:58 PM on March 26, 2008


If the book will sell for $50 or less, few dealers will pay more than 30¢ on the dollar. The higher the value of the book, the greater the percentage of the estimated selling price. In my opinion EBay will give you the best estimate on selling price. The auction price is a little cheaper but it will get you a realistic sense of its worth.

I think your best option is to follow Horace Rumpole's advice, although I agree with mediareport that there is a fairly wide spectrum of mid range books. If you look at books as only collectibles, then yes, most are worth next to nothing in comparison to the true rarities. But there are also buyers who are looking for reading copies of out of print books. Most of those books would be priced between $15 and $75, and that would be weighted towards the low end.
posted by BigSky at 8:56 PM on March 26, 2008


There are a very few books that are quite valuable, and almost everything else is worth between almost nothing and nothing.

I'd put it slightly differently. There are a few books that are very hard to find and very easy to sell, and a lot of books that are very easy to find and very hard to sell. The art of bookselling is to be able to tell the difference between the two. There's no easy way to do this -- you just have to learn by experience, by reading catalogues, scanning bookshop shelves, watching the trade, and gradually building up a list of wanted books. The most desirable books, of course, are the ones that hardly ever turn up for sale (or as a bookseller friend once put it to me, 'if you can find a price comparison for it, it's probably not worth anything' -- an exaggeration, of course, but you see his point).

Back in the early days of ABE, Bookfinder, and the late lamented Bibliofind, prices on the Internet were all over the place, and booksellers who knew their stuff could make an absolute killing. For several years I made a very good thing out of buying books off the Internet for £10/£20 and selling them on for £40/£50, occasionally hitting the jackpot by buying a book for £100 and selling it on for £1000. (Unfortunately I just ploughed the proceeds straight back into buying more books, like a gambling addict who stuffs his winnings straight back into the slot machine, so I never actually made any money. But that's another story ..) Of course it didn't last for long -- more people got into the game, booksellers got better at pricing their books, and bargains got harder to find. But there are still 'sleepers' to be found, if you know where to look for them. I spend, on average, half an hour every day searching AbeBooks, and I don't consider it time wasted.

You might be interested in Bookride, a blog written by the owner of Any Amount of Books, widely regarded as one of the best secondhand bookshops in London (and closely associated with the legendary Martin Stone). As well as discussing modern first editions and explaining what makes them valuable, it also discusses the spread of prices on sites like AbeBooks and explains why some copies are worth more than others. Although it's focused on the upper end of the first edition market (so not necessarily relevant to the sort of books you're likely to be handling day to day in your charity shop), it gives a very good insight into the way an experienced book dealer thinks about prices, and you might find it useful.
posted by verstegan at 4:33 AM on March 28, 2008


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