How much money am I losing here?
March 22, 2010 10:05 AM   Subscribe

How much does writing in books decrease their value?

I have a habit of taking notes and high lighting passages in books I buy. I like to review what I read later and skip to those places. I have read some of these books enough to no longer need them. I was wondering how much that decreases the value of the books so I know how much to price them on amazon when I sell them. The books I buy are usually paper back, sometimes slightly used and new worth $10-$30 (so I'm not scribbling over valuable old books.) These books are not text books and are non-fiction, so I could see it being either annoying or helpful to the future reader.
I don't use a highlighter, just pen and probably write on one in every five pages or so.
Please ask if I need to be more specific. I am assuming the answer would be something like, "20% less than regularly used book" or "If it's $10, sell for 5, if it's $30, sell for $15."
posted by SouthCNorthNY to Work & Money (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
When I worked at my college bookstore many moons ago, we used to take 50% off the buy back price (which may also have been 50% off) for books that were marked up--now, if you are famous and you are making notes related to your field, that might add value ;).
posted by agatha_magatha at 10:14 AM on March 22, 2010

This is speculative, but books without handwriting already have such low value that I wouldn't even bother trying to sell a book where I had handwritten on 20% of the pages. I write in my books, and I accept that I'm essentially paying a fee to do so: [the tiny amount I could have earned by selling it to a used bookstore without handwriting * the tiny probability that I would have actually tried to sell it]. If you care about being able to make money from selling used books to used bookstores, you shouldn't write in the pages at all -- or maybe the occasional pencil, but definitely not pen on 20% of the pages.

An exception would be selling course texts to a university bookstore, where marginalia can actually increase the value since some students prefer to have old student markings for guidance. My college would give you the same amount whether or not your book had writing/highlighting because they figured the pros and cons are a wash.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:17 AM on March 22, 2010

Just to reiterate - I am not talking about selling text books or to used bookstores. I am just talking about selling on amazon and making it explicit that I wrote on a bunch of the pages.
posted by SouthCNorthNY at 10:27 AM on March 22, 2010

Oh. I would not buy a book from Amazon where the seller explicitly says 20% of the pages have pen markings. So, if other people are like me, the books would be unsellable unless people need them for classes.
posted by Jaltcoh at 10:32 AM on March 22, 2010 [3 favorites]

[also somewhat speculative] I cannot see these being saleable unless the book is rarer and yet still in some demand. I would expect that if you can't find it on-line anywhere in any condition for less than $20, somebody might give you $5. I base this in part on my experience with buying from, which sells some library discards and otherwise dodgy books. But if you are not a big seller like and thus not able to offer me the eight books I am looking for all in one shipment, the $5 is less likely; you might sit on your copy for quite a long time before a buyer might happen along.
posted by kmennie at 10:49 AM on March 22, 2010

I would definitely not buy someone else's pre-marked paperbacks sight unseen.

I have bought a few marked-up paperbacks for 50 cents or $1 at a used book store where I could flip through and -- here's the crucial bit -- judge the usefulness of the person's markings for myself. I had a copy of "The Invisible Man" with a lot of really interesting thoughts, questions, and notes in the margins. But most of the time someone else's markings are just noise and distraction, and the market for used books is so copious I don't have to deal with it.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:50 AM on March 22, 2010

"The Effects of Pre-Existing Inappropriate Highlighting on Reading Comprehension" states that:

The results suggest that inappropriate highlighting results in lower reading comprehension, and that this effect is still found even with a prior warning about the negative effects of the inappropriate highlighting. It does not appear that readers can simply choose to ignore poor highlighting. [...] (1) Previous highlighting may be confused with with their own highlighting, and (2) Pre-existing appropriate highlighting is not beneficial to the student; only if the student is actively involved in the highlighting process will the student profit from this study technique.

Emphasis mine.

In my personal experience, when I've encountered books that people have already highlighted, they often seem to have done it almost at random - highlighting entire summary pages, or highlighting unimportant information. It would be difficult for me, at the time of purchase, to determine whether the highlighting was good or bad; hence, if there was a lot of highlighting I'd be inclined to assume the highlighting prove unhelpful and distracting.

It's hard to put a $ value on the amount it would impact a book's value; if a book cost $10 without highlighting, I wouldn't pay anything for a highlighted version; for a book that cost $30 without highlighting, I would pay maybe $10 for it with highlighting.
posted by Mike1024 at 10:50 AM on March 22, 2010 [9 favorites]

I would never buy a book with pen markings unless it was ridiculously cheap (like $0.50) and I really needed it. (Highlighter's even worse, but you say you don't use that.) When I write in books, I do so in pencil, so if anyone owns it after me they can easily erase the markings.
posted by languagehat at 11:32 AM on March 22, 2010

The standard sets of terms used to decribe second hand books are known as/derive from AB Bookman's Weekly. These don't specifically mention pen markings though you will find books on Abebooks described as good and may have markings. These are the lowest priced and come form sellers who obviously aren't providing a proper description and are just trying to have the cheapest prices. The amount, and type of markings in your books would likely classify them as 'fair' or 'poor'.

Amazon's conditions do mention pen markings and allow 'good' for minor markings otherwise it is considered 'acceptable'. You will find a similar thing to abe where people are doing proper descriptions, just a general one, and a buyer beware in markings -- it's likely that plenty of these books are not marked. The amount of markings in your books would classify them as 'acceptable' unless any of the text is obscured in which case they become 'unacceptable'.

In both cases you will find 'no markings' listed as a selling point. There is not necessarily a direct link between price and quality — it is a competitive market and not all sellers are providing proper descriptions. However often the 'good' books with a chance of markings form the lowest rank of prices for most books, though typically you can find unmarked good or as new copies at similar prices (often remaindered copies) .

You are likely making your books valueless unless it it is all that is available and people want a cheap reading copy.
posted by tallus at 11:36 AM on March 22, 2010

While not directly concerned with the financial value, Helene Hanff says the following in her book 84, Charing Cross Road:

"I wish you hadn’t been so over-courteous about putting the inscription on a card instead of on the flyleaf. It’s the bookseller coming out in you all, you were afraid you’d decrease its value. You would have increased it for the present owner. (And possibly for the future owner. I love inscriptions on flyleaves and notes in margins, I like the comradely sense of turning pages someone else turned, and reading passages some one long gone has called my attention to.)"
posted by Jofus at 11:42 AM on March 22, 2010

As a former Certified eBay Consultant (3 years running, 2006-2009) with 5 years of experience helping eBay and Amazon sellers with business strategy, I would strongly advise against attempting to sell a marked-up book on either eBay or Amazon.

A general rule of thumb is to price a pristine used book at 75% cover, an "obviously has been read but is in good shape" book at 50% of cover, and a damaged (torn, tattered, bent, highlightered) book at 25% of cover. And obviously be very clear about the marking that has taken place!

Let's say you have a $20 cover price. You list the book "heavily marked up" for $5.

Amazon currently charges "a commission of 6 to 15 percent of the sales price, a per-transaction fee of $0.99, and a variable closing fee." For books, the closing fee will be $1.35, and the commission is 15%.

This means that for a $5 book, you will have to pay $3.09. Which leaves you with a tidy profit of $1.91, which you will probably end up eating on the shipping side. If you're very lucky, you'll break even on this sale financially. Not counting your time and trouble to list it, go through the sales cycle, pack it, and ship it.

And that's assuming it sells. Given the abysmal sell-through rates for books (something like 20% last I heard) it very well may not.

I assume there is no used bookstore nearby, which is why you're planning to sell these on Amazon. If these are just "regular books," I recommend dropping them off at a thrift store. Get a receipt, claim 50% of the cover price, and take the charitable deduction on your taxes next year.
posted by ErikaB at 12:30 PM on March 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I can't speak for how this impacts used-book prices for readily available books. For rare books, desirable first editions, etc, inscriptions other than the author's signature drastically reduce the value to the point where book dealers consider them ruined.
posted by Miko at 12:31 PM on March 22, 2010

On an anecdotal level I don't mind the writing nearly as much as highlighting. If I was buying a book on Amazon and a pristine copy was $10 I'd buy the used copy for $5 especially if I don't plan on reselling it. The 25% value offered by ErickaB seems accurate.
posted by EsotericAlgorithm at 1:06 PM on March 22, 2010

ErikaB is not mentioning it that Amazon gives you a $4.00 dollar shipping credit on most books, and if you use media mail to send those books, shipping will be covered. I sell about 50 (used) books every month on Amazon and I can tell you that most of mine barely have any writing on them but I read the competitors description of their books and they often do have highlighting and markings according to them. You can lose as much as 50% to 75% of the original value but it all depends on the book and the price of it.
posted by The1andonly at 1:33 PM on March 22, 2010

I used to have a bookstore and once a customer came in and told me she wanted to return a book she was given as a gift because it had writing in it. I flipped through the book and saw no writing so I asked her if she could show me where the writing was. She opened the book to the half title page and showed me the offending marks. It was the author's signature. It was Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever, that year's winner of the National Book Award, for what that's worth. I told her that we had had the author in for a signing and that the book was an autographed copy from that event.

"I don't care whose signature it is. I don't want a book that's written in."

I told her I couldn't give her cash as it was a gift and she didn't have a receipt, back but I offered a store credit.

"Fine, whatever." She used the credit to buy a copy of The Celestine Prophesy.

What the market will bear. . .
posted by Toekneesan at 3:47 PM on March 22, 2010

Back when I worked at a used book store we basically wouldn't have bought your books. If they'd been hard to find, or even hardbacks, maybe. But if they are just widely available paperbacks with lots of writing? No.
posted by grapesaresour at 4:54 PM on March 22, 2010

Which leaves you with a tidy profit of $1.91, which you will probably end up eating on the shipping side.

ErikaB is totally wrong on this - surprisingly so, if she's really getting paid to consult on this stuff. The1andonly has it right: Amazon gives a shipping credit for each book that is completely separate from the original asking price. Many, if not most Amazon sellers come in under the $3.98 credit when shipping a book domestically, and thus make a small profit on the shipping, which is then added to whatever profit they're making on the sale of the book itself. This is why so many folks bother selling books for $.01 plus shipping on Amazon.
posted by mediareport at 8:38 PM on March 24, 2010

Like I said, I was getting paid to consult on this stuff. I no longer work that job, for which I am eternally grateful, not least because it's a full-time job on its own to keep on top of Amazon and eBay's various policy and fee changes.

Regardless of the fee wonkery, do you feel it would be worth it for the OP to list a heavily marked book for sale on Amazon? How much do you think such a book would net? That's the question at hand.
posted by ErikaB at 8:46 PM on March 24, 2010

Sure, I agree about the marking inside a book. Unless the person is famous, or the notes are particularly scholarly and interesting, we very rarely sell heavily marked books in the store I manage. I was just correcting the error about shipping fees at Amazon, which have worked the same way for years.
posted by mediareport at 6:18 AM on March 25, 2010

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