How large does a virtual used bookstore need to be?
July 22, 2010 5:53 PM   Subscribe

How large a stock of used books would one need in order to make a lower-middle class living selling them primarily on Amazon?

Specific anecdotes welcome; related resources welcome; ballpark estimates with any grounding in reality very, very welcome.

Really, any information related to this sort of thing wouldn't be out of line.
posted by jsturgill to Work & Money (29 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
pretty simple to estimate for yourself I would think.

What's lower middle class, $40 000 per year, gross?

What's the net profit per book, after taxes, packaging, Amazon's take? $2? Probably not much more than that on average.

So, 20000 units to move a year, equals, for about 200 working days a year, a hundred sales a day.
posted by wilful at 5:59 PM on July 22, 2010

I would say about a million books, at the very least, to start with.

I'll figure a $3 profit per sale, although that is probably a bit high. Let's call "lower-middle class " $30k per year. And let's say in any given year 1% of the books find a buyer, which again I think is really generous, given the level of competition on Amazon.

But if all that happens, you'd sell 10,000 books at $3 a head. At that point the most desirable parts of the initial collection would be depleted and you'd need to restock somehow.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:01 PM on July 22, 2010

So, 20000 units to move a year

Right but the question was about a "stock." As in having them on hand and hoping they find a buyer.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:02 PM on July 22, 2010

Actually I guess my 1% might be too low. It really really depends on what books they are. I was picturing random old stuff only a few people would want. if you somehow had used copies of Oprah Book Club selections or whatever, they would probably sell a lot more frequently. But I don't know where you'd get those without a big cash outlay.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:04 PM on July 22, 2010

Best answer: Sorry, this is not a very specific anecdote in terms of numbers, but my dad sells secondhand books online, through services like

He used to sell quite a wide price range of stuff, but in the end, finds that he does better by selling fewer, but rarer books. So he moved from lots of first edition hardbacks to only those that have some scarcity now and perhaps are signed, expensive limited edition art books, and other more collectable items. It lowers his costs because he used to have to go to the post office sometimes to just post one $15 book. And while this is probably not helpful at all, it just depends whether what you have is in any demand. He found a few niches where you get the sort of people who say "I MUST have this". There is so much competition these days for books online that if you are doing run-of-the-mill stuff, shoppers can always buy from someone else.

Having said all that, I think he makes a very part-time job income out of it (but he works on it like a very part-time job - and says that he notices when he puts more effort in, he makes more sales).
posted by AnnaRat at 6:07 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I can make up an equation to get the information I want just fine; I just don't know the numbers to plug in for the variables.

Is $2 average profit a correct assumption? Does that include gaming the shipping costs to make them profitable? Etc.

What's the tipping point? I assume that with 5 books listed, within the normal range for those titles/conditions used, a seller could easily go a whole year without making a single sale. With 100,000 books listed, within the norms for those titles, you should expect to sell..... what percentage per week/month/year?

And does genre (self help verses cookbooks verses fantasy verses lit...) make a difference in sell through rates/profitability/etc.
posted by jsturgill at 6:08 PM on July 22, 2010

Response by poster: Wow. Stop to respond to one post, and... a lot more show up.
posted by jsturgill at 6:10 PM on July 22, 2010

I used to be one of those guys who sells books out on the street in front of NYU's Bobst library. Most of the other guys sold their shit on Amazon as well as on the street but damn near everybody had some supplementary income. These guys were barely scraping by, as far as I can tell, and they had absolutely massive piles of stock. I've sold books on Amazon and ultimately decided it wasn't worth it. Even books I got for free were barely making me a dollar or so here and there. I don't know how many books you'd need to make $40K a year, but it's a lot. Out on the street your profit margin blows Amazon out of the water, but of course you're subject to a much smaller pool of buyers. However, on the internet, the impulse buyer is just going to get the cheapest book, or maybe the cheapest book with the nicest description of the condition, or whatever. To make money you have to know what books will sell for how much and base your stock on that. FWIW those guys out there on the street know this too, and mostly its in their heads. They go to giant sales and load up a truck full of the most "valuable" books. You're looking for books in the $0.25 - .50 range that you can easily flip for a lot of cash on Amazon, don't both with that shit that sells for like $4, $5 dollars because the cost of shipping, Amazon's cut, the money you will inevitably spend on gas and packaging--all that shit, it eats into your profit fast. You're looking for popular books as your bread and butter and you have to move a fucking ton of them to make money -- of course you'll be stumbling upon gem after valuable gem, but finding someone to pay what they're worth--that's another story.

Selling on the street and selling on Amazon are obviously different markets but I hope this helps. Good luck!
posted by johnnybeggs at 6:20 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: The guy who thinks only 1% of books would sell in a year is wrong. That means it would take a century to cycle your inventory. Obviously, if you had inventory that hadn't moved for three decades you would just scrap it.

You want to turn the inventory pretty often, say twice a year or even every 90 days, continually lowering prices until things sell.

Using the $2 gross margin per book figure means 20,000 books a year to hit your financial goal. That means a stock of 10,000 books for semiannual turnover or 5,000 for quarterly turnover. That's not too bad.

The key is that $2 figure.

For this business to work what you really need is a way to continually get thousands of used books cheaply. You want to be buying them by the pound.
posted by Mjolnir at 6:23 PM on July 22, 2010

The only way to make selling books profitable on Amazon is to find rare ones and charge accordingly. Anything that sells for less than $20 probably isn't worth your time. For anything popular, there will be several hundred copies for sale, sometimes as cheap as a penny each. Somebody is putting an awful lot of effort into getting that $1 you can skim out of the shipping costs. It's just not worth it.
posted by cosmicbandito at 6:25 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

What kind of books are you talking? Plain old used paperbacks? Hardcovers? Modern first edition collectibles? Rare books? Your business plan needs to be filled out a little.
posted by Justinian at 7:07 PM on July 22, 2010

Wilful writes:
"What's lower middle class, $40,000 per year, gross?"

Are you showing off? Many individuals would be thrilled with an income like that.

To the OP: it doesn't matter how many tons of books you have squirreled away; they have to be books in demand in order to sell. I once posted a slew (O.K., 35 or so) used books on Amazon; by the time I was finished, I had gotten an order for the first book I had listed, by David Sedaris. Meanwhile, "Wonderful Windowboxes" and "The Essential Parakeet" go languishing in my closet.
posted by BostonTerrier at 7:56 PM on July 22, 2010

Response by poster: What kind of books are you talking? Plain old used paperbacks? Hardcovers? Modern first edition collectibles? Rare books? Your business plan needs to be filled out a little.

This isn't a business plan, just a question. I was mainly interested in a rough estimate for mass market paperbacks and hardback books sold to what would essentially be bargain-hunting readers, not collectibles/rare books. I mean, if you get rare enough, you can have a "stock" of ten books, sell one every five or six years, and still make a killing, but clearly that is a very unique situation. My curiosity was about the other end, and sellers who target the mainstream. What is their turnover? How many books do they keep on hand?

I am also curious as to whether certain genres tend to move better or command a premium over others. When acquiring books, what kinds of books are worth seeking out? Broad categories: genre fiction, literary, award winning, cook books, biographies, true stories, thrillers, whatever. That sort of thing.

But I'm also interested in information about any aspect of used online bookselling, regardless of niche, target audience, or any other factor.
posted by jsturgill at 8:03 PM on July 22, 2010

I don't know how to answer your follow-up. It sounds like you want an easy answer and there is no easy answer. The book trade is absolutely brutal, competition is fierce and it takes time to learn it.

If you want to sell books right away without studying I suggest you get a Scanner/Smartphone hook-up (Google "books scan price") so you can check prices as you look at books.

My advice is to learn about book collecting and acquire the knowledge so you can identify books that will sell and then go out and get them.

Subscribe to Firsts. Recommended reading:

ABC For Book Collectors by Carter

Points of Issue by McBride

Collected Books: The Guide to Value (2002) by Ahearn.

First Editions: A Guide to Identification by Zempel

A Primer on Book Collecting by Winterich & Randall

The List of Books: A Library of Over 3,000 Works by Raphael

Start checking Book Sale Finder for sales in your area. You will learn from trial and error which are the good sales and things like at which sales it matters whether you are #15 or #420 to get in when the sale starts (Recently at a sale that began at 9am, I arrived at 530am and was #38).

You should also go to estate/garage sales, use tools like Crazedlist to search Craigslist and set up Google Alerts.
posted by mlis at 8:30 PM on July 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

The Home Based Bookstore is worth checking out. The author goes into detail of how he got his start selling books online. Here is a sample from his book.
posted by the biscuit man at 8:34 PM on July 22, 2010

Response by poster: I don't know how to answer your follow-up. It sounds like you want an easy answer and there is no easy answer. The book trade is absolutely brutal, competition is fierce and it takes time to learn it.

If you want to sell books right away without studying...

I really don't get how you get that from what I've written. But your links and suggested reading are interesting and on-point, so thanks for that.

It sounds like you're involved in used book selling, or know people who are. If that's the case, do you have any information on what size working inventory would be sufficient to pull down 30 or 40K a year? That's one of the primary things I'm interested in learning because that general ballpark would help provide me with a sense of scope and scale.

One of the major reasons I'm asking this is that I learned a local used bookstore has a warehouse of 95,000 books that they also list and sell online. I was curious as to how much that might bring in, given various different starting assumptions, year to year or month to month. I'm assuming that since their inventory is so large, they aren't specifically targeting collectible editions, but I'd be interested to learn if that assumption is incorrect, and it's common to be both selective and hold such a large inventory.

I'm curious. I got into a conversation with a guy at a used bookstore. I'm not trying to quit my day job. Please don't try to extrapolate judgments about my business acumen from this question. I happily admit to not being an entrepreneur.
posted by jsturgill at 8:47 PM on July 22, 2010

Best answer: We recently sold 100 books and 95 DVDs on Craigslist to a guy who is an Amazon reseller -- that's his job. We were his third stop of the day, and he had a similar haul from the other two places. He said he spends 3-4 days a week buying books and the rest of the time listing and shipping them.

This seems to put it in the range of at least a hundred thousand books a year to make a living at it.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:54 PM on July 22, 2010

Best answer: I don't mean to be fighty jsturgill. It's just when I read this:

When acquiring books, what kinds of books are worth seeking out? Broad categories: genre fiction, literary, award winning, cook books, biographies, true stories, thrillers, whatever. That sort of thing.

It is difficult to answer. The answers are going to be in Firsts and in the books I recommended. I could share a little of what I know about art books. Read my answer here for publishers that are noteworthy and should be looked at for closer inspection when glancing at a bunch of books.

That is what you need to learn, publishers, points, editions, authors, what an artists book is and why it is valuable.

I no longer buy books to resell. I am at this point enjoying the pleasure of disciplined collecting (at the sale I mentioned above I bought 3 books).

I'm assuming that since their inventory is so large, they aren't specifically targeting collectible editions, but I'd be interested to learn if that assumption is incorrect, and it's common to be both selective and hold such a large inventory.

At that level, when you have a store, you have the benefit of walk-in's and word-of-mouth recommendations and all kinds of scenarios, e.g., movers cleaning out a house find two cartons of books and bring them in to the store, relatives cleaning out the house after a death call you to come take a look at the books in the house, et cetera.

But to answer your question, the buyers for the store would seek whatever their speciality is and whatever else they pick-up is gravy. Example: You go to house to look at a collection of rare books and the guy tells you he is also selling all the books in this other room. You see that there are at least 15 titles you know sell for $25-$30 each, so if you can pick them up for $1-$2 each you are ahead. And maybe you spend $1,500 for the rare books that you will be able to resell for $10,000 and the guy agrees to just throw in the other 15. That is one of the ways you wind up with a warehouse of 95,000 titles.
posted by mlis at 9:22 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think the fundamental problem that you're missing is that no one reads books. Why try and sell something that no one wants to buy?

Well okay not "no one." I read. A lot of people here read. So let's just say "the portion of the population that reads is statistically insignificant."

If you want to sell things online, there are few worse choices than books. There are very few things that are less in demand than books. The world teems with books, particularly cheap books. There is a massive supply, and only an infinitesimally small demand.

I'm sure you love books. I understand. I love books, too. But trust me, you don't want to try and sell them. It's just not worth it.
posted by ErikaB at 9:31 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks MLIS.
posted by jsturgill at 9:42 PM on July 22, 2010

you're welcome, sent you a memail with more info.
posted by mlis at 9:55 PM on July 22, 2010

So let's just say "the portion of the population that reads is statistically insignificant." Er... let's... not.
posted by McBearclaw at 9:58 PM on July 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

To make money you have to know what books will sell for how much

There's a special PDA with a barcode scanner and software that will tell you how much a book is worth on the used market. Once I saw a guy with that rig go straight through our university library's entire book sale (several large rooms), picking maybe 1 book off each shelf, and walking out with multiple shopping carts full of books which he got for $0.25 apiece.
posted by miyabo at 10:07 PM on July 22, 2010

Best answer: I used to do this for supplemental income, although never full-time as you ask. I had a small room for storage and had on hand about one to two hundred books at a time as inventory. I would buy them from second hand shops for twenty five cents per paperback and a dollar per hardcover. Generally, they would sell for about 3-8 dollars each online. They can be shipped via media mail at fairly low costs. I spent about 4-5 hours per month buying/packing/listing and made once weekly trips to the post office. I made about two hundred dollars per month. The best selling books were college texts, how-to, self-help, and pregnancy/child-care. Rarely did anyone buy the stuff I was excited about, but when they did, I would slip a note in the package about how awesome the book they were about to read is.
posted by troublewithwolves at 11:10 PM on July 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

As I understand it you can do a little better than average selling on Amazon via Fulfillment By Amazon aka FBA, because the barrier to casual purchase is lower.
posted by symbebekos at 12:25 AM on July 23, 2010

Fiction isn't worth it. Any book that has been printed many times will often be selling for less than 10 cents on Amazon. Go to any large book sale, like at a library or community center, and you'll see people with scanners that instantly look up the resale value. This would be your competition.

I have a friend of the family who does this for retirement income. He specializes in out-of-print stuff. Mass market fiction is the most cutthroat, because even if you can make a profit on reselling your book for a penny, there are probably 50 other sellers who have the same book for the same price, some of whom have thousands of positive reviews.

tl;dr: if you want to do this, go niche, not mass-market.
posted by rachelpapers at 6:12 AM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I sold my excess books on Amazon. For a mass market fiction, I usually made $2 if it sold at all and that was because I saved on shipping methods (I listed them at a cent lower than the lowest price - I was just looking to get rid of them). I would say about 50% of these sold within 3 months.

For recent (as in just used in the last year) textbooks, I made anywhere from 10$ to 70$. The more expensive books were hefty math / bio / chemistry texts. Most of those sold within a week of posting and I priced them slightly higher than the lowest price groups becaue they were pretty much mint as I usually didnt take them to class and I was never a highlighter or underliner type person.
posted by WeekendJen at 10:09 AM on July 23, 2010

I always thought one could make a living going to used book stores with a web browser and buying the books that were selling it at high prices. These would be used & rare books that the book store was fairly unlikely to sell & were more likely to sell on Amazon. Sometimes there's a $100 discrepancy between the two prices, but there's no guarantee that a) the book would sell or b) stay at that price.

The same for video games - go to video game stores & see what's selling cheap because a local market is unlikely to buy it, but is prized by collectors.

I've bought old books & games and when I look them up on Amazon I'm surprised to see that the asking price is over a hundred dollars.
posted by MesoFilter at 12:59 PM on July 23, 2010

Best answer: I can't offer you advice on specific numbers, but I can tell you a few more general things to keep in mind.

I have worked on and off for my grandmother's online bookstore for several years. She used to operate it with my grandfather before he passed away -- their intention was to sell online and one day open a bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Unfortunately this never happened, but the online bookstore still exists. They bought quite a few books over the years as stock for this potential bookstore, so we have tons of books sitting around in boxes (and in a storage unit, but we're getting rid of that cos it's expensive). She does this part-time, listing books as she feels like it and taking orders as they come in. We don't purchase new stock anymore because we have so much already, we're running out of room, and my grandmother's not up to it anymore.

+Web sites to use: Most of our orders come from Amazon because it's very well-known. We also get a fair amount of orders from ABE and Alibris. It's probably best to list on a few of these web sites for the highest amount of traffic.

+Software to use: We use ABE's own HomeBase (nothing to do with the UK store, which quite confused me). It's free and it's decent enough, but I have a few problems with it. When you list a book via HomeBase, it creates its own inventory number for the book to keep things organized. You can fill in the basic information (author, title &c.) as well as more detailed items (keywords, measurements of book). You can also input the book's ISBN and let HomeBase fill in the info for you. At the end of the day, we back up our database and upload our inventory to ABE, Amazon, and Alibris. It's pretty simple (heck, my grandma can do it). We also use a separate program to keep track of finances (noting price of book, commission taken by Amazon or whoever, shipping costs, &c.) and there are a million of these out there. We also use the USPS program Shipping Assistant, which calculates shipping costs and creates shipping labels for you to use (bonus: free delivery confirmation!).

+Books to sell: My advice on this is to pick one category to specialize in. Ours is performing arts due to my grandmother's background in drama and music: for example, we have a wide variety of plays, and my grandmother knows a lot about theatre, so she knows what's worth selling. We also stock many other types of books -- cookbooks, recipes, what have you -- but not every type of book. Don't try to sell loads of recent fiction, like The Da Vinci Code or whatever, because there are a million booksellers online that have this type of thing for a penny or so. They have massive warehouses and other resources you can't compete with. At some point, you have to decide how much money is worth making. I could list books that we'd make 50 cents on, but it's really not worth it. Last year I went through our inventory and got rid of everything priced below $19.50. Definitely set a limit for yourself and stick to it. We regularly sell books at $20-$30, but it's the bigger sales that really keep the business going -- like the book we sold for $400 last week. Visit different web sites and look up your book to determine what its going rate is before you list it. Make sure your prices are competitive, as most buyers don't know you and will generally go for the cheapest book of a certain quality.

+Shipping: Different web sites have different policies on shipping. Some charge the buyer a fixed rate. Some allow you to set your own shipping cost. For the latter, we've always charged a flat rate of $5. The actual cost is usually below this (ship media mail for US orders and you'll save a bundle), but you do have to pay for shipping materials (we pack things very, very, very carefully), gas for driving to the post office &c. International buyers pay a different rate, determined by me phoning the post office and asking, generally. Really heavy books ship for a different rate as well -- we note this in this book's description so the buyer is aware. You may want to offer a priority mail service as well as media mail, for which the buyer can pay extra.

+Customer service: This won't apply for most orders but if you want to set yourself apart from the faceless mass of sellers on Amazon, make sure you have stellar customer service. For one thing, buyers will like the good feedback attached to your name. You won't have much contact with customers, but occasionally someone will write to you (or call you, if you are listed in this way) asking for more information about a book, maybe scans of the cover, maybe more details about the book's condition (about which you should always be 100% honest and list every single tiny flaw, even if you think it's not very important). Customers will appreciate it if you're available, quick to reply, and helpful. We email each customer after their book has been shipped. Oh, and make sure you keep records of when you shipped each purchase in case a customer claims it got lost in the mail or something. The post office will stamp the receipt half of your Shipping Assistant label's with the date for your records.

+Organization: Set up whatever system you want, but just make sure it works. You don't want to have someone order a book from you and then you realize you can't find it, for whatever reason. We organize ours by category, then author name within each category. As we list each book, we put a little sticky note on the inside cover with the inventory number, price, and date.

These are the main things I can think of. Feel free to MeMail me if you have any further questions. Good luck!
posted by Put the kettle on at 1:41 PM on July 23, 2010 [4 favorites]

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