How best to sell valuable (to the right people) math and physics books?
September 13, 2021 5:44 PM   Subscribe

A recently-passed relative left behind nine boxes of well-regarded math and physics books, which I am being asked if I want to sell. Apparently, the books could be worth quite a bit to people who are interested in math and physics.

According to my aunt, who is cleaning out the house, the used versions of these books are potentially valuable (she searched on Powells and Amazon to see what used copies of the titles were going for.)

I am being asked if I want her to transport the books to me to sell, with 10% of any profits to go to the estate. There was mention that she thought the whole lot might be worth ~$10,000 all told.

I asked her to give me a day to think about it.

My concern is that I will be stuck with books that—while they may be "worth" a certain amount hypothetically—no one actually ends up buying.

I would be in charge of storing the books, listing them for sale, packaging them up, and shipping them out. I'm not sure if we would give the books say X number of months or 1 year to sell, before I could donate them or something.

I do currently have a storage unit that could accommodate nine more boxes.

(there was a similar question from July about selling books, but I thought that since this was more "specialty/rare-math-physics" books, this question was different/specific enough to ask.)

I was thinking of listing the books on eBay, and perhaps Facebook marketplace (if such things might sell there).

I also thought of posting photos of all of the titles on Math and Physics related Facebook groups, letting people know I had them for sale if they were interested, but perhaps that would be too spammy.

For each book I figured I would look on Powells and Amazon for their pricings, and then put my price as X% less or X dollars cheaper as the eBay "Buy Now" price.

My plan for each book would be to take several photos—the cover, the spine, the book open to a couple of interesting-looking pages—so any potential buyers could see the condition and get an idea of the contents if they didn't know.

Are there any "selling rare books on eBay" tricks/advice-websites that I should know of?
I wasn't sure if there were some online marketplace that was especially good with selling "rare books" or math and physics books.

I know that often sellers will group a bunch of books together to sell as one "you have to buy them all" lot, but I feel like if the books are actually worth a lot individually, if a person just wanted one of the books in the group, the group price would be too much to justify their purchasing all of them for just the one they wanted.

Ideas? Thoughts?
posted by blueberry to Work & Money (21 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Did your aunt check what the books are going for or what they are listed for? I ask because a Russian film theory book I had was listed on Amazon at $1800, but that was not remotely what it was worth. I wrote the people selling it and asked about the price - I never heard back, but the listing was immediately taken down. I ended up getting about $70 for it. I do not know what is happening with people listing books at outrageous, unrealistic prices, but it is a thing.
I don't know anything specific about math and physics books, but I would check what they sold for on eBay, not what people are listing them for, to get some idea of the actual value.
posted by FencingGal at 5:56 PM on September 13 [14 favorites]

I sold a fair number of academic press philosophy books, not rare, along with some hard-to-find Hebrew Judaica, in 2014, and made about $10-$15 per hour of work.

If the books were already at your place, I would just throw them up on Amazon by ISBN, keep some packing materials ready, and treat the rare sale as a nice bonus. But the books are not currently at your place…so I really wouldn’t recommend getting involved any further.

The MOST I could see doing is getting in touch with some of the decedent’s former colleagues to see if they want to buy the lot. If there aren’t any easy-to-find contacts at a university, I wouldn’t pursue it at all.
posted by 8603 at 5:58 PM on September 13

I think you probably need to do a bit more background research into how much these books may actually be selling for and how fast they will sell. Don't look at the eBay "Buy It Now" price, look at the actual sold prices (this is under the "Advanced" search) AND pay attention to *when* the books sold - if the last time the book sold on eBay it went for $50 that's good! But if the last copy sold on eBay was like a year ago, that's not great no matter how much it went for. Like, I recently traded in an out-of-print children's book that I think I got ~$7 for. It's listed for like $30 on both eBay and Amazon, but there are no recent sales on eBay and the Amazon sales rank is in the 800,000s.

If you have lots of extra room for book storage, maybe this is a good idea? But your concern that you will end up with a lot of books that sit around for months or years is EXTREMELY valid.

Another thing to consider: how will your aunt feel if/when you sell the books for $1000 (or $100) rather than the $10,000 she thinks they're worth?
posted by mskyle at 6:00 PM on September 13 [5 favorites]

So, I'm a physics professor (IANYPP). It's not clear to me from your description whether these books are older rare books or are books in common use now. If they're books that are commonly used in courses now (e.g. Griffith's Electrodynamics), your best bet is probably to list them on Amazon; that's where my students usually go to find used copies. Even used copies are likely to fetch a reasonable amount (because the new copies are so expensive).

If they're rare books, then a path like Ebay is probably a better choice. Although, I do wonder if you are actually likely to sell them. The right people may be willing to pay a lot but, for physics and math, there are way fewer "right people" than there are for other disciplines.
posted by Betelgeuse at 6:06 PM on September 13 [10 favorites]

Printings of a specific book may have different valuations, depending on edition and condition. A first edition hardback of a notable book could likely fetch more than later reprints.

Other factors may include whether a rare or otherwise notable book is signed by the author, who may be notable by virtue of popular interest, or of focused historical interest by other scientists or mathematicians.

Abebooks and similar used book-focused sites might give you a picture of the price range of each item, depending on those or other variables.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 6:13 PM on September 13

The listing on Amazon are likely inflated by 2x to 20x. There are automated pricing bots that will see what the market will bear and raise the price. Then if there is another bot, they will ‘bid it up’.

I would be surprised if this was actually worth $1000. That’s about $111 per box or about $10 per book. Is it worth your time for that much return?
posted by Monday at 6:27 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]

Your concerns are not unwarranted! The market for such books is not large. On the other hand, if you need an out-of-print math textbook and you need it soon, maybe you'll pay any dumb price someone asks for it. Been there, done that.

If you live near a university it might behoove you to contact relevant departments. You may be able to offload lots to professors. At the very least I would consider hiring a couple grad students to sort them into lots of books on similar topics rather than trying to puzzle it out yourself.

Honestly though, I wouldn't take this on unless you want it to be a long-term personal side project. Certainly I wouldn't expect more than a handful of them to sell within a year. If your aunt thinks she can get $10k for a bunch of academic texts in any sort of timely manner she's welcome to try.
posted by potrzebie at 6:28 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

I am a mathematician. I have lots of math books, because I used to buy a lot of math books. I no longer buy a lot of math books. It's rare for me to need something I can't access digitally through my university login. There are some circumstances under which I might buy an old math book. There are none under which I would buy a whole box of old math books.
posted by escabeche at 6:32 PM on September 13 [6 favorites]

As a physicist who has spent years frequenting used book stores next to large, fancy universities, I'd be very cautious.

Unless they're at least a hundred years old, early editions aren't really a thing most people in the sciences care about. (We usually want the newer version *with* the corrections.) There a lots of $200 textbooks that are one edition older than classes require selling for $10. A groundbreaking soviet physics book from 1950 is. . . something we already can access electronically if we care about it. Only weirdos want a paper copy, and we don't want to pay much for it.

If becoming a book seller sounds like fun, go for it. If not, take them all to a used book shop near a big university and expect to get a hundred bucks and give away 7 of the boxes to the donation box.

Another option is to find a university and donate it to a department library. Many schools have reading-rooms/libraries full of donated books. Poor schools might really benefit from the donation. Brace yourself for the likelihood that they'll throw away 60% of them.

(Also, sympathy for your loss and cheers for caring about books.)
posted by eotvos at 6:34 PM on September 13 [11 favorites]

Find a book store near a large university and see what they will give you for the lot. It will likely be a fraction of what you see online but it will save you lots of time and give you a rough estimate of the value...
posted by NoDef at 6:38 PM on September 13 [1 favorite]

When I moved a year ago I found a website that would take an isbn and report which online book purchaser would pay the most for that copy. I ended up using 4 or 5 resellers and they paid the shipping, so it was worth my time. Of course, particularly rare or unusual volumes will require more initiative to list yourself on Amazon or EBay, but if the collection is truly valuable it is likely that a fair bit of it can get some reasonable value/effort through the first option. It is time consuming as you need to handle every book at least three times (to sort, pack and ship) on top of whatever handling is required to get the books to where you can keep the and do this.
posted by meinvt at 7:59 PM on September 13

From "potentially valuable" you have to deduct the cost of shipping both to you and to potential buyers, the cost of storing them (though I must say the usual self-storage is not a great environment for books), and the value of your time for dealing with all of that.

If the potential profit is really important to you, then maybe go for it, if not then I'd tell your aunt to take them to the closest used bookstore and take whatever they will pay.
posted by TimHare at 10:21 PM on September 13

Generally, buyers pay for shipping.

I don't do books, but I do do boardgames. I have thousands. Packaging and shipping and actually getting payments can be a full time job, let alone storage and space for boxes and packing materials.
posted by Windopaene at 10:47 PM on September 13 [2 favorites]

I would be in charge of storing the books, listing them for sale, packaging them up, and shipping them out.

You are proposing to set up as a used book dealer without any experience or knowledge of the market or the clientele. This can be done. This is frequently done. It is a learning experience, but not often a profitable venture for the amateur.

If this is not a professional choice that speaks to you at this time, you would do well to find an actual professional book dealer, local to either you or your aunt, who will appraise this collection and offer you a fair price for it. As you have already begun to discover, a fair price will take into account the labor costs of research, cataloguing, listing, and storage. You should not expect to realize more than 20-30 percent, at the optimistic high end, of the ultimate selling price of the collection. If I were you, I would choose to sell the lot to a dealer outright rather than consign it.

Whether your aunt's estimate of the selling price is low or high I cannot say, but neither the general marketplace nor the specific seller she consulted are the places a professional would start with.
posted by queenofbithynia at 11:08 PM on September 13 [4 favorites]

(the benefit of using a professional to do what are the duties of a highly skilled and specialized profession is, I should perhaps say, exactly what you mention at the top of your question: finding the right people to sell to.
Genuinely rare and desirable first editions of math & physics works do not, as someone affirms above, generally sell to the average working physicist or mathematician. That does not mean they do not sell; it just means they don't sell passively: buyers don't come to you in the kind of timeframe that is ideal for you. There are private collectors for every niche interest - and if you are a dealer, you can make direct offers to the ones you know, instead of waiting for them to find you - and there are also institutional sales. How do you, a private person without a clear picture of your collection's individual selling points, approach a suitable institution whose acquisitions person is already inundated with rare book catalogues from dealers they already have working relationships with and whose research & descriptions they already know they can trust? generally, you don't.

Established relationships with clients are one advantage professional dealers have over amateurs; reputation is another. Someone who is willing to lay down a few thousand dollars for a rare book does not want to have to wonder whether the seller has correctly identified a signature or mistaken a second printing for a first. Dealers who are known to be trustworthy and whose research adds value to an item can command higher prices. This is why, if you are not interested in entering the profession for its own sake, selling to a dealer is wise: it's not just quicker, it makes you more money.)
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:09 AM on September 14 [7 favorites]

Academics read books online these days. Unless they’re rare and valuable as vintage/antique stuff, or current textbooks (non-current textbooks are worthless) most professors I know (I’m one) are busy divesting themselves of the thousands of books we never open anymore.

Academic libraries are digitizing and putting books in storage and deaccessioning vast numbers of physical books, not acquiring new collections.

Unless they’re truly rare and unique, I don’t think there is really much of a collectors’ market either. Old science books become obsolete fast unless the book itself has some underlying special rarity and importance, like a signed first edition.

I’m voting “sounds unlikely” that they’re worth what your aunt thinks they are.
posted by spitbull at 3:02 AM on September 14 [4 favorites]

You say she checked Powell's: did she try entering the ISBN numbers into their purchasing system to see if they would buy them?

Agree with the posts above, scientists generally want to know what's going on now (or at least yesterday) and those domains move fast relative to, ya know, fiction. It's the rare and remarkable book that ages out into collectability or maintains interest because newer editions take too long to come out (I'm looking at you Joaquin Fuster and The Prefrontal Cortex in the early aughts).

Powells and other sellers do remote buys using their system. I'd go through them, ship the lot they want, maybe ask any local STEM departments if they want the remainder and recycle/junk/free box the rest.
posted by DeepSeaHaggis at 4:05 AM on September 14 [3 favorites]

I'm in a very different discipline, but:

A recently-passed relative left behind nine boxes of well-regarded math and physics books ... she thought the whole lot might be worth ~$10,000 all told.

Unless these are very large boxes that each require a forklift to move, that seems extraordinarily unlikely.

I agree with 8603 that if you're trying to sell them for retail prices, you should expect that to be a lot of work so that you end up making like $10-15/hr before cutting the estate in. Do you want to do this for $9/hr, or would you rather make a little extra by doing some retail work as Christmas season approaches or whatevs?
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:09 AM on September 14 [1 favorite]

In addition to whether they are collectors' editions or just used books, the issue is of edition. Sure, 1-2 editions behind the current you might be able to make some money from students trying to save a buck and wanting to have a paper version. 20-30 editions (was this an elderly relative?) and the books are not worth anything really.
posted by Dotty at 5:51 AM on September 14

I used to sell secondhand books for a living, specialising in hard to find non fiction books and sold mostly to universities online using websites like Abebooks. If you are seeing crazy prices online and there are only one or 2 copies of the books listed at that price, chances are it's a scam, they just list the books at crazy prices if there aren't many copies listed so when the lower ones sell theirs is the only one on the off chance someone will buy the book at that price because someone told their library department to get that book and get it now and they have ivy league money. Now a days that is highly unlikely because everything is online and this is why I "used "to sell online books for a living. Just because a book is listed at that price doesn't mean it's selling at that price. Unless they are vintage or antique, first edition, signed by someone famous or in a very niche area that few people study they are probably not worth a great deal of money. You can try listing them and see what happens, remember to allow for postage and time in the price listed. Also be prepared for the books to sit for months on end, specially if it's a niche area.

I could be completely wrong I haven't seen the books and maybe they are worth what your aunt says, but the sad truth is books are very very rarely worth what people think they are.
posted by wwax at 3:59 PM on September 14

Best answer: Former used book dealer here who worked in a bookstore run by an ex-physicist for a decade and a half, and who still noses around thrift stores and such for finds to sell. Some points:

1. The one-stop website you want is, which is owned by Amazon but includes results from eBay, Amazon and thousands of other dealers so you can compare asking prices for individual titles with a single search, but *also* highlights book buyback sites like and that offer immediate cash for some used books and pay the shipping. What you're looking for is the green "See all Buyback offers" box visible at this sample results page. If that appears (and it will appear only rarely), you have a book you can be certain that people are still buying (which doesn't mean other books aren't selling, just that you can be sure of the ones with that green box). FWIW I've found the 2 buyback sites I mention above to be very reliable and have gotten paid promptly from them for years, but can't vouch for others I've only used once or twice, and which may be more fly-by-night operations.

2. Quality math and physics books (not introductory textbooks, which are rarely worth anything after a year or two) were very much appreciated at our store, as they usually could find an audience. However, it is not clear what "well-regarded math and physics books" means, and as noted above, $1000/box in value to you is very, very, very unlikely.

3. Once you check a good sampling of the books at Bookfinder to get a sense of asking prices from various dealers, it is time to take a couple of boxes to 2 local rare/used book dealers and compare what kind of offer they give you. Be aware that used book stores will offer 10%-30% of what they think the book will sell for in cash to you. IMHO, more honest bookstores will offer the higher end of that scale, but it very much also depends on how quickly they think the book will sell. I always tried to offer a solid 25-33% of what I thought we'd get for a book in cash, but up to 50% if the customer preferred store credit. So even if you have $10,000 worth of books, a used bookstore will only offer a small percentage of that.

4. How much time to you want to spend? Looking up 9 boxes of books on Bookfinder isn't that hard; probably a day or two's work a few hours at a time. I love that kind of thing so I'd jump at the chance to find the few $100-200 books in the pile and see what a rare dealer will offer for them, or see if there are enough to make up a box to send to, who'll PayPal or cut you a check.

Feel free to memail if you have any questions.
posted by mediareport at 10:07 AM on September 15 [2 favorites]

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