In order to make some money selling books you have to approach your book buying differently than you have previously, and price your wares accordingly.
Some among us seem to want to compare recreational shopping with running a business in order to earn income, and the two are vastly different. You have to really be ruthlessly accurate about figuring out your labor and costs, because so many times we devalue our labor when we first begin a small venture like this one. You didn’t just work to find the book at the library or thrift shop, you added labor by taking your time to inform yourself about which books sell well, by all the time spent searching for things to sell that didn’t turn up any good finds, the time spent listing books, the time spent researching where to list them, the time spent packaging them and sending them to the post office, etc.
In addition to the costs of your labour, there are the costs of your mistakes. My shelves are stuffed with books I thought would sell but didn’t, books I thought were in better condition than they were, and, to be honest, books I bought to sell but cannot part with. All these things add a cost to my book buying. A successful bookseller will be more discriminating that I have been, but will probably own fewer books than I do. Honestly , I do not mind that much, but if you need to make money for food on the table, you will also need to be more discriminating than I am. Okay, even more honestly, I didn’t mind that much ten years ago when I first wrote this, and I still didn’t mind five years ago when I edited it, but it’s kind of getting on my nerves now and I am ready to downsize, but finding it a struggle. But I digress.
However, in spite of all that I have said so far, there is really one price that truly matters, and that is market value. You need to understand how much labour you are actually investing so that you understand the importance of accurate research into what sells and what doesn’t, so you are not wasting your time merely looking for what you like, but are focusing your efforts on what will sell.
No matter how wonderful a book (or any other item) is, if customers are not willing to buy it, it has no market value. It may have great intrinsic value of some other kind- but the resale value is based strictly on what people are willing to pay, and your ability to find those clients who want what you have to sell. For a while the picture books for some picture books used in Five in a Row and some of the science books for AmblesideOnline had a ridiculous market value because those books had gone out of print. There were better picture books and better science books out there, but because they were not used by those two curricula, they did not have the same market value to consumers of those books. As soon as the books were reprinted by some enterprising young publishers, the market value for the used books dropped from several hundred dollars down to a few cents, or at most, a few dollars. That’s supply and demand, after all, a force of the market, and a neutral force at that.
The seller generally does not get to set market value (it can be done by created scarcity, and a manipulated public opinion, see the diamond market- but that’s another post). Market value is set by consumers and it is entirely based on what they are willing to pay. Book buyers, like any other customers, care about buying what they want or need. It’s not their job to care how much time it takes you to find, advertise, and mail your books or other wares. They are not your personal charitable donors, they are your customers. You only get their money if you are offering what they want at a price they are willing to pay. They have to want to trade their money for your wares (or services).
I have a lot of books in stock that are only worth about 2.00 in fair market value. I just donated a lot of them to a young friend who owns a bookstore because it is not worth my time, nor can I recoup the cost of packaging and mailing and going to the post office by selling 2.00 books right now. I could try to charge 5.00 for those 2.00 books, since 5.00 is a more ‘fair’ wage in return for my time, but I am not going to sell very many books that way, and as clients notice that I charge twice market value for items, I would lose business over time. It’s not their fault if I spent too much time and money hunting down those books. They do not owe me their business.
On the other side of that coin, when I do find a book that has a market value of 150 dollars or more, that is the price I ask for the book, or at least the neighborhood of the price, even if I got it for free. I do not owe anybody else my labor at below market value, either. If the going rate for a given book or a bag of carrots is fifty dollars, it’s fair to sell those things at fifty dollars.
This proper setting of prices is a hurdle for some. I have had the misfortune of being on the target end of some sharply stinging criticism from somebody who found it offensive to sell a book at market value *if* market value exceeded some private pricing scale she had in her head- or if the apparent profit margin of that single book exceeded the profit margin she had arbitrarily determined was suitable for a Christian. She looked at each sale as a single event rather than as a whole part of the business income. She looked at profit as something akin to a sin, from what I could tell.
But she also only looked at resale this way. Consider the work of a cabinet maker
When the cabinet maker has spent 40 hours of labour building a cabinet, would we say he should only figure in the cost of the materials for his cabinets when he sells his product, or would we expect him to be able to charge an amount that reflected a profit beyond both the cost of his materials and his time? His time is valuable, as is the time of all business people, including housewives at home seeking to supplement their family income. His skills are also valuable, as are the skills involved in discovering the market for the products you are selling, describing them accurately, and efficiently getting the word out to the right customers.
To break this down even more- If a bookseller spends five hours searching for books, finds a couple for 1.00 and sells them for 2.00, then the seller is only making two dollars for five hours of work- and actually, she is not even making that, because there are still other costs.
That’s why you have to be informed about what you buy to resell. Selling things on online is generally not a get-rich quick scheme, but it is a decent way to bring in some much needed extra income if you do your homework and are disciplined about it.
Perhaps you should begin small, but even small beginnings should be discriminating. For example, after you’ve done your homework by searching ebay and asking other people what they find sells well, while you are already at the thrift shop, yard sale or library sale for your own purposes, you might find two or three of those titles you know sell steadily for ten to twenty dollars- or perhaps they are already on your shelves and you don’t want them anymore, or you need the money more than you need the books right now.
This will be much more beneficial to your family and more effective than spending five times the hours to find five times the books if you are selling them for only a couple dollars apiece.
Valerie of Val’s Living Books has been selling online for around 18 years. She really gave our firstborn valuable advice some 14 years ago when she started out making extra money selling books as a young teen. She is very wise and practical, and if you are in any business for yourself at all, you should read this post.
Other posts I’ve written on selling books online: