So You Want to Be a Bookseller: Ten Questions…Some Answers



1. Are you sure?

We’re living the dream. Three-hour working days surrounded by our beloved books, more money than we can shake a stick at – I can’t help but feel sorry for all those non-booksellers out there. Oh wait, it’s not always like that though is it?

The conventional wisdom is thabookselling is getting harder every year, and as with most such pearls there’s definitely an element of truth to that and it’s easy to see why. The devt elopment of new technologies – like digital books and print-on-demand books, the market dominance of one online retailer, the apparent profusion of ‘mega-sellers’ selling books for a penny, constantly rising postal costs and the relatively low barriers to entry for online selling certainly make it a challenging environment.

If you do decide to take the plunge then you need to be aware that books are heavy, days will be long (all 365 of them each year) and some people are not necessarily suited to the self-discipline needed when faced with boxes and boxes of books and a cold, impersonal computer screen. If possible, it might be worth starting out small and combining online bookselling with other work to see if it is really the job for you.

Having said all that, for many of us, selling and dealing in books is a vocation – and one from which we get a huge amount of satisfaction – but the important thing to remember is that this is certainly not an easy life or an easy way to make big bucks.

2. To shop or not to shop?

One of the first issues any prospective bookseller has to wrestle with is whether to open a brick and mortar shop (B&M) or just sell online from the comfort of their own home/barn/shed/outhouse etc. In general, the numbers of both new and second-hand specialist bookshops are falling. Again, there are many reasons but they mainly boil down to the relatively high costs of running a shop (rents, rates and local taxes, staffing, utilities) and increased competition whether from new technologies (like e-books), the internet, large stores and even charity shops.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, many B&Ms do thrive – often with a compelling mix of specialist knowledge and exemplary service – and actively use the internet to complement the physical store.

Whether you decide to open a shop or not, however, you will need substantial space to store your books as it is a fact of life that books take up space – lots of it if you let them. So it will be important to identify an area that is secure, dry, with some airflow and preferably not too bright. It is also vital to make sure that your storage is well-organised so that when those books start flying out the door you can get your hands on them quickly and efficiently.  But don’t worry, whether you open a shop or not, as long as you sell online, you will still be able to join the best bookselling club there is – the IOBA!

3. Where do I get books?

This is the $64,000 question, just where do all those signed first editions and leather-bound antiquarian gems hang out? Unfortunately, pretty much anywhere and everywhere …

At the end of the day, where you get your books from depends on where you are but some of the most common sources include your own library, local and online auctions, other websites, library sales, garage sales, car boot sales, charity shops/thrift stores, estate sales, friends and family, private libraries and the general public.

The best advice is to try all the local sources you can find and then pick the ones that provide you with the sort of books you want and prices that allow you to make a profit!

But also, make sure you talk to plenty of your local bookselling colleagues that you meet while out and about. While they may be competitors in the heat of auction-bidding, you will be pleasantly surprised how helpful they will be. Booksellers all want to make money, but there is such a wide range of interests and specialities that there are plenty of books out there for us all and one dealer may well know of a source of books that might work well for you but don’t fit with their own store or speciality.

4. Should I specialise in one area? What should I buy?

This is one of the most common questions asked by wannabe booksellers and the answer is probably yes – but many sellers start as generalists (and often finish as generalists but with pockets of specialism). Obviously some books sell better than others and, even if only by trial and error, you will learn amazingly quickly.

One quick and dirty way of seeing if a particular book might sell is to look it up on Amazon and see where it sits in Amazon’s bookselling rankings. But obviously this can only ever be a guide and other factors such as the condition of the book and the price you want for it will have a significant impact on whether your copy will sell.

As for specialism, then the best advice is simply to find an area that you have a particular interest in and day by day build up your knowledge of books in that area. It will take you a lifetime and you will still not know everything there is to know about your chosen area but your knowledge will allow you to more reliably identify the best books, spot gems that others may miss and, most importantly of all, generate ongoing relationships with customers who share your interest and will appreciate the knowledge and expertise that you bring to their passion.

One free tip to finish … if you can come up with a way to make money from Reader’s Digest Condensed Books then you could well be on your way to becoming a gazillionaire.

5. Do I need a database or catalogue?

For once a definite answer – absolutely yes. A database of some description is a vital tool for any online bookseller, particularly if you are selling on more than one site. It is the only way to effectively manage your stock so that you can keep your stock up to date on multiple websites. A decent database will help you to keep your book descriptions and pictures in a manageable format and also help with your internal inventory management.

There are many different database programmes available with different levels of functionality. Some of these are free, some require a one-off payment and others are on a subscription model – so it is vital that you do your homework to find the one that’s right for you. Many of the databases actually give you the opportunity to try before you buy. As with any software, it’s also important to check out the level of support you can expect both now and, as far as possible, in the future.

6. How do I learn to grade books?

Learning how to grade your books accurately is one of the most important skills you will learn, particularly for an internet bookseller when the buyer cannot handle book they are buying. There are standard bookselling condition grades and terms which have been used by booksellers for many years, however these have been watered down to some extent by the fact that each different bookselling website tends to use different words and definitions for their book descriptions.

The first thing to do is to understand the standard condition descriptions and the words and phrases used by booksellers. One of the best starting points is the IOBA website itself where you can find information on book conditions – http://www.ioba.org/desc.html  – and more information, including a useful bibliography in the IOBA’s Resources section at www.ioba.org

Another skill that you will need to learn includes how to accurately identify and describe the edition, particularly in the case of first editions, of the books you are selling.

Your research skills and knowledge will grow over time and it is important to listen to and learn from feedback from both fellow booksellers, collectors and also the general public to help hone your skills.

7. Where do I sell my books?

The good news is that there are many different places to sell your books. Online, these include the big aggregator sites which list books from hundreds or thousands of different sellers eg Amazon Marketplace, AbeBooks, Alibris, Biblio, IOBABooks and many others.

Auction sites like Ebay are also popular ways of selling books online.

However, the one thing that all these have in common is that they take their cut – usually a percentage of the sale price – and it can be significant. Most websites work on some form of commission basis and some give you the option of paying a monthly fee along with a lower commission, so you need to do your maths to make sure that you are not paying more than you have to.

Obviously one way to avoid some of these charges is to develop your own website (see Q8).

Many online booksellers also have their own B&M shops and other physical places to sell your books include book fairs, stalls and sales and auctions.

8. Do I need my own website/credit-card facilities?

Not necessarily, but – as stated above – sales through your own website are likely to be significantly more profitable than sales through the big aggregator sites thanks to the lack of commission charges.

However, developing a professional-looking, user-friendly website can be a significant investment and it is unlikely to generate a lot of sales at first compared with big aggregator sites. There are pre-packaged website solutions available which help to keep costs down. Having your own website does also demonstrate a degree of commitment and professionalism which can increase your sales.

The more work that you do to develop repeat customers and create a vibrant, interesting website – for instance with the help of social media – then the more sales that you can generate through your own website. Booksellers with strong specialities are also likely to benefit more from generating repeat sales through their own sites.

The facility to process your own credit cards, although often costly to set up, can prove useful even for a bookseller who sells solely through third-party websites. Some people prefer to deal direct with the vendor and you might be surprised how many customers will ring direct to place orders.

9. Do I have to ship my books every day?

If you want good feedback – yes. Picking, packing and posting are part of the daily routine of most online booksellers. The quicker that you can safely and securely get items to your customers then, more often than not, the more satisfied they are with your service. That has two benefits, firstly satisfied customers are more likely to become repeat customers and secondly on sites with well-developed feedback processes (like Amazon and Ebay) then there seems to be some correlation between feedback scores and sales. Given two books in similar condition at a similar price then buyers are more likely to buy the one from the seller with the better feedback rating. In addition, most sites will expect you to be posting orders at least once every other day and you will need to make sure you meet their requirements to keep selling there.

At first, shipping every day will probably require a trudge to the local post office, but once you are a big enough seller then, in many countries, you will be able to get your own postage contract which will significantly reduce costs and the number of those time-consuming trips. In the meantime, it can be worth shopping around and considering other providers, particularly for international sales.

10. Do I need to be part of a bookseller organisation?

No, of course not, but as with a website it can improve how you are perceived by potential customers and can be a nice little boost to self-esteem as any organisation worth its salt will expect you to meet certain professional standards (e.g. http://www.ioba.org/code.html).

Good bookseller organisations – like the IOBA and the many other regional and national trade associations which exist – can be an invaluable source of help, support and advice and it’s amazing just how useful that is in, what can at times be, a relatively solitary profession.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website

1 comment for “So You Want to Be a Bookseller: Ten Questions…Some Answers

  1. August 29, 2012 at 6:32 pm

    Justin Woolley has offered a lot of help to fledgling booksellers by providing some answers to ten hypothetical questions. He should be commended for taking time to put on paper the sorts of advice that others of us might give in a much more casual way, and only when asked. Permit me to comment on two of his 10 questions. #3-Where do I get books? Over the years, I have grown convinced that the best bang for your book-buck (and your time) is buying from other booksellers. They have already done the groundwork for you, so allow them their profit, select carefully, and your percentage of books sold will be much higher than if you spend all your time snooping at library sales. #4-Should I specialize? Well, if you are sure that you know more about your area of specialty than the customers you are likely to attract, sure, go ahead. The most successful medical bookseller I know has an M.D. himself. We have gone in and out of four or five specialties since opening our first shop in 1970, and I have come to live by the old saw that I specialize in what I bought yesterday. Seems to work! Thanks for letting me embroider on Justin’s thoughtful and useful piece in the current issue of IOBA Standard. If you decide to pursue antiquarian bookselling, I am certain that you will find it a very enjoyable way of making very little real money.

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