Can Less Be More?

By Timothy Doyle


Here’s a question to ponder: Can less be more? Four simple words followed by a question mark. On the face of it, the question makes no sense. It’s like asking if day can be night, or if hot can be cold. But then maybe it’s a matter of context and perspective. For someone who works the night shift, maybe night is their day. I can remember 85 degree summer days that certainly felt hot at the time, but after this recent stretch of 100+ degree weather those days would feel cool if not actually cold.

A couple months ago I arrived at my local Goodwill shortly after they had put a large lot of Easton Press and Folio Society books on the shelves. They were in immaculate condition, without the bookplates one so often finds, and no scuffing or chipping to the gilt edges or the gilt lettering and designs on the boards. Knowing that each one was worth at least a crisp $20 bill, I didn’t hesitate to take all of them. I ended up with 75 books at $2.50 each, for a total cost of $187.50.

As an aside, during checkout I heard the dreaded words: “Oh, you should have been here yesterday!” There was another equally large lot that went on the shelves the day before, which were all bought by a single person. Lucky for me he didn’t think to ask if there were more in the back.

So now I had 6 large boxes of new, uncatalogued stock taking up room in my already crowded book garage. I did a quick inventory, and determined that while each book was a solid $20 to $25, there weren’t any higher value items. No signed editions, and nothing from the Easton Press science fiction series. I already had a backlog of higher value uncataloged stock waiting for my attention, so these were going to go on the back burner. Then I started thinking: what if I could find a buyer for the whole lot at a discounted price? There’s something to be said for a quick flip that lets you double or triple your money.

I continued to think about this over the next couple of days, and then while driving I saw a car with one of those magnetic door signs advertising a local interior design company. I recalled hearing from other dealers about selling leather bound books by the foot to interior decorators, so I jotted down the number. I called to pitch the lot of books to the owner of the firm. She was very interested in the idea, but said she had no immediate projects that fit. I followed up the phone call with a letter, which included a business card.

So there it sat for a while. I looked up some more Baltimore area interior design and decoration firms, but didn’t really pursue it. I continued to work through my older backlog, moved everything out of my garage so the plumbers could tear up our sewer line, and prepared for and recovered from Balticon (big local science fiction convention that I sell at every year). I did start a thread on the ABE bookseller board outlining my thoughts on flipping a large lot for a quick profit. Predictably, the responses were across the board. Some thought it a good idea and liked the idea of marketing to interior decorators. Some couldn’t understand why a real bookseller would ever want to sell a $20 book for $10 (there is a small but constant element of “real bookseller” chauvinism on the ABE forum). Then the thread degenerated into a multi-sided argument about the difference between direct marketing and spamming.

Then a few weeks ago, there was an IOBA (Independent Online Booksellers Association) mail list discussion going on, and someone mentioned selling a large lot of Easton Press books to a US East Coast dealer. I got the dealer’s name, and I emailed him with a list of what I had available. Within a couple hours he replied with an offer to buy, at a price roughly 50% of what I figured the resale value to be. Better yet, though located a couple hours south of me in Virginia, he would be in Baltimore a few days later. We arranged to meet, and the transaction concluded without me having to pack and ship the books.

This worked because I was lucky enough to find the books at a really cheap price, and they were a tightly focused lot of books in as new condition – in this case classic literature and history in fine bindings. I found a dealer who specializes in Easton Press and Folio Society, who felt sure enough of his knowledge and marketing skills that he could offer close to 50% of market value. In the long run, he and I will probably profit by about the same amount. Theoretically, this could work for any focused lot: vintage science fiction, aviation history, Americana, etc. A specialist will know their market, and will feel more confident in offering you more for books that they want and that they know they can sell.

With very little work and no listing or commission fees, I cleared an almost $800 profit – roughly four times my initial investment. I also freed up the shelf space that would have been taken up by 75 books. I certainly could have – and eventually would have – listed them individually, and sold them over the course of the next several years. This would undeniably have earned me more money in the long run. But I would have paid commission, and it would have taken time to list, pick, pack and ship each individual order.

By selling this lot in this manner I have cash in hand to buy more and better stock, I have more time to research and list new stock, and I have space for it. I’ve established a relationship with an area bookdealer, which may continue to bear fruit in the future. I also sent a cash bonus to my IOBA colleague who gave me the referral that led directly to the sale – in the interests of good karma and building professional relationships.

This is certainly not suggesting that selling all of one’s stock at 50% estimated value is a good general business model. This was a no lose situation for me: at the worst I had 75 books that I could list and sell for a nice profit over time, and as it happened I was able to sell them for 50% cash in hand with no commission fees and almost no work. For this particular situation and in the context of my business, less was definitely more.

Copyright 2012, Timothy Doyle. All rights reserved.

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