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The IOBA Standard is the journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association and covers the book world, with a special focus on the online used, out-of-print, and collectible bookselling markets.


Penny Selling, Part 2

As anyone who read my first article on this theme will know, what I have to say has little to do with Penny Selling.

Indeed, the Penny Sellers were dismissed within the first few paragraphs, so anyone who has not read the first article please do so now – here is the link:

The rest of this article is written on the assumption that you have read Part 1 and that you accept the basic points being made.

Therefore, you accept that there is no point in selling your books unless you can make a proper profit – anything less than that means that you never had a real business in the first place. And that any so-called profit that you made that did not take into account the points made in Part 1 is self-delusion.

Secondly, you accept that anything you list at under $10 is losing you money, in real terms, rather than making it – indeed a base price of around $20 should be your aim. (There are special exceptions to this, but I will come to them later.)

So, having taken on board everything I said in Part 1, how do you set about changing your whole business ethos?

Well, there is no magic wand, but there is a set of concepts that I am going to attempt to demonstrate. But it is no good just cherry picking the ones that suit you, you have to take the whole set. Otherwise you might as well stop reading now and get back to Penny Selling, or $1 selling, or $5 selling, whichever is your bag.

For common and inexpensive books – get those prices up

If you have come to realise that, in general (exceptions later), selling books at under $10 loses you money, stop doing it. If you can’t list it at $10, don’t list it at all (our bottom line for one-off listings is $20).

But be aware that you can get $10 for many books that others are listing for much less provided you follow the ensuing guidelines. Simply ignore the fools who do not understand what you now understand – they may well sell numerically more books than you do, but they will not get anywhere near your $ turnover and profitability. Indeed, shed a tear for them as they wrap up ten books for less reward than you make for wrapping up one.

We have never experimented with selling books for a penny, but we have experimented with selling common books for as low as $2 and what we found was that we got no significant extra sales. What we did get, though, was a whole load of trouble. A tiresome proportion of the people who shop at this level seem to like to make a meal of the sale and engage you in lengthy (therefore expensive) e-mail correspondence – “Is your $2 copy of Huckleberry Finn signed by Mark Twain?” is well within the scope of the kind of questions that they are capable of asking.

For general books, don’t attempt to be the cheapest

If the ‘range’ of the book you are about to list is, say, $50 – $200, don’t even think of making yours $45.

All you would be doing is contributing to the downward spiral and there are plenty of idiots already doing that without you joining in.

First, make an honest assessment of the state of your copy and see where it fits within the mainstream of the prices on offer. If your copy is ex-lib or has other major flaws, yes, go to the lower end, but if it is VG price it well upwards. Once again, others may well sell their underpriced copies before you sell yours, but remember, they only have one copy and when that is gone yours comes into play. And some buyers may prefer to buy your copy ahead of the cheaper one (we have had many instances of this) if you follow the rest of the instructions within this essay.

For unusual books (and ephemera), don’t be afraid to charge a proper price

For this kind of book we use what we call the ‘might as well not sell at’ philosophy, as in “It might as well not sell at $30 as not sell at $2.”

The example I will give, from real life, is a book entitled ‘A Study of Sheep Scab in the Outer Hebrides in 1922’. Hardly a riveting read and anyone not interested wouldn’t give you a dollar for it. But the person who actually wants it (and you only need one) will be only too pleased to have traced it and will part with any reasonable sum to buy it. (The book sold for $56.)

Such books will not sell fast and you may only ever sell two or three out of every ten you list, but the profit from those sales will more than cover your effort. And the point is that you will not sell significantly greater quantities of such books by cutting their prices – all you will succeed in doing is making much less profit.

For genuinely rare and substantial books – go for it!

You probably had to pay a fair amount to get such a book in the first place, but make sure you have a proper profit margin when you sell it. If it cost you $200 charge at least $400 for it, more if you feel the market will bear it. Don’t attempt to be the cheapest on the web for a ‘quick sale’ – if you think buying at $200 and selling for $280 to make $80 quick bucks is good business, you haven’t been paying attention.

If you have a marvelous book, with super plates, on an interesting subject, in nice condition, and there is nothing else like it currently available, the world’s your oyster – YOU can create the market price, so make sure it’s a good one – the book will not come your way again, so don’t undersell it. Exceptions? There are some books that can be listed below your normal base-line and still be reasonably profitable, but be careful! It is all too easy to sink back into the penny selling mire, so always keep your eye on your true overall costs and don’t be seduced by pseudo-profits.

Multiple copies

Where you have several copies of an identical book, the one entry covers several sales, so there is a saving in catalogue entry time. But be aware that most of the other costs so painstakingly covered in these two articles still apply.


When a series of books or journals are identical apart from detail points such as issue number or title, etc., so that the copy/paste technique can be employed in cataloguing them.

But beware of the kinds of books where the real costs lie in the nature of the books rather than the cataloguing costs – cheap children’s annuals, for instance, where the kind of customer they attract seem to have time and cost wasting techniques that others haven’t even thought of: “Is there a ballet dancer with a pink tutu on page 13?”; “Is there a story about three girls finding a secret well on an island in this book?”, etc.

Also beware of the kinds of books where the shipping or packing costs are unusually high – they simply cannot be sold cheaply at a profit.

Having poured scorn on Penny Sellers, I must save a little bit of my ire for Penny Buyers: My experience is that they are the worst book buyers in the world! There are many honorable exceptions, of course, but time and again, they are the ones who pay for cheapest shipping, then complain that it does not arrive instantly. Or complain that the book never arrived and you find that they gave the wrong address. Or ask silly time-wasting questions. Or nit pick to a degree out of all proportion to the kind of book they are buying.

You fail to take this factor into account when pricing cheaper books at your commercial peril!

But it is not simply a matter of putting your prices up, you have to smarten up the rest of your act too.

You have to give the customer reasons to pay you $10 for a book that others may be offering at $1.

You do this by sheer professionalism and the key factors are as follows:

High quality professional catalogue entries.

This does not mean lengthy descriptions (which, in reality, are often off-putting to many buyers). Or using many of the more obscure bookselling terms. Or entering into flights of fancy to show what an interesting/erudite/offbeat person you are. (Alright, I am guilty of once entering the author of a bible we were selling as ‘God’, but that was a single lapse!).

But you do need to make clear, accurate, and complete entries: author, title, publisher, date, edition, cover description including colour, number of pages, size, plates, and dust jacket. Then a clear and honest condition report – not too long (you can always add more detail if the customer enquires) but enough to give the customer an accurate picture of the overall condition of the book.

Don’t go down the ISBN route – the saving in time will soon be lost in ISBN errors and ISBN blandness which creeps into all such entries – if a book is worth cataloguing, it is worth cataloguing properly.

High quality presentation of your business

  1. Your own domain name and professionally-designed web site with its own (not ABE surrogate) database

  2. Your own search facility within your web site

  3. Your own shopping cart facility

  4. Your own card processing facilities (and the ability to take Dollar or Sterling or Euro checks)

  5. Your own encrypted secure page within your site for customers to leave credit card information

  6. Full contact details – name, address (not PO box), phone, fax, e-mail

  7. If you have a brick & mortar store, feature it on your web site, with pictures.

  8. Professional terms and conditions

  9. Make sure that all your literature and e-mail templates project the quality of your business.

  10. Don’t use any literature, packing notes, bookmarks, tape, or any other item from the listing sites – use your own. You supplied the book, not them and you need to make sure that the customer understands this. You pay the listing sites to advertise your books – it is not in your interests to act as their PR too.

  11. Be a member of IOBA (or other professional organisations with published ethical standards).

I appreciate that not everyone can have all of these features, but the more you have, the more likely the customer will have the confidence to deal with you and leave their credit card details with you.

High quality service

  1. Answer ALL e-mail enquiries and orders speedily and in a friendly, polite, and professional manner.

  2. Despatch all orders speedily and send an e-mail letting the customer know.

  3. Pack the books well using good-quality materials. Sealing in cellophane first (L-sealers are not expensive) to guard against water damage, then foam or bubble wrap, then into a suitable sized padded bag, re-inforcing with card when needed. Re-using old packaging and newspapers may be ‘green’ but it does not project a good image. In any case, the true cost of your time in assembling re-used packaging can often exceed the cost of using new.

  4. Deal with all complaints promptly and fairly – keep a franked post book so that the customer can be sent a scan of the Certificate of Posting, which will both reassure them and help them in tracing a delayed or missing parcel. If there is a problem that cannot be solved, don’t quibble – refund.

Well, that’s it – all I can think of to help you move away from the morass of the thousands of bottom end sellers who paddle like fury but get nowhere.

As I said earlier – it’s no good cherry-picking the bits of this advice that suit you – you have to go for the whole package for it to be effective.

Bookselling is interesting and fun, but bookselling at a genuine profit is more than that – it’s exhilarating!

Stuart Manley is co-owner of Barter Books, Alnwick, Northumberland, England, also online at

Copyright Ó 2004 Stuart Manley




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