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One Person's Trash...

Most of you out have had to part with a beloved book. I'm amazed with the number of people who have sold their books to a used bookstore, how little everyone seems to understand about the business of used books. As always, I'm here to help.

The value of your books is based on three criteria: potential speed of resale, quantity already on hand, and condition. No bookstore can afford to pay much for a book that just sits on the shelf for a long time. The amount of time varies from store to store, but six months is usually too long and one year is intolerable. It's really about basic economics. Let's say a store pays out a $1000 in a week for used books. Now this $1000 has been converted into inventory, which would sell (ideally) for $4000. If you sell those books within a week, the store will gross around $3000. But what happens when you get to a month? That initial $1000 investment is tied up and can't be used to buy more inventory to sell. There is only so much that can be spent on inventory, and once it's spent, it's gone until the money is replenished through sales. Plus, if all the money is tied up in inventory, a store can't purchase even the most sought-after titles, no matter how valuable the books are. A first edition of Stranger In A Strange Land would have to be passed on. On top of that, shelf space is finite, so until the inventory is sold, nothing new can be added. During that time you wait for the $3000, things like rent, electricity, and payroll all accrue. You can gross $3,000 in one week four times per month for fast sellers (a total of $12,000 per month) or $3,000 per month with slower sellers. It doesn't take a math whiz to figure out which is better for the bookstore. (This is all a very simple take on the subject. There are quite literally books written on this subject.) That is why the longer the book takes to sell, the less money you get for your trade-ins.

The bookstore is a business and exists to make money. I realize that some of you might confuse those large buildings full of books for libraries, but believe it or not, they are there to make a profit.1 If a bookstore is going to sell a book for $2.00, they can't afford to pay $2.00 for it. Ideally, they want to sell the book for at least four times what they paid for it. To sell the book at $2.00 and make enough money to stay open, the store should pay no more than 50 cents. That number will drop dramatically if it is something that will take a long time to sell. Rarely, the amount may increase slightly if the title is currently in high demand. Books used in classrooms (To Kill A Mockingbird, etc.) or made into currently popular movies are usually safe bets. Running a bookstore is an expensive proposition. There is rent, utilities, employees, promotion, and a zillion other little costs such as bags, cash registers, bank fees, etc. And, of course, there are the books themselves. A good bookstore must have a ridiculous amount of titles. We've all stepped into a well-stocked bookstore and gone "wow!" That "wow" should lead to the loosening of the purse strings. Most stores are barely getting by, and every purchase could make the difference between the doors staying open or closing.

Another key economic force is quantity. The more copies of a book that are on hand, the longer they will take to sell. (How many copies are too many will vary from store to store, but book buyers know and you will have to trust them.) This is why it is virtually impossible to sell hardback Tom Clancy once the paperback comes out. Everyone who really wanted the hardback bought it in the first month it was out. This is the rule with all of the mega-bestelling authors. There are exceptions like Robert Jordan, but those are few and far between. Here's a partial list of authors you should never expect any real money for once the paperback comes out: John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Anne Rice, Michael Crichton, any romance author, Sue Grafton, Anne McCaffrey, and Arthur C. Clarke. (This doesn't apply to early first editions or signed copies. Those have a worth all their own.)

Here are some guidelines for selling your books. Presentation plays a big role in the sale. I cannot tell you how many people bring their books in garbage bags. The big black ugly plastic ones used to clean up all the crap after a party. "Crap" is exactly what I think when I see those bags full of books come into the store. My judgement is clouded from the get go. Doesn't matter how great the books are, I'm entering the transaction knowing the seller thinks his books are garbage. Also, the very act of transporting books in garbage bags damages them. Pages get bent, corners dinged which decreases the value of the books. Condition of the book itself is one of the major factors that determine the speed of the resale. Even a slightly damaged book takes longer to sell than a pristine copy. Other poor choices are the garbage pail and the laundry basket. Ideally, you should use paper grocery bags or clean boxes with the books stacked neatly inside.

Stellar 1
Orbit 1
Examine your books and your boxes before bringing them in, especially if they have spent time in a garage, attic or storage shed. There is no bonus for living things. Mould spreads from book to book, so mouldy books should be destroyed. No one will knowingly pay for your biology experiments. Bugs are another turnoff. Roaches are just gross, while silverfish are actually dangerous. Those prehistoric looking critters eat book glue and spread like wildfire. Along with fire, they are among the biggest fears in a used bookstore.

A few more tips:
Personal hygiene is a plus. No one enjoys talking to smelly people. Take a bath, brush your hair and teeth. Also, be polite. Rudeness will get you nowhere.
Expect far less for fiction with torn or missing dust jackets. People want to buy good-looking books.
It is ILLEGAL to sell paperbacks without their covers (also known as "stripped books"). In new bookstores, the covers are torn off of paperbacks and sent to publishers for credit. Stores in theory dispose of the books, but often they are given to employees. is both a useful and useless resource. (ABE is a consortium of used booksellers who sell to individuals over the internet.) It is a marvelous place for the used book shopper and a great resource for determining going prices for collectible books. The problem is that ABE doesn't account for regional variances in pricing. A bookseller prices the book according to what they think they can get, not what someone a thousand miles away says they can get. And remember, no bookstore will pay you what ABE lists. They have to make money on the sale of the book. (Spotting a trend here?) Never expect more than one fourth of the ABE price.

Shadows 1
You will usually make more money selling your books to individuals, and it is simple to set up an account at places like ABE and The sales could be slow in coming and there is no guarantee that you will ever actually make a sale. When deciding to sell your books, you must choose between the speed and ease, but the lesser return of a used bookstore compared to the slower and more labor intensive, but higher return of selling to individuals. All bibliophiles face this conundrum at one time or another. I do a little of both. My wife and I paid for our wedding partly by selling used books online to individuals. But if I am need of quick cash, I will sell to my local used bookshop.

All I ask for is a little understanding the next time you have to part with a book. Next month, I will return to discuss different aspects of the used book biz. How does the used book market impact the sales of new books? How can it influence an author's career? Tune in 30 days from now at the usual place for these details and much more.

1 I'm not knocking libraries; they are wonderful institutions. But many people treat bookstores as if they were libraries. Libraries are the place to take a stack of books, find a table, and read it your heart's content. No food or drink is allowed there. A bookstore is a place to BUY a stack of books, take home, and read at your own table. If everything else wasn't clear, remember this: if you can eat or drink there, it's NOT a library.

Copyright © 2002 Rick Klaw

Not content with just being a regular columnist for SF Site, Rick Klaw is also the fiction editor for RevolutionSF. As a freelance editor, former book buyer, managing editor, and bookstore manager, Rick has experience with most aspects of the book business. He loves hanging out in used bookstores. The more clutter, the better.

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