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I am 10 minutes late to the opening day of the book sale.  It is like watching piranha feed. The frenzy is on; the noise bounces off the bare walls and industrial ceiling; the volunteers are sparkly and over-eager to help me.  I fight my way to the back room which is where the non-fiction books are held and it is a madhouse of scanners tripping over each other and their damn carts (note to self: tomorrow bring bags, not boxes. Close quarters). These guys are pros because it is fairly quiet and the noises on their scanners are turned off.

I scan the sections and notice there is no one standing by “Self-Help and Parenting,” two of my favorite sections.  I start there.  Over the course of about 2.5 hours people pass me or pull out one or two books but no one joins me in systematically scanning the books.  I pull out over 100 books and then have to leave for my day job.

By the time I leave, many of the scanners are gone. What the…? Past experience tells me I won’t see them again until Sunday, bargain day. This puzzles me but it’s part of the reason why I’m not bothered by a lot of scanners at a sale. Last week I pulled out over 400 books from a big, heavily advertised sale and I was pretty much the only scanner for two of those days. On the final day, I scanned self-help and then parenting and I was clearly the only scanner that had gone through them.  I found many, many books I can sell for $12-$15 at low ranks.

I’ve covered some of this information on book sales before, but it bears repeating as we head into book sale season. Here’s how I approach a book sale:

Check out the room – go where others aren’t

I got a price sheet at the front and a map (it’s a big sale). I looked first to see where the other scanners were – and where I could work without too much hassle.

I considered DVDs, CDs and videos, but left them for Sunday since they are $3-$6 a piece (for books on CD) – a bit rich for my blood today.

Most book sales have a half-off day at the end or a bag/box sale where each bag is $10 that kind of thing, so it is usually worth coming the final day even if you think the books are picked over. Last week I pulled about 150 books during the final hours of the sale.

Know Your Rules

Before you go, be sure to have your rules in mind and stick to them. For example, I’m trying to increase the turnover of my inventory. I have a lot of “long tail” sales in my inventory so for new purchases I’m keeping my ranking to 1 million or less except for text books or books with a very high return.

For books where I’m paying $1, I want to sell it for a minimum of $8. That gives me the return I desire after fees and shipping costs.  For the $2 books, I want to see around $9. These are my rules. Yours may be different. On the cheap day, I’ll adjust this down.  Last week I stuffed enough books in each bag that my cost per book was 30 cents, for example.

Scan Everything

Many non-fiction and text books don’t have barcodes, which is more work. I scan the barcodes and put the others in a pile. Once I have a big stack, I go through and speak the ISBN#s into Scan Power Scout. Most scanners don’t bother because they care about speed and volume – and I do that myself sometimes in other categories like business and religion – but textbooks are generally worth my time because they sell for $25-$75 and more.

Scan Power Scout Tip – Manual ISBN# Entry

In Scan Power Scout, you click on the white box at the top (usually it has the ISBN# from the previous book in it) and a keyboard comes up.  You can type in the ISBN#. In addition, if you click on the microphone icon, you can speak the number in. I find this to be faster than typing in. Occasionally I’ll find that there is a space in the number where I paused when speaking the number in. I touch the blank space; delete it and then touch the magnifying glass icon. This brings up the book in Scan Power Scout.

The only downside of speaking your numbers in is that you’ll draw curious people to you. I hand out several business cards at most book sales.

Scan Everything Part II

Last week even though my fellow scanners had already been through the sections I also scanned like cookbooks, religion and business, I filled many boxes worth of good items. I made sure to scan the boxes under the tables (remember that pocket chair I recommend? It is a real knee saver), and I checked the books that didn’t have barcodes. In addition, I went through the trouble to pick off some bookstore labels. This was part of what baffled me. Borders and Barnes & Noble stickers just slip right off and the other scanners had not bothered to check the barcode underneath? Don’t make this mistake! I got several “very good” and “like new” books this way!

If your fingernails are paper thin or chewed up, bring a Scotty Peeler – it’s worth the few seconds of work.

Why do other sellers leave good books behind? Mostly because they have a different criteria than I do. They may, for example, only be interested in books they can sell for $20 or more. Or perhaps it has to be under 500,000 in rank. You can be confident as you go to your next sale that very few people there will have the same criteria you do which will offer you opportunities even after they scan a section.

Paperback Books

There are two kinds of paperback books – softcovers and mass market paperbacks. The softcovers are bigger and more like hardback books but with paper covers. They cost more (good for us!) and the barcode on the back is the actual ISBN# and will bring up the book.

Mass Market paperback books are smaller with tiny text. The barcode on the back cover is usually NOT the ISBN#. There’s a reason for this, but you really don’t want to know (publishing is a weird and backward industry). What you DO need to know is that the correct barcode is on the inside front cover. Scan that one and the book should pop right up in Scan Power. If the book is old and there is no interior barcode, you’ll need to look up the ISBN# on the book publishing page and type or speak it in. Sometimes on older books the ISBN# is in tiny print on the spine.

Don’t Forget Amazon!

It is easy to get excited by a high price under the “FBA column” and to forget to check the Amazon price at the top. There were several 8.5”x11” teacher activity books, etc., that were stapled booklets (for easier copying) that I nearly bought for 25 cents each until I saw the Amazon price of $2.50. Whoops!

Don’t Always Compete On Price

For several of the textbooks, the lowest price was ridiculous. Some FBA sellers were taking a loss on their books. I guess they hadn’t updated with the new fees yet. The crazy-making part of this was that there was no reason to price their books so low in the first place. They could easily have priced that book for $25+ and not $4. Based on the rank of the book (it was selling) and the number of units the low-ballers had (1 usually), I often bought those books with the intention of selling them for the higher price. By the time my book gets to the warehouse, there’s a good chance their cheap units will be gone and my $25 copy will be the lowest price FBA. Even if it takes a couple of months to sell my book, I’ll make good margin on it. I only paid $2 for hardbacks and $1 for paperbacks.

See my recent blog on pricing for more on this topic.


Some people are nervous about books because there are rules and because they are uncertain about condition. In your contract with Amazon and in the FBA Seller handbook (you can find it in SellerCentral), Amazon lays out the rules and guidelines. Be sure to read this!

As a rule of thumb, look at the book and ask yourself, “If I got this in the mail from Amazon, would I think it was new? Like new? Very good, good, or acceptable?” After all, you are a consumer, too! Most books at a book sale are going to fall in the acceptable to very good range.

When I’m looking at my scanner and considering for how much the book might sell, I am comparing my condition with the same conditions on Amazon – very good to very good, that kind of thing.

If the book is a used library book with all those stickers, etc., you cannot list it for any condition better than “good.” Library books are “good” for the most part, then, unless they are in bad shape with covers all banged up and torn, dog-eared pages, etc. PS. Don’t remove the stickers, etc. from library books. You’ll ruin the book and you don’t have to. Just tell the buyer it is a library book in your notes.

There are several key factors to look at when considering condition:

  • Book cover – yep, judge the book by its cover. It’s a big factor and the number one factor for declaring a book “like new” or “very good.”
  • Spine – is the spine still tight? Maybe the book has only been read once or not at all. Statistically, about 40% of the books bought are never read. They are given as gifts or the person thinks they will read it but they don’t, and then the book ends up at an estate sale or book sale in great shape – although the cover may be showing some shelf wear. A tight spine indicates a better condition and that the book wasn’t read.
  • Interior – highlighting, pencil notes, dog ears – these all need to be noted in your condition notes and they bring the book down in value. If there are just a few pencil marks, you may want to erase them. If the whole book is annotated – then indicated it in your book notes and move on to the next book. Highlights and notes automatically drop a book to “good” condition.
  • Signed by the author – if the book is signed by the author and you are absolutely sure the author signed it because you watched them do it, then you can indicate it in the notes as a way to increase value. However, if you find it in a book sale, you have to tell the buyer that you cannot confirm authenticity. Buyers are very touchy about this. It probably is genuine but you don’t know for sure.
  • Personal inscription – a few words and a signature is fine, just note it as a personal inscription. If the writer wrote a love letter taking up the whole page, you need to note this in more detail. I’ve been known to recommend to buyers that they cut that page out of the book if it bothers them.
  • CDs/DVDs – if the original book had a DVD, CD or software with it, then your version must have it as well – no exceptions! Be sure to check.

Think about condition before you buy. Amazon has very specific guidelines. Be sure to read them HERE. Generally, you will get in the most trouble selling something for “good” that the buyer thinks was “acceptable,” or “very good” that they think is “good,” so try to think like a buyer when you are looking at the book.

There are some sellers who won’t sell “acceptable” copies just because they don’t want a return. Ironically, I have the least amount of trouble with “acceptable.”  Most people understand that “acceptable=crappy” and are buying it for the cheap price rather than the pretty cover. Many students use fabric book covers over their textbooks anyway so they only care about the interior.

I will put a book back down if the interior has too many written notes or filled-in answers. Highlights are OK, but notes and other mark-ups are distracting to buyers. I’ll flip through at the book sale and check, but sometimes I still get home and find out that a page was ripped out, etc., and I can’t sell it.

Unless the book is shrink-wrapped in plastic and has clearly never been opened, you can’t sell it as “new.” I’m also very careful about “like new.” You have a bit more latitude there (very minor shelf wear, tight spine), but if it doesn’t look like you just walked out of a book store, I recommend “very good” for those books. You don’t know how the book might look after going through the warehouse and sitting on a shelf at Amazon. It is safer to go for “very good.”

Forbidden Fruit

Avoid these headaches:

  • Rare and collectible books – unless you are an approved rare book dealer by Amazon, you cannot list or sell in this category. If you find a book that you suspect is rare or collectible and the price is right, pick it up and then go find yourself a rare book dealer or an auction house to sell it.
  • Advanced reader’s copies – it is forbidden to sell these on Amazon unless the book is no longer in print and then you have to note it in your description that this is an ARC. I accidentally sent about 20-30 in to Amazon and got a stern “fix this now or lose your selling privileges email” from them. Ironically, Amazon caught me so quickly because I DID note it in my book notes! I ended up having Amazon destroy them before any of them sold. Whew!
  • Teacher’s editions – It is easy to confuse a teacher’s edition of a textbook with the student’s version. Amazon will NOT let you help cheating students this way. You will sometimes see merchant sellers with a teacher’s edition of a book. I’m not sure if the rules are different for them, or if they just haven’t been caught yet. Regardless, don’t make this mistake. It’s not worth losing your right to sell on Amazon forever. Sometimes teacher’s editions are larger than the student edition, or they say “TE” on the spine. They will definitely note it inside and frequently somewhere on the cover.

What do I buy?

The short answer is: anything that sells.  Because there is no way I can scan all the books at a sale, I select categories that are most likely to have good books in them and I prioritize.

Top Tier

  • Textbooks – recent editions or rare and interesting collectibles
  • Business
  • Religion
  • Spirituality (often found in Religion) and alternative beliefs
  • Crafts/Hobbies – Knitting, Sewing, Gardening – all kinds of “how to”
  • Cookbooks (certain ones) – rare, “how-to”, and ones that you grew up with.
  • Self-Help – addiction, incest recovery, overeating…etc.
  • Health/Nutrition – NOT diet books. Cancer recovery, ADD, etc.

Second Tier: If I have time

  • Reference
  • Sports/exercise
  • Children’s Books – picture books that are in very good condition are best
  • Videos – “how-to” and specialty videos not in DVD format or on Netflix
  • CDs/DVDs – Books on CD are good. DVDs should be hard to find or collections like “Taxi: Season One” kind of thing. Most movies are on Netflix and Amazon and the DVDs aren’t worth much.

Third Tier

  • Classics – bought by college students
  • Science Fiction/fantasy
  • Murder mystery/thrillers
  • Contemporary novels
  • Travel – only newer ones. These mostly have a short shelf life as new ones come out annually.
  • NO BODICE RIPPERS. Spare yourself the pain.

You’ll notice that “fiction” is third tier.  It is always my last resort. At a book sale my time is better spent on non-fiction for the most part.

This is my list and my priorities. You may feel differently. I know one seller who specializes in rare and older books. He makes a killing at almost any book sale because he’s looking for the books that no one wants and he knows what he’s doing.

The important thing is to work the sale as hard and as long as you can and to find out for yourself what categories are most valuable to you.

Day Two of the book sale. I enter an entire room devoted to textbooks and educational materials. It was swarmed with scanners and shoppers yesterday so I’m not sure if there will be anything left and I decide that if I don’t find much in 10 minutes I’ll go to another section. I work the room for about three hours and leave with over 100 books all at ranks under 2 million (my personal outer limit for textbooks since they sell mostly in June, August and January), most well under 1 million. There is no one in this big room with me except the anxious volunteer who keeps checking to make sure I don’t need anything. No one.  This sale has advertised over 100,000 books. I’m in one of the biggest metropolitan areas in the country. Where are my competitors?

Today is Saturday. There will be more scanners today and tomorrow and I’m not worried. One of my students has already cleared out crafts and hobbies so no need to spend time there. That still leaves me tens of thousands of books in nonfiction to plow through.

This is why I don’t worry about sharing information or teaching others. There is room and opportunity for many and very few will work the business the way I do.

Happy scouting everyone!