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An Oprah’s Book Club logo is seen on the cover of a book titled ‘A Million Little Pieces’ by James Frey.

In the exciting world of books, a wide range of factors can affect sales. In this week’s post I thought I’d address a few of them so you can keep an eye out while you are scouting and take advantage of what’s happening in the world to find better books.

For example, I learned today that Oprah is re-launching her famous Book Club and I thought “Oh! Here we go again!” While the Oprah effect is well known in the publishing world, why does it matter for resellers? In a word: SALES. These books are hot and will be hot for a long time.

  • High initial sales – If you have a book for sale that Oprah designates for her Book Club, you can expect brisk sales initially. Not all her choices are new books so this may be a great few weeks/months for you if you can get dozens of copies of A Tale of Two Cities up there right away, for example. There will be many new copies available from the bookstores and Amazon, but the used ones will sell out quickly as people buy up cheaper copies. Check out the list below to see other older books that made it to her Club.
  • Continuing sales – Once a book is featured on the Club, it has decent sales for a long time generally due to high exposure and marketing efforts by the publisher. Assuming the margins are right and you are patient, you should be able to sell that title for months to years. I say “patient” because some people will sell the book for stupid prices. You can check out her past Book Club picks HERE.

Harry Potter used to be a good example of patient pricing before the Kindle versions were recently launched. I generally ignored other people’s prices when I priced my copies because sales were so brisk and there was no electronic competition, those crazy FBA sellers with $3 copies would sell out and my $8-$9 copy (that I bought for 25 cents at a book sale) would sell – usually a week or two. Sales have definitely dropped for the HP franchise since the Kindle launch.

  • Saturation – Usually when Oprah plans to feature a new book in her club, she works with the publisher to crank out millions more copies and to get them in the bookstores (and Amazon) before she features it on her show. It will generally take weeks to months before the actual book club episode(s) air (usually with live participation via Skype). Some books are discussed in one episode, some take weeks. A week after Oprah is done, a million used copies pile up on Amazon and go into library sales across the country. Even with continuing good sales, it will take a while to soak up the extras. Some books never sell enough and FBA sellers dump them for $2 for years.

If you want to stay in the know with Oprah’s new Book Club, sign up HEREO Magazine frequently lists good books to read, also, but don’t expect those to fly off the shelves the same way. They are mostly shills for the publishing industry and not reflective of Oprah’s actual taste. All you know when you see a book list in O is that the publishing industry is putting money behind that title – nothing more, nothing less.

What other factors influence book sales?

Here are a few more things that may cause book sales to jump:

  • Death of an author – When Shel Silverstein died, I mourned and  I sold out on all his books I had in stock.
  • Famous author – The book proposal for American Grown only needed to say “Michelle Obama” for publishers to go bananas. The only problem with these kinds of books is they can be a flash in the pan and over-saturated.
  • Famous endorsement – Not just Oprah. When Barack Obama mentioned that he was influenced by 2005’s sleeper academic book Team of Rivals in creating his Cabinet, the book rocketed into the best-seller lists.
  • Author in the news – Newsworthy behavior – good or bad – can influence book sales. Will anyone ever forget A Million Little Pieces by James Frey? Even after a public spanking by an angry Oprah, his books continue to sell very well.
  • Famous anniversaries – Think about all the brouhaha around the recent Titanic anniversary – many Titanic books of all kinds sold.
  • Time of Year – Textbooks sell well at the beginning of a semester (and the summer), and Spark’s and Cliff’s Notes will sell well at the end of a term. Books on romantic love tick up in February and books on building your own deck do great in June. Books on passing the SAT, ACT, LSAT…etc., all do well about 1-3 months before the big test. Self-help books and workout videos/DVDs sell great in January.
  • Topic in the news – Is the country obsessed with obesity in children? ADD? Serial killers? Steroids? The financial crisis in Europe? Osama bin Laden? Books addressing hot topics will often experience a boost – especially with well-known authors. In addition, some books get regular hits due to the fact that their topic is all-too-frequently in the news. One of my day-job clients sees spikes in sales of her book The Predator Next Door every time there is a child molestation scandal in the news.
  • Book tours – Generally a brand new book on tour won’t affect resellers like us who mostly sell used, BUT if the author is on tour for the paperback version or eBook version, it may well boost sales of your used inventory.
  • Controversy – If people are pissed off about a topic, books addressing either side may do well. While this is really a subset of “Topic in the News,” I made it separate because some topics will always be controversial and flare-ups in the news will make a book hot for a while. While politics is a good candidate, think also about incest (like paternity rights for the father of a child of incest or something else outrageous), cults or extreme religious views. A few years ago when a cult prepared to die en masse in Garland, Texas by ascension to God on a comet, interest in that group and its teachings, plus several other cults ratcheted up for a few weeks even though God did not come for them. One of my friends does well selling what she calls “the crazy books.”

For any of these books to do well, there has to be the right market forces at work, of course. They have to be desirable but not oversaturated on Amazon.com.

While the advice you’ll get from me and other booksellers is “scan, scan, scan,” the reality is that you can’t scan every book at a book sale – or even many estate sales. When you have limited time, there has to be some strategic planning and scanning.

During the sale, I’ll focus on specific sections and areas first and then look around if I have time.

When I’m running out of time at a sale, I’ll often scan through the rows that I couldn’t cover. I’ll pull out books based on my past experience and whether or not I think the book meets one of the above criteria – and I’ve had good luck with that, too, grabbing a few sweet deals on the way out the door.

What about you? Do you have additional criteria for narrowing your book search?

Happy selling!

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