Crucial guide to buying book lots as an Amazon bookseller: How to not lose money, what questions to ask, more
It’s a common dilemma: A person is selling a large lot of books on Craigslist. They’re asking a fixed price. You know most book collections are not worth your time. And you need to determine if the books are worth viewing in person.
- How do you know how much to pay for the book collection?
- How do you determine if you’ll make money or lose money?
- How do you tell if the books are worth your time?
Once the books are in front of you, its easy to determine value. What I set out to accomplish with this article is a formula for determining which book collections are worth your time to investigate (and what to walk away from).
Yes. it’s ok to buy collections blind
Maybe not totally blind, but it can still be ok without having an itemized list of exactly what’s in the collection. You just need to ask a few questions, and know how much to pay.
Step One: Eliminate the worst case scenarios.
You want to determine if the following apply:
- The books are a truly mixed lot.
- The collection is absent of low (or no) profit categories (romance, etc).
- The books are not picked over by another seller.
Step Two: Assess the quality.
Once you’ve established this is at bare minimum a mixed lot of books, the next step is to determine the quality. You’re looking here for clues this is better than a random assortment, and that the collection may in fact have exceptional value.
Step Three: Make your offer.
Arrive at a figure and make an offer (more on this below). With luck, the asking price is below what you think its worth, in which case you can offer the asking price (or attempt to talk them down even more).
The top risks of buying book lots
Your risks in buying book collections are as follows:
Inheriting another seller’s problems: This is the worst case scenario: Buying books from another seller. Most booksellers have no idea what they’re doing (or aren’t selling FBA), so this isn’t an inherently unprofitable circumstance, but it should be avoided.
Buying a picked-over collection: Before buying blind, you want to be reasonably confident the collection has not been picked over by another seller.
Buying a collection comprised of unprofitable book categories: You always want to do due diligence to filter out collections heavy with the dominant profit-killers: Mass market paperbacks, children’s books, obsolete textbooks, etc.
Taking on more “dead wood” than its worth: This is the primary reason I don’t like buying small mixed lots of books (less than 500 give or take) – if only 5% of them will have value, having to transport them and then deal with the leftovers is often more trouble than its worth.
Should you ever buy a book collection totally blind?
I mean totally blind – knowing literally nothing about it other than the number of books?
First, its rare that you’ll have no clues to work with. Even a gaylord of books from a university surplus auction provides some clues (i.e. the books are retired from a university).
But lets say its simply impossible to infer anything about the quality. Here’s how I handle it…
- If it’s someone’s personal collection, I will travel to inspect if its 1,000 books or more. That’s my criteria.
- If it’s from a business or other non-person source, I’ll inspect if its 500 or more.
This is wildly subjective, and you should not take these as gospel. I only give these numbers to impart that the potential upside has to be worth your time.
I spent much of my early days driving around to view collections of 75 books on Craigslist that were a waste of my time virtually always, and I wish I’d applied stricter criteria.
How much to pay once you’ve confirmed its a mixed lot
Let’s say that all you know about a book collection is that it is a truly mixed lot with no other info to work with. You know enough to confirm they’re not romance novels or encyclopedias, but other than that – you’re buying blind.
How much do you pay?
Answering this single question will make you a lot of money. So here’s my answer…
8 cents per book.
As long as I can confirm that a lot is genuinely “mixed” (i.e. not the aforementioned profit-killers like Harlequin romance, etc), I will pay 8 cents a book for any collection and expect to make money.
That does not mean you will lose money at 10 cents. And it doesn’t mean you’ll always make money at 8 cents (sometimes a collection isn’t as “mixed” as you thought).
But over the years of buying book lots, I’ve learned that 8 cents a “safe” number to offer when you’re buying blind.
Now, let’s get into how to scrutinize a collection before you invest your time (or money)…
The 7 question test
If I’m reaching out to someone online or over the phone to assess the quality of a lot, here are the basic questions I ask:
Can you send a list of ISBNs for each book? Or a sampling?
Its not very likely you’re going to get this. But ask.
Can you send photos of the books (preferably showing the spines)?
Getting at least one photo should be a bare minimum before traveling to see a collection (or buying it blind). If you don’t have ISBNs / titles, or very specific info on what’s included, you at least need a photo.
What’s the history of this collection? Where did these books come from?
A general question to determine if its coming from someone’s personal library, fell off the back of a truck somewhere, were retired from an environment where they were likely to be picked over by other sellers, and so on.
What subjects are represented in this collection?
Photos should settle this, but when the makeup of the book lot is ambiguous, try to get the seller tell you what subjects are represented. Get as much detail as you can. There are no book subjects that are inherently valuable, but there are many categories that are generally more valuable than others (advanced math books vs travel guides).
Ideally you’ll get a clear answer, and they’ll all be one subject (a very good sign, if the subject is non-fiction).
If you can’t get a clear answer to this question, ask this one:
Alternate: Is there more fiction or non-fiction?
This isn’t to say there isn’t money in fiction books (though there’s not much), but the more non-fiction the better. Even when a seller can’t get clear about what subjects are included, they can usually at minimum answer this question.
Has anyone else picked over this collection?
It’s not entirely necessary to be covert about your intention as a bookseller, but I don’t like to volunteer that I sell on Amazon. “Has anyone else picked over this collection” is an ambiguous way to find out if it has been cherry-picked by another bookseller.
Are you open to selling just part of the collection?
The benefits to scanning each book individually is that you’re not burdened with hundreds or thousands of books you don’t want.
Downside is that you can expect to pay more.
I’ll generally aim to save myself the trouble and offer the seller more if I can cherry-pick the set. My pitch to the seller basically goes like this: “I’ll pay at least 5x more per book if I can appraise and purchase books individually, or pay less for book if they are only sold as a set.”
Usually, they’ll choose the latter – they just want the books gone.
What’s the lowest you would go?
A generic endgame negotiation question to find out how flexible the price is.
From there, it’s just a matter of making an offer based on how much you expect to profit (and how low you think they’ll go).
Finally: What to do with the leftovers?
I do one of three things:
- If it’s more than 1,000 books: I’ll throw up an ad on Craigslist and ask $50 (and be very clear that the buyer must transport the books from my house to their vehicle).
- Less than 1,000 books, give or take: Post ad on Craigslist “free” section. You’ll have people at your door in 15 minutes.
- Books of a specific category: Group as a lot and list on eBay. Lots built around single subjects do well on eBay. Mixed lots, not as much.
That’s the formula.
Endnote: Teaser for next week’s article
Dropping a bombshell.
I’m blowing the lid on some con men and fake “gurus” in the Amazon selling space, with some smoking gun evidence of scandal.
Check your email.