As we enter the January textbook buying surge, here are 4 things most people get wrong about textbooks.
If you’re doing business in textbooks, you should have seen sales start to spike over the last two days. The math here is simple: Students (probably) went back to school on Monday, they got their syllabuses, and they’re buying up everything like locusts (especially Fulfillment by Amazon offers).
Today, we’re talking about textbook myths. If you believe any of these, it’s costing you money.
Part of my motivation here is to undo whatever damage I may have done by hyping up “textbook season” in the past without adequately explaining what that means. Many readers of this site have been left with the impression that textbooks sell certain times of the year, and not others. (This is what Myth #4 is about).
So here they are: The Top 4 Myths About Selling Textbooks on Amazon:
- Older editions don’t sell.
This sentiment isn’t objectively wrong (every book is different), but asking “Do older editions sell?” is asking the wrong question.
Demand has little to do with edition. Or to put it a better way – You can determine nothing about a book’s demand by knowing how many newer editions there are. Nothing.
It is simply the wrong data point.
There is only one thing that matters when assessing a book’s demand: It’s sales rank. Or more accurately, it’s sales rank history. That’s it.
If you have the latest edition of a textbook and it’s sales rank history (as revealed via Keepa or CamelCamelCamel) is showing it sells one copy every three months, then it sells one copy every three months. It’s edition is irrelevant.
And if you have the 10 year old 7th edition of a textbook, and the 13th edition was just released, yet Keepa is showing the 7th edition sells every three days; that’s all you have to know. It sells every three days.
We cannot possibly know all the trends, economics, and odd forces that contribute to a book’s demand. Maybe Amazon’s algorithm is favoring an older edition in its search results. Maybe Oprah was carrying a copy of Macroeconomics, 2nd Edition (2001) when she was spotted at LAX this week. The fact is, we don’t know anything.
Our assumptions (or more accurately – our superstitions) are irrelevant. All that matters is the data.
Shut off your brain and defer entirely to the data.
2. Students care about condition.
They care a little, but not that much. Students care a lot less about textbook condition than consumers of other books.
Why? They’re in college. They’re busy. They’re (probably) stoned or drunk right now (sorry parents – I live across the street from a university and that’s the hard truth). And they’re only buying your textbook because a professor is making them. They’re not sweating the details.
They’re using the book for a few months and never looking at it again. The textbook is an afterthought.
If you’re only shipping in textbooks that are Very Good condition or better, or avoiding Acceptable condition, you’re leaving a lot of money on the table. It doesn’t matter that much.
3. Textbooks with cheaper Kindle editions, cheaper past editions, or cheaper rental options won’t sell.
This deserves its own post – “this” being people’s habit of using unimportant, extraneous data to make pricing decisions.
We are talking about three separate markets – Kindle, rentals, and hard-copy buyers. These groups are not without overlap, but there’s not as much overlap as you’d think.
If you’re shopping for a Kindle version, you’re shopping for the Kindle version. If you want a rental, you’ll get a rental. If you want a used book, you’re probably not even looking at New copies (or noticing if they happen to be cheaper).
Price your textbooks as though your customers were only looking at that column on that page – ignore rentals, Kindle, older editions, and even the New tab (or Used, as the case may be).
Caveat: Within Used condition, don’t get caught up pricing only against Very Good if you have a Very Good copy, or Acceptable if yours is Acceptable. These condition differences can affect demand, but not significantly (especially now that Amazon is giving Acceptable offers the Buy Box).
When you get caught up in these micro-comparisons, it only costs you profits, and serves to drive prices down for everyone.
4. Textbooks only sell during August and January.
This is the big myth. The Great Lie.
Fact is, the sales gap between January/August and the rest of the year has flattened significantly. And I suspect the primary culprit is the rise of higher education courses taken online.
It is true that growth of online classes has slowed (not regressed – slowed). But it has also evolved, with an increase in “evergreen” classes – essentially courses that begin as soon as you sign up, no matter what time of year.
From looking back at my stats over past years, the highs of January/August aren’t quite as high as they used to be. And the lows of the rest of the year aren’t lows at all.
The fact is, textbooks sell year round.
Don’t take my word for it. If you don’t believe it, try this:
- Pick any textbook published in the last 5-ish years (to increase the odds the books is still relevant – not because older textbooks don’t sell).
- Put the ISBN into CamelCamelCamel.com.
- Click the Sales Rank tab.
- Zoom out to view stats for 1 year.
Every time you see the line in that graph jump up, that usually means a sale.
Are you seeing sales taking place that aren’t in January and August? For nearly every book, the answer should be: Yes, lots.
A slightly less inaccurate belief goes:
“Textbooks only sell steadily during August and January. “
Again, the above sales rank history exercise should show that this too is incorrect.
All that happens during textbook season is that Amazon sales go up. This is not to be confused with the absence of sales at other times.
If you’re only sourcing, shipping in, or thinking about textbooks twice a year, you’re forfeiting a ton in profits.
PS: Everyone wants to know what day in January textbook sales on Amazon peak. I did a quick glance at last year and for me it was the 10th. That would translate to the first Friday after school is back in session. If that holds, you’ll see Amazon sales peak this year on January 8th.
PPS: Thoughts on the new layout? Three years ago I never thought this site would turn into anything. And we could be honest – it looked pretty low-rent. I think the new layout looks a lot cleaner and more reader-friendly.
PPPS: If there’s a big textbook myth I missed, post in the comments below.