Complete guide to buying books in bulk as an Amazon bookseller: How much to pay, the 7 questions to ask, more
Top questions Amazon sellers have when buying books in bulk
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).
Buying books in bulk without inspecting individual titles
Yes. it’s ok to buy in blind. If you know what you’re doing.
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 Amazon 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 on Amazon.
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 4 risks of buying books in bulk
Your risks in buying book collections are as follows:
Inheriting another Amazon seller’s problems: This is the worst case scenario: Buying books from another Amazon bookseller. 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 Amazon 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 on Amazon, 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 for books in bulk
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 on Amazon. 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 on Amazon 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 questions to ask when buying books in bulk
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 when buying books in bulk, 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.
When buying books in bulk, 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).
What to do with the leftovers books?
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.
Alexandra Schroeder says
Great article as usual. Regarding your EBAY lots, do you still favor auctions over But it Now or Best Offer which in a previous article you indicated you did auctions . Also, would you elaborate a little on what you currently do for shipping on a lot. If you are doing 20 plus books etc. how are you shipping and still be cost effective? Thanks.
Peter Valley says
I do auctions just because I want it all out the door. And ship media mail, always.
Can’t wait for the bombshell !
But Peter can you address The new Amazon fees increases starting in March !!!!!
I mean gosh –how do we handle this!!!
I know others and myself will greatly appreciate your insight .
Can you do a article on this—-as only you can .
Great article Peter. It was very timely for me as I am considering a couple bulk buys at this very moment and this article was perfect (as most of yours are).
Jerry Bies says
Yeh, I already got caught on this one twice. First time was from a bookseller who’d been in the business thirteen years and was supposedly selling off 1200-1500 boxes of mixed titles.I drove 2 hrs to see what he had. He sold me 30 boxes at only 2 bucks a box. I figured, what the heck how can I not make money on a deal like that and I didn’t even bother to open the boxes. Lucky I could only fit 30 of the boxes into my car at one trip! I spent almost a week (part time) going through the boxes and came to realize he was one of those one penny a book sellers. When I called him back to ask him about the quality of the books (assuming full responsibility for my error in not realizing what exactly it was that were in the boxes he said “Oh yeh, we had about 90K of books listed at a time and my wife and I decided it was getting too overwhelming to handle any longer” when I realized what I’d gotten I figured I had better go through them anyway and ended up with about 3 dozen books out of 30 boxes I was able to justify listing FBA.
The second instance fortunately I got the books for free. The guy and his buddy had bought a warehouse full of books to start selling online. This time they had made the mistake instead of me. when I realized what the situation was I declined buying any boxes, but he said “Well since you made the trip, lets go through some of the boxes and I’ll let you pick the ones and you can take them for free” Again I figured I couldn’t beat that price so I spent about an hour with him moving boxes around looking for what I thought could be salable items. Old medical books, textbooks, non-fiction and the like. When I got those home and started sorting them again I realized I’d gotten mostly worthless trash. Really old texts etc.
What I’m trying to impart by these situations is: You’ve got to be fairly careful on just what you decide to lug home and spend your time on. I estimate in those instances I was earning about a buck an hour (if that). Don’t be afraid to question the sellers.
In both instances even though I feel I certainly wasn’t scammed. The business plan they envisioned was entirely different then the one I had in mind. Merchant Fulfilled and FBA are ENTIRELY different mind sets. I’m not interested in bulk volume or hand shipping out each item. My wife and I are both elderly. That business model can certainly work and make you big bucks if you’re willing to put the time and energy into it. But I’m more interested at this point in a higher dollar buy in and a reasonable ROI.
I think you have to make that decision early on so as to not spend a lot of time spinning your wheels. There is a tremendous amount to learn about this business and the little “gotchas” I hope this helps some of you fledgling sellers. Don’t get all starry-eyed the minute you’re presented with a huge amount of potential stock. There’s always going to be another opportunity down the road probably even bigger and better. I see a lot of flack on these Facebook groups about “Oh I just came across this huge source of books I can buy for pennies apiece” Ten gaylords, whatever, The thing I don’t hear much about is those same people slogging through several thousand books to separate out the saleable ones.
It’s a different story with guys like Peter who’ve been in the game long enough to get a sense of what they’re buying but for the new folks it’s better to go increment by increment and not invest large amounts of money (and more importantly time) in these large wholesale lots. Al least at first.
I hope this helps a bit.
Great article and advice! In January 2017, I bought a lot of 15,000 books that a young woman bought in 3 lots – 1) an ex-English professor from U of Wisconsin; 2) a retiring Amazon seller and 3) a small closing used book store. She got overwhelmed, moving several times and having 3 kids in 4 years. She started selling on Amazon and never got it together enough to maintain a good rating after listing books, selling them and then not able to deliver because she lost them in the lot.
She was ripe for selling and I was able to get all of them for $500. I scanned a couple of boxes before I realized I was getting a great deal. I invested over $3,000 in movers to haul them, a storage unit for less than 2 months and addtl labor to process them. To date, we got $500 for the rejects at Half Price Books, $4,700 in MF sales, $4,400 in FBA sales, $46,000 is currently listed on MF and $18,000 on FBA. There is so much opportunity out there, you just have to get as much info as you possibly can and take a leap of faith.
There’s one additional component, all of the random ‘collections’, ‘sets’ and odds and ends that we listed on eBay for over $1,000.
Norcal newby says
Super valuable contribution.
Thanks for your wisdom, I’ve learned a few of these lessons in the 3 short months I’ve been selling . I can’t afford to buy large volumes since I’m starting from zero income and zero money. Turns out that was a huge advantage as I have to be super selective on where u spend my bucks. Library sales thrift stores and occasional Craig’s list finds .
Paul Reynolds says
The customers I have dealt with if I offered 8 cents a book, they would identify the biggest one and clobber me with it.