Use these 7 tricks at library books sales to maximize profits and destroy your competition.
Conventional wisdom for the lazy bookseller goes something like this:
Profit at a book sale is determined by the randomness of the universe, who happens to be at the right table before the next guy, and that once the doors open its “survival of the fastest.”
To that I say: “Yes and no. But mostly no.”
Once you master the fundamentals, success in any pursuit will be determined by the cumulative effect of numerous little tricks that give you that “5% edge.” That’s what this list is for.
Consider going to a book sale where, on your worst day, you would make $500. Now consider if you had one small trick that gave you an extra 5% profit. That’s $25. Not a big deal, but its something. Now consider if you had 10 tricks like that, each allowing you to extract an extra 5% of profit than you otherwise would have. Now we’ve increased your profits by 50%. Pretty significant.
I’m not making any guarantees about any of these small tricks giving you that extra 5%. But these will all help “a little.” And together, they equal a lot.
So here they are. A couple of obvious ones (to remind you of the fundamentals) and some more than took me time to learn. Put these to work at your next library book sale and let me know the results.
Get inside the room in advance.
This is easier than you’d think. I’m not advocating any advanced cat burglary tactics here (even if the word “ninja” is in the title of this post), just jiggling a few doorknobs to get a quick peek at the room and plan next day’s attack.
The intention here is to twofold:
I want to know if this is worth attending. First, I want to get a look at the sale to know if it’s size. Then I want to know the quality of the books, as well as prices (a lot of book sales price books individually). Often, the only way to know for sure is to get a look at the sale in advance.
Second and more commonly, I want to know the layout of the sale to know how to work the room when doors open. This information offers a significant advantage. Too many times to count, I’ve entered a book sale and seen nothing but a massive mob of people. A lot of library sales are so packed you can’t even begin to identify what book categories are where, or know where you should go first. All you see are people, and you can’t know what books are where until you fight your way to each table individually. In the process, precious minutes tick away and hundreds or thousands of books leave the building in the hands of everyone but you.
Because most sales are set up the day before, there is an opportunity to do some pre-sale reconaissance. If you can get in.
Sometimes the room will be open and busy with volunteers or staff setting up the sale. To the extent that I can get away with it, I’ll either stick my head in, or do a quick walk through to gather the info I’m looking for.
If the room is not open, I’m still trying to get in. I’ll find the room and check every front door, side door, and back door. You’ll find an unlocked door more often than you’d think.
Armed with this info, I can plan exactly what tables I want to go to, and in what order. The first 20 minutes of a book sale are the most frenzied, and how you spend the first 20 minutes is a key to success. That’s why having advance info offers such a big advantage.
I’ve written elsewhere about a road trip I was on last summer. On my way out of a small Wisconsin town I noticed a library with a sale the next day. I stopped in before closing, found an unlocked door, and spent a half an hour in the room scanning books. It was clearly a goldmine, which inspired me to stay the night in town and hit the sale the next day. I got over 400 books, a record at the time (I’ve since broken it).
Many library book sales will offer a special “preview sale” for members of Friends of the Library. Generally, membership is somewhere in the range of $7 to $25, and is required for access to the preview sale (less often, a library book sale will charge a flat fee to everyone for access to the preview sale.)
The advantage this offers is as obvious as it is huge: You get access to the books before the general public.
You might think preview sales would be a haven for other booksellers. I can’t explain it, but it just isn’t true. Your competition will always be lazy, but so lazy they can’t be bothered to attend a preview book sale and get first access to a whole room of books? Seriously, you wouldn’t believe it, but the ratio of booksellers at the “open to the public” sale to the preview sale is easily 10 to 1. Don’t ever underestimate the listlessness and apathy of your competition.
To make it even more simple, Friends of the Library membership can usually be purchased at the door.And the cost will easily be recouped by the getting first access to a room of books.
Anytime you see that a library book sale is having a preview sale, be there.
Get there early, but not too early.
Every big sale will have a certain percentage of people who will line up outside an hour or more early. I think this is pretty stupid. I recommend getting to most sales about 20 minutes early. That extra 40+ minutes simply doesn’t get you very much except in the door an extra 1 minute early. This isn’t exactly a deal-breaking advantage.
What’s even stupider however is getting there 10 minutes late. At that point, the room is usually so mobbed its difficult to navigate. And that’s 10 minutes of books being piled into the bags, bins, and wheelbarrows of your competition.
So, you want to be there when the library book sale opens, but not one hour before, and not one second after.
Bring a cart.
A lot of time is lost at a library book sale waiting in line to checkout. That’s why I greatly limit my trips to the car by bringing one of two things: A folding aluminum hand cart, or six or so canvas bags. Only when I’ve gathered as much as I can possibly carry do I check out and put everything in the car. (And then I go back for more, of course.)
I bring a cart (or bags) instead of boxes because they clearly identify my haul as “taken” and not for sale. Boxes might hold more, but other shoppers will see a box of books and devour it, even if its right next to you. Its helpful to have a little bit of range and be able to step away from your haul without worrying about the vultures devouring it.
Often you’ll see sellers picking a corner of the room and amassing a mountain of books, shuttling their finds to their book-mountain (sometimes even covering them with jackets or sheets) until they’re done. I’m not exactly against this, as long you intend to purchase the books you squirrel away. I would just put this in that category of conduct best described as “bad form.” Not unethical, just distasteful.
The person you don’t want to be is the bookseller who grabs everything that looks like it might have value, runs it to their book stash, and only when he’s done a scorched-earth treatment on the entire sale does he bunker down and start scanning. The bookseller who does this is the lowest of all life forms. Don’t ever ever ever be that guy. Or girl.
Know what kind of books you want.
Because time is of the essence, you want to target your “high priority” sections first. Then your way to the bottom of your list.
I have my time-honed opinions about what book categories have the most value. But everyone has their own opinions about this, so I won’t give you my complete list except to say I’m targeting textbooks, business, and DVDs first; hardcover fiction and children’s books last.
Don’t just start with whatever is closest to the door, or anywhere you find an open spot at a table. Get militant about targeting the sections where the money is.
After you’ve scanned everything and bled the book sale dry, go back.
Want to try a fun experiment? Next time you’re out sourcing books, force yourself to go back over a shelf (or table or box) that you already scanned. You will almost always find something you missed. Try it. It’s a humbling but important lesson.
Same applies at library book sales. Every time you think you’ve scanned everything and there is nothing of value left, it is only an illusion. You missed a lot, your ego just won’t let you admit it. I’ll always go back and force myself to do two things:
- Go over sections I’ve convinced I’ve picked over to death.
- Go over sections I’m convinced have no value (hardcover fiction, mass market paperbacks, etc).
I always find books I missed.
I’ve told the story before about the time I bled a library book sale dry, then went back and still found books I missed. Then went back again because a friend was still shopping, and while I was standing around idly waiting for her, I picked up a book from the hardcover fiction table and scanned it. It was ranked 300,000 and selling for $350.
There is always something you’ve missed.
Get the leftovers.
I only recommend this at sales where the books are priced at more than $1, and there is no bag sale the last day. When these two conditions apply, you have a great opportunity to get those $2-and-up books for pennies.
(The reason I’m strict about where I’ll use this approach is that if you can’t make money on a dollar book, you probably shouldn’t be adding it to your inventory anyway.)
I’ll approach someone in charge and ask what happens to the books leftover at the end of the sale. Most of the time, they’re just a liability to them and they will be thrilled to get $50 for the remaining 5,000 books. (They would probably be thrilled to give them away if they didn’t have to do the loading, but I’ve never had the nerve to ask).
Other times, they have an arrangement with Better World Books, who get much of their inventory through these library leftovers. If you ask where the books go and they say “we donate them to a charity” or something similar, that’s probably Better World Books (which, I might add, is not a charity).
In the rare case of a library that doesn’t have a bag sale and charges over a dollar per book, this technique can be a goldmine.
Despite the often fierce competition, library book sales are still a great source. Even better when you work them with skill.