Is Selling Books Online Still A Viable Career?

How’s business? I’m never sure how to answer that question.

Selling books online isn’t the opportunity of a lifetime that it once was, but thousands of sellers are still able to help support themselves and their families with their online bookselling businesses.

You may want to consider how you will overcome some recent industry challenges before you choose selling books online as your career path — or before you invest any more time and money developing your struggling online bookselling business.

Bookselling can still be a viable way to make money online, but keep these issues in mind:

Lower Demand

Ebook readers have been on the market for years, but none of them ever caught on until Amazon introduced the Kindle. Although I was skeptical of the Kindle when it was first introduced, it has negatively impacted sales of used books, particularly common fiction books.

But the Kindle isn’t the only thing that has made it more difficult to make money selling books online. The Apple iPad serves as an ebook reader for many users.

In general, people also seem to be turning to reading for pleasure less often than they once did. When that fact is combined with the prevalence of smart phones, laptops and other devices that mean almost everyone has a source of entertainment with them at all time, books are less important in people’s lives than they were a decade ago.

In addition, many universities have turned to online or ebook versions of textbooks. Used textbooks were once a large and lucrative part of my online used bookselling business, and the change to electronic textbooks has made a real difference in the textbook market in my experience.

These developments and many other factors have contributed to a generally lower demand for used books and new books from third-party sellers. Lower demand drives prices of available books lower as the marketplace becomes oversaturated, and that impacts profits. Eventually, once-viable titles drop to prices so low they aren’t worth selling anymore.

Fewer Inventory Sources

When I entered the used bookselling business almost a decade ago, inexpensive used, remainder and like-new books were available in sufficient quantities to keep me busy almost every day. With one or two trips around my area each week, I could acquire enough books from used bookstore clearance racks, thrift stores and occasional library book sales to provide me with a nearly unlimited supply of books to list and sell online.

Slowly, supplies began to tighten. Thrift stores began selling books online themselves. Libraries starting cutting exclusive deals with certain sellers to buy their most valuable books. Some for-profit megasellers even began masquerading as charitable organizations to lure libraries and other non-profit groups into selling to them exclusively.

In addition, market changes forced book publishers to print smaller quantities of many books, leaving fewer copies to reach the remainder and used books market.

Some booksellers thought the final nail in the coffin came when the largest used bookselling chain in the country, Half Price Books, began experimenting with selling books online. As it turns out, changes at this chain have impacted the availability of inventory, but their stores still offer many good books at prices good enough to resell.

Now, new iPhone and Android apps make it easy for anyone with a smart phone to check the online selling price of a new or used book.

While all of these changes have contributed to a shrinking supply of used books, they are still out there at garage sales, estates sales, auctions and by special arrangement with local organizations in your area.

Lower Profits

Because demand seems to have shrunken more than supply, the average selling price of many used book titles has gone down considerably in the last couple of years. That results in lower profit margins.

Bookselling venues like Amazon,, Alibris and AbeBooks, among others, have general kept their fees for selling on their marketplaces about the same for many years. Still, sellers can expect to pay 15 to 20 percent of their profits plus monthly fees, in some cases, for the privilege of selling on these venues.

These fees combined with lower margins and the likelihood that the selling price of each book in inventory will continue to decline if not sold quickly make selling low-end books impractical. That’s why many sellers avoid books that they expect to sell for less than $10 each. Some sellers set a higher threshold than that. Each seller must calculate the actual profit on each sale for themselves and determine their cutoff point.

It’s important to factor costs associated with obtaining inventory — including fuel and shipping charges — into the equation as well.

So Is Selling Books Online A Viable Career Or Not?

Other sellers may disagree with me, but I think online bookselling can still be a viable career for those who are able to locate good sources of inventory. Margins are much lower than they once were, but opportunities still exist.

There’s no denying, however, that the heyday of online bookselling has passed.

In the future, sellers may continue to flee the field, decreasing competition and helping drive selling prices up. New apps for many popular phone models make selecting books for resale easier than it has ever been, but there’s no reason to believe these amateur sellers will have a serious impact on the already-diminished bookselling industry.

Based on my experience in the field, here’s my assessment of bookselling today: The book market will always present opportunities for resellers, but those opportunities seem to be much more modest and more limited than they were in previous years.

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