Online Bookselling: 10 Things You May Not Know

Online bookselling is an often misunderstood career path. People make inaccurate assumptions about the profit margins involved, the sources of the inventory and the character of sellers, among other things.

Whether you’re considering selling books online or just want to be an educated customer, some of what I reveal here may surprise you.

In an effort to dispel myths related to this field, here are 10 things most people don’t know about independent online bookselling:

1. Sales venues take a percentage of the selling price. Most online booksellers rely on sites like Amazon, AbeBooks, Alibris and others to help them connect with buyers for their books, but selling venues take 15 to 20 percent or more of the selling price. The venues bring the customers, and sellers pay a hefty price for the service.

2. Sellers don’t get the whole shipping charge in many cases. Some selling venues keep a portion of the shipping charge the buyer pays. Sellers often don’t get enough shipping reimbursement to cover actual shipping costs. Amazon, for example, used to keep a portion of the shipping charge but eliminated that fee and replaced it with a similar fee associated with the selling price. While that also eliminated some of the negative feelings, sellers still pay higher fees to sell on Amazon than on any other marketplace.

3. Very few third-party sellers make any money with their own websites. If an online used bookselling company maintains its own website, it’s usually for information or vanity only. Few buyers buy from independent seller website, probably because they never see them. Sales venues are useful because they have thousands or millions of customers interested in making immediate purchases.

4. The online bookselling business isn’t as good as it used to be. Used book supplies are more limited than they were a few years ago, and there are fewer buyers too. I wrote an article for explaining how selling books online is still viable but not as lucrative as it once was.

5. Booksellers have more expenses than you may think. Most used booksellers acquire their inventory from library sales, used bookstores and other far-flung sources around their area. In addition to gas, car maintenance and other local travel expenses, many sellers pay for hotel rooms so they can arrive at distant sales by opening time. There’s also the cost of shipping materials to consider.

6. Booksellers often acquire books one at a time. Although some used bookstores once overflowed with clearance-priced books and online sellers could leave with boxes of books any time they wanted, supplies are so tight now that sellers must sometimes be satisfied with one or two sellable books per stop.

7. Most books are worthless. It’s hard for booksellers to convince their friends of this, but most books have no value at all. In general, fiction drops in value soon after it’s published. Books of any kind written by people who are household names are usually published in such large quantities that there is a glut of them on the used market. Recently published non-fiction and obscure titles published in insufficient quantities often have value, but that isn’t certain.

8. Many online booksellers aren’t readers. Like me, many people get into online bookselling because it’s a lucrative business, not because they have an affinity for books. Those who truly love books often care too much about them to part with them.

9. Booksellers who buy inventory from used bookstores that are open to the public aren’t poachers or annoyances. A seller is doing nothing wrong when he or she buys inventory from a store that’s open to the public. In fact, online booksellers keep many bricks-and-mortar stores in business. We sell our excess inventory to them and buy books that are so obscure that the relatively few people who visit the store aren’t likely to want them.

10. It’s more fun than it sounds. For those who enjoy turning nothing into something so they can turn a profit, online bookselling makes a great hobby — if not necessarily a great career anymore.

There’s much more to the online bookselling world than many people imagine, and these 10 bits of trivia only scratch the surface. Like any career path or hobby, there are hidden pitfalls and fun discoveries that no one shares with you at first.

Equipped with the information found in this article and elsewhere on as well as some common sense and a willingness to learn the rest as you go, getting starting in the online bookselling business can be as easy as listing your first book.

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