The Used Book Trade

Having bought and sold books on a casual basis for a couple of decades or so, I thought I would deviate from my usual subjects to give my personal insights into the business, what constitutes ‘success’ and where the future may lead.

The reality is, used book selling is not what it was. I suppose the current economic climate has a part to play, but across the country, the small, independent specialist bookshops are disappearing in like fashion to the corner-shops’ demise under the competition of the supermarkets. My first conclusion is ‘use them or lose them’. The other factor must be the number of charity shops with a couple of shelves crammed with a mixed range of books, and for one, now opening used bookshops of their own.

In itself, this is no bad thing, at least they represent a source of books. However, they naturally expect donations of books, as opposed to the independent book sellers who were usually pleased enough to give a few pounds for what you brought in. Far more importantly though, was the knowledge they had of the business. Many shops I have traded with in the past were happy to track down a book for you. This brings us to the brave new era of the Internet, and especially Now of course, anyone can quickly locate a copy of a book, even ones that in the past would have taken a lot of time and effort to track down. Accepting the advantages this has brought in sourcing, purchasing, and selling books, it is appropriate here to mention a few disadvantages.

These may not be the observations of everyone in the book business, but it seems to me that Internet selling has created a broader base of what is available, but in so doing, has driven down the price percentage available to the seller, taking into account postage fees, and site selling fees. It is pretty obvious that on Amazon as an example, it is simply not worth competing against the rest on what may once have been viewed as ‘bread and butter’ products. Some of the fun has gone too, twenty years ago, I used to travel once or twice a year between Wales and Scotland. I used to buy Scottish books in Wales and sell in Scotland, and vice versa. There’s just no point anymore..

What about the more specialist books? These are of far more interest, especially today. Since good copies are relatively scarce, they command a realistic value on Amazon and competing sites such as Abebooks or Alibris, and because there are so many specialist subjects and categories of books, charity shops and others, including some sellers on Ebay, often under-price them. Another problem with online selling is here exposed. Descriptions of condition are all too often vague or inaccurate, let the buyer beware! No one likes disputes, time wasted or further postage charges returning items. We have all learnt the hard way, but if something is described in vague terms, it probably is not up to standard.

So if you are interested in buying books for re-sale, what do you look for? Condition is always important. So many people unnecessarily write their name on the title page, this alone will devalue a book. As with anything, a clean, un-creased copy is always better than a defaced copy, and for hardbacks, that usually means ex-public library copies. Hardbacks should always have their paper dust-jacket intact. When buying books, even if you don’t object to these defects, bear in mind the description and price should reflect them, the resale value certainly will.

Try to concentrate on hardback publisher’s editions, especially first editions. Avoid where possible, book-club editions, although these still have a value. On the Internet, these are also sold indiscriminately along with the earlier originals, similarly priced. Be careful about ‘signed’ copies. There are a lot of faked signatures out there.

What about Subject? Books have been written about every subject under the sun, and you don’t have to own many books to realise you are beginning sub-consciously to specialize. Even when buying for re-sale, it is good to specialize. I mostly buy books I would be happy to own myself, in other words, the books I have for sale are often similar in subject to ones I have collected already. If you are interested in, for example, gardening, you will probably do well in specialize in books on gardening, at least to start. Some books are expensive for a reason, quality books on art come to mind. The printing techniques for reproducing paintings well are expensive, so a ‘bargain’ book here has probably cut corners on production. Fashion plays a part, too. Take books on decorating. An attractive, well-illustrated ‘how-to’ style book on 1970’s decorating will not sell today, except perhaps as historical interest? Put it in the loft, it might be sought after one day. However, books are bulky, and you quickly realize there are limits as to how many books you can look after, keep in mind an unheated garage or shed is no ideal way to storing books, for sale, or otherwise. The other point here is size. By all means sell large books, but get familiar with postage rates or you will not make a profit, only the carrier will.

For me, there is no better shop than a large, second-hand bookshop, preferably heated (not all of them are) and even better, with a comfortable seating area, good coffee, and perhaps internet access. So why do I not open such a shop? Possibly I will in the future, but currently, like most people, I have too many financial commitments to see it through the inevitable lean early times. Realistically, even though I believe people will always collect books, people are not buying as many books as they did. Electronic storage is ideal for much of the reference material previously published in book form, but predictions of the demise of the book, like the premature reports of Mark Twain’s death, were greatly exaggerated!

NB: “There is no better shop than a large, second-hand bookshop, .. heated., and even better, with a comfortable seating area, good coffee, and.. internet access”. If visiting the Bristol area, try visiting