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Selling books on Amazon

I didn’t talk about it much, but I sold books on Amazon for extra money for a little over a decade. There’s a lot of hyperbole out there about selling on Amazon and online in general. Here’s some straight talk about selling books on Amazon from someone who did it.

My Amazon story

selling books on Amazon

Selling books on Amazon is an effective way to make money at home. Just don’t let anyone tell you it’s easy.

For me it started with a book called The Bible Tells Me So: Uses and Misuses of Scripture. I bought that book in 1998 or 1999. I read most of it, it answered my question, and then it sat on my shelf for several years. In the meantime it went out of print. Somehow, I found out used copies were selling for around $50. I don’t know if I looked it up for some reason, or if Amazon actually solicited me to try to sell it. Amazon knew I owned it because that’s where I bought it in the first place.

Getting $50 out of a book I originally paid $20 for sounded nice, but I was afraid of listing it. What if I missed the notification that someone bought it and didn’t ship it to them fast enough?

But then in 2005, I got laid off at work. So one night I pulled that book down from the shelf and listed it. I scrounged around the house and found some bubble wrap, tape, and kraft paper so I could wrap it up if it sold. To my surprise, it sold within a couple of days.

I listed a few more books, and started hunting for more at local thrift stores. The best book I found was a book about rebuilding car engines that I resold for $75. Between that and a few other books I scrounged up, my first Amazon payment was around $200. Not enough to live the high life, but I had enough to pay the utility bills.

Can you work full-time selling books on Amazon?

I know people who don’t have any other income other than what they make selling books. There’s a subculture of people who’ve made their living selling books for decades, even before Amazon. Amazon allows people to cut out most of the middlemen.

I landed a full-time job soon after I received that first payment from Amazon. So it was a part-time thing for my wife and me. We certainly considered doing it full-time ourselves, especially once we were making $36,000 a year on it. (Yes, we paid taxes on it, and yes, we had a business license, so we paid sales tax on our in-state sales.)

There are people who will tell you that you can make $100,000 a year selling books on Amazon. That may be possible. Of course no one who sells books for a living is going to tell you what they make. That calls too much attention to themselves. But I’ll say this. I work in computer security. I know lots of people who make $100,000 a year. And I know the vibe they give off. No one I knew who was selling books full time gave off that vibe.

Some of them did fine. Just not $100K/year fine. Some struggled.

It’s perfectly fine as a part-time gig, or as something to hold you over in between jobs. And it’s worth giving it a try. How well you can do depends on a number of factors, including the availability of books near you and how many other people in your area are doing the same thing. There are much, much worse ways to make money.

Why I stopped

So if selling books on Amazon is so great, why’d I stop? That’s a fair question. It was really a combination of factors.

My day job was working in IT, and while the IT market is very crowded, the information security market is not. I can make more doing that job than we could make selling books, even full-time. Plus, once I reached a lower-senior level, getting time off to hit book sales during the week got harder.

The final nail, though, was when my wife developed health problems a few years ago. She wasn’t able to help out, and there wasn’t enough time for my other career, helping her, and taking care of the kids. So we wound down the bookselling.

But we had a good run. We didn’t become elite booksellers, but that’s OK. We were profitable in all but our last year.

What people who sell products about selling don’t tell you

There’s a huge ecosystem of people who support people who sell on Amazon. They offer e-books, newsletters, and other insider information, often for a large fee. I bought a lot of them over the years. I made my money back off them, but none of them propelled me to the heights they promised.

The regional factor is something nobody tells you. I once paid $100 for a list of books that sell well, sell for a high price, and are supposedly common. About five of these supposedly common books were books about making ice cream. In 10 years, I never, ever found a single book about making ice cream. Not a one. But when Anheuser-Busch was selling out to InBev, I had a very nice run selling a book about the Busch family called Under the Influence. It wasn’t on his list, but it’s dirt common here. Its value has dropped considerably now that the Busch family isn’t in the news anymore. But it met his criteria and wasn’t on his list.

He mentioned that certain older editions of the Betty Crocker cookbook sell well, and for more than enough money to be worthwhile. That’s good to know, and those are easy to find. He didn’t mention early editions of The Joy of Cooking, which I discovered on my own. It’s just as common where I live. It’s probably less common in other parts of the country.

I’m not saying these lists aren’t worthwhile. But don’t get the idea that you can memorize a list of 50 titles and make $300 a day off that knowledge. It’s not that easy. You’re going to have to adapt the information on those lists to your area, at least to some degree.

I also think a lot of the people who are selling books for a living have multiple streams of income. They’re selling books, sure. They’re selling other stuff too. And they’re selling information products to people like you and me.

Where to buy books to sell on Amazon

No one is going to tell you where they get their books. At least not specifically. Sometimes someone will be bragging about a find and will slip up and tell a secret, but no one’s going to tell you where their favorite book scouting place is if you just flat out ask them. When you’re standing in line at a book sale or estate sale, listen to the other people talking just in case. That’s the best way to learn.

Generally speaking, my books came from 4-5 different sources.

Used book sales

The best place to buy books in bulk is at book sales. Large organizations hold book sales on an occasional basis, often once or twice a year, to raise money. A small sale may just fill a school gymnasium, while some larger sales can fill multiple levels of a parking garage. The bigger the sale, the bigger the crowd, of course. is a good source of these sales. Most of the better sales advertise here.

If you’re going to sell books full time, be ready to travel. You’re not likely to get enough books just from your local sales, so there may be times when you will drive to nearby metro areas to get books.

These sales aren’t for the timid. The competition is intense, and there are some people who attend these sales who hate booksellers. Do your best to be respectful and keep a low profile. Mark your stash very clearly, and try to get friendly with some of the local sellers so you can look out for each other. After a while, you’ll figure out which ones will reciprocate if you’re friendly and respectful, and which ones will just take advantage of you.

As stressful as these sales are, they were my best source. So it’s best to go to a couple of sales and learn how to survive.

Estate sales

My second best source of books was estate sales. Estate sales are very hit and miss. I’ve gone to estate sales and bought enough books to nearly fill my car, and I’ve gone to sales that had precisely three books. In the whole house. Now, oddly enough, one of those sales that only had three books had two really good ones that I sold for north of $50 each. So you never know.

The best you can do is tilt the odds in your favor. Go to some sales and learn what kind of people your local sellers cater to. You’ll find more books with resale potential from the estates of millionaires than you will from blue-collar types. But it’s worth learning. I was far more likely to find oddly expensive books at estate sales than anywhere else.

Estate sales are competitive too, so get there early. Many sellers stagger their sales, so on a good day, I could go to a sale at 8, another at 9, and another at 10, and be in the first or second wave to get in all three. When two promising sales were at the same time, I had to pick one and hope for the best, then hit the second one later in the day and hope something was left.

I have some pretty extensive tips on finding estate sales.

There can be one downside to estate sales. I’ve gotten really good books from estates of heavy smokers. Removing the cigarette smell from those books is essential before reselling them.

Garage sales

Garage sales are extremely hit and miss. You will hear stories of people striking gold at garage sales, and yes, it happened to me from time to time. But it’s fairly safe to say the majority of garage sales are pretty thin on books with resale potential.

I found there were parts of my metro area that tended to have good garage sales, so I would focus on those, and on any garage sales that were near estate sales on my list.

Digital downloads definitely cut into what I could get at garage sales, but garage sales tended to be a reasonable source for recent titles that would sell quickly. The current editions of some Dummies titles sell for enough to be worth your while. They don’t make you big money, but they increase your sales volume quickly, help you build up feedback, and make you enough money to cover your overhead. Once you’re consistently selling 40 books a month, you can open a Pro Seller account and then your margins increase.

You won’t get rich buying books for 50 cents at a garage sale and selling them for $4 or $5, but those low-value books help keep the lights on while you’re waiting for the more expensive titles to sell.

Thrift stores

Last and least, there’s thrift stores. At one time, thrift stores were a fantastic source of books. Sometime around 2008 or 2009, they discovered online selling. So now, most thrift stores sell their best stuff online instead of in the stores. They don’t catch everything, and I do see people buying books in thrift stores to resell, but it’s a lot harder than it used to be.

Cleaning up books to resell

As you can guess, books from these sources can be a bit worse for wear. But it’s surprising how well you can clean them up. It’s surprisingly easy to remove stickers or sticker residue, and even tape from books. Yes, even from paperback books. Of course, the less valuable the book is, the less effort you want to put into it. But I saw other sellers pass up books that had value just because of their condition, when in many cases the books’ issues weren’t difficult to correct.

How to know what books have resale value on Amazon

Most people look up book prices with a smartphone or, believe it or not, an ancient Windows Mobile PDA. For casual selling, you can use the Amazon app on your smartphone and scan the barcodes with your camera. To keep up with the pros at an estate sale or book sale, you’ll need to get a bluetooth scanner and an app such as A Seller Tool.

Handle enough books, and you’ll start to recognize certain titles on sight. Some people call scanning a crutch, but with 10 million-plus books on Amazon, it’s impossible to know every title that has value. It’s a tool.

The other thing to pay attention to is sales rank. Some people tell you never to buy a book with a sales rank over 100,000, and how books with sales ranks over a million never sell. Oh, they sell. Just not fast. If it had a rank that high it’d better have a value over $25.

One reason I dealt in cheap books that sold fast was to keep things afloat while I waited for slow-selling expensive titles to move.

How to decide what kind of books to sell on Amazon

Some of the people who sell you bookseller information tell you to never sell a book for less than $10, that somehow, having cheap books on your shelf next to expensive books will devalue them. When you press them, they’ll tell you when you don’t sell cheap books, you’ll have more time to find expensive ones.

It’s a nice strategy when it works. But it doesn’t always work.

Without a Pro Seller account, it’s difficult to turn a profit on books under $3. So when you’re starting out, don’t bother with stuff that cheap. But do the math. Depending on the cost of your shipping mailers, you may make a small profit on the shipping allowance. This could make a small book more profitable, especially if the acquisition price is low.

The Alcoholics Anonymous book Twenty Four Hours a Day is a good example. It rarely sells for more than $6. But it’s so small, you can ship it cheaply. And it sells fast. Plus you’re helping someone, which ought to be worth something too. It’s also one of those rare titles you can still find in thrift stores with some regularity.

It’s more difficult to do now, because Amazon rarely increases the shipping allowance even when postal rates increase, but there was a time when I could even turn a profit selling books for a penny. I only did this with something that would sell fast. But if it was a lightweight paperback that weighed around 3 ounces and I could ship it in a small, lightweight mailer, I could actually turn a profit of 75 cents on the shipping. If I got the book for 25 cents at a garage sale, it was profitable. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style was an example of a book I could find consistently for 25 cents, ship cheap, turn a profit on at almost any price, and it always sold fast.

Shipping books for Amazon

Shipping may be the hardest part of selling on Amazon. You’ll probably use scrounged materials at first like I did. You’ll take a bath buying bubble mailers locally, but if you buy them in bulk, you can get them for around 25 cents apiece. The people who sell in large volumes generally use bubble mailers. Boutique sellers who sell only high-dollar books can use other, more durable shipping methods, but I rarely had a complaint about damage from shipping in a bubble mailer. And it’s quick to toss a book in a mailer, close it up, then tape a shipping label to it.

Adhesive mailing labels save you a lot of time, but they’re expensive. So I printed my labels on plain paper with a laser printer (I recommend laser printers), using rebuilt toner cartridges from 4inkjets, then taped them to the package using packing tape. My mailing labels cost me less than a penny each. If you’d rather use self-adhesive labels, check out Kenco labels. They’re actually made by Avery but they’re cheaper, so they’re a good value.

Here’s another pro tip: Some post offices are open on Sunday. Shipping out a batch of books on Sunday can make it easier to stay ahead, and having that extra day is good for your feedback rating.

Bottom line: Is selling books on Amazon worth it?

Since I don’t sell on Amazon anymore, you might conclude it’s not worth it. I certainly had some good days, and I had some bad days. But there’s definitely a benefit to being exposed to large numbers of books. Take how I learned about real estate, for example. I heard that William Nickerson’s books about real estate from the 1960s and 1970s were worth money, and common. Indeed, in a typical year I usually found one of his books. But I read them before reselling them.

Selling books got us the downpayment for our first house.

For some people, selling books on Amazon is the journey. For others, it’s just part of it. It’s OK if it’s just part of yours.

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