Easy weekend business: sell used books

By Xin Lu on 10 April 2009 (Updated 10 May 2009) 24 comments

When I started blogging I wrote an article about saving money in college.  In this article I wrote that I made money by selling used books.  Some people were curious as to how I could make money  doing this, so  here is a quick guide to how you can start your own used book business from the comfort of your home.

Getting the merchandise

The best places for me to find cheap books were the public libraries around the Bay Area. Some of these libraries hold big annual sales where books are sold off in brown paperbags for $3 to $5 per bag.  In one particular sale I got six bags of books for under $20 and sold a good amount of them for over $500.  In particular, one rare out of print book sold for $75 almost instantly.

My other sources for merchandise included library bookstores and a local recycling center that gave out books for free before they decided to shred the unwanted ones.  Some large church sales were also quite fruitful.

Tips about choosing books

When I first selling books I picked the ones that looked popular, but then I soon found out that used fiction books did not garner a great price unless it was in so much demand that bookstores cannot keep up.  Non-fiction books kept their values a lot better because they are usually released in smaller printings than popular fiction, and people tend to search for specific used nonfiction books to buy.  Topics like mysticism , aliens, and self help generally sold pretty well.

You should also pick books that are in good condition.  This means that the spines are intact and the pages are not water stained.  Books in better condition generally fetch a higher price.

When you are at the big book sales you often do not have much time to pick out books because you will have a lot of competition from other resellers and bibliophiles.  So the key is to pack your bags quickly and efficiently.  After doing this a while you will get better at picking the books that could possibly fetch a premium.

Sorting and listing the books

 

This is definitely the step that takes the most time, but it is also the most interesting.  I sorted my books into three piles.  One pile contained books I wanted to read; one pile contained books I wanted to list immediately; the third contained the rejects.  I generally rejected the books I had no interest in and had a list price of 1 cent on the Amazon Marketplace.  The reason is that you will make no profit from these books after the fees you have to pay. These rejects were often donated back to the library.   I listed the books that would sell for at least $5 on Amazon Marketplace. Once I started to sell more than 40 items a month I signed up for the Amazon Markplace Pro Merchant service to waive the $0.99 per item fee. You should do an honest assessment of the condition of the book and list the book with the defects it has and write it in the description. 

Sometimes Amazon Marketplace would not have a listing for a book, then you would need to do some research.  For example, I found a really old book about horses at the Elmerdorf Farm in my local libraryfor $1.  After doing some research online I found that similar copies have sold for $70 to $125. So I wrote up a good description and listed it on eBay and it fetched nearly $100.

Sometimes there are also autographed books, then you should also list it as a collectible on eBay or sites other than Amazon. Other collectible books include first editions and advanced review copies.  So you do need to flip through each book a little bit to determine its worth.  There are definitely treasures out there and finding one is always quite exciting.

Tools of the trade

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Once you collect hundreds of books, you need a place to store it.  I stored most of my books in my room.  Generally you want to store the books in a place without too much sun and without too  much humidity so that the paper does not degrade.  You also want to separate the books a bit so that the more "pulpy" books do not sit with the trade paperbacks.  The reason is that some books are more acidic than others, and that could seep into other books when you put them together.

You do need a small scale to weigh the books you want to ship.  This is so that you can figure out the exact amount of postage you need.  Customers very rarely want expedited shipping so most of the time media mail is fine.  Books under one pound  can be dropped into regular mailboxes so you will save a lot of time by organizing the books you need to ship and putting on the exact postage price.

Next, you need some packing materials.  Usually manila envelopes or small boxes are fine.  You can pad the envelopes a little with foam, but usually books are sturdy enough to ship with just envelopes.  There was only one instance where my envelope was chewed up by the post office.  They sent back a letter apologizing for the problem and also sent me a necklace that they thought was in my envelope.  I think it was a major accident because they had no idea what packages belonged where.

As to postage, I usually tried to print postage from the post office's automatic tellers or online.  I could have optimized this further by printing every stamp at home or gotten a postal meter. 

I also kept all my transactions and listed books in a big Excel spreadsheet.  My accounting was really not that complicated, but you do need to keep records of when and what shipped and what you sold each item for taxes and returns.

The payoff

After a year of selling used books, I sold  nearly 1000 books to people in 16 countries and made a profit of $5000 to $6000. For the time I put into selling books I made somewhere around $12 to $14 an hour.  This did not make me rich, but it was enough to pay for rent and some food on certain months.  I also learned a lot through the process, and annoyed my mom with the piles of books I brought home.  I stopped selling books after I started my first job because there were just too many things to do, but sometimes I still find myself drawn to booksales.  I think it would be a great weekend business for a teenager or anyone else who is looking for a little extra income.  If you are organized and devoted  enough you can make this into a full time gig because the initial capital investment is very low.  You also get better at picking the profitable books as time goes on, and it is also fun to read all the random works people have written.
 

 

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Guest's picture
Max

Thank you so much for this insight into selling books.

I have hundreds of books around that I used to get for free when my local library would set them out back for the taking.

I only took them out of interest at the time, but looking through them recently, I have found several first editions and some pretty interesting titles, a little more fiction than nonfiction, but either way, I've been considering trying to sell them, and this gives me the motivation and insight I needed.

I also love to go out book hunting at thrift shops and this seems like a good way to get some turnaround on your books after you read them.

Thanks for the post, very interesting side business idea.

Guest's picture

This sounds like an interesting business for college students... Stay tuned for the next "Best Posts for Frugal Scholars Contest". This post will probably be in it.

- Nate

Myscha Theriault's picture

Good one, Xin! I like the tip about nonfiction titles.

Guest's picture
lucille

Does this also work for college textbooks?

How would you go about determining what categories on non fiction are in demand?

Guest's picture
Guest

Good ideas here! Only please don't give reject books back to the library. There's a reason they got rid of them in the first place, and getting them back only to have to sort through them again is a complete waste of time for the library staff. Trust me, I'm a librarian myself. Just recycle the books instead and save yourself the trip. There's no shame in chucking an old, worn-out, unwanted book.

Guest's picture
D. Albright

This idea may work in the bay area, but not where I live. I had thousands of books that I have collected over the years, no novels
mostly nonfiction,(gardening,how-to,childrens)and too many other topics to name. We live off a main highway in the country, I put out nice signs and for 3 days, early 6am to 4am I had not one customer! All the books were $1.00 except some that I had checked on the internet for value.
My next thought was to call a book seller. The first guy was only willing to pick through and give me 25 cents for hard cover and 10 cents for soft cover. The other guy wanted to buy in bulk. We are limited as to options in the country. So I sold them to the guy in bulk just to get them out of here. Needless to say he made out great, me not so. It was a total waste of my time, be forewarned you need to be in an area where you have people who read and high people traffic. One other thought, if you try to sell on the internet only sell the ones that are truly hard to find otherwise there is to much competition. Good Luck!

Guest's picture
Taxman

Profit of 5-6k? Did you file a Schedule C return and pay self employment tax of 15% plus Federal and State taxes? Did you collect state tax on the books sold? Do you have a state tax ID? So if you did this side business legally what is your real profit?

Guest's picture
sara

I found a pile of college textbooks sitting outside the dumpster that I snagged and sold on amazon for about $60 each! Thanks for the additional tips!

Xin Lu's picture
Xin Lu

Hi D. Albright, I never set up a shop next to a highway to sell books.  I sold everything online.  I did this five years ago so competition might have been less, and I only sold books that were worth more than $5.

Taxman, it's not very hard to do what you said.  My dad helped me back then to file my taxes since he is an accountant.  Since I was in college and not making too much other income during the school year back then I didn't have to pay a lot of taxes on this book selling income.  Funnily enough I had a part time  on campus job that paid $9 an hour, and that income ended up being less than my book selling income.  The book selling income was also split between two tax years and I subtracted expenses like shipping/gas/merchant fees/half of self employment.  I still ended up with more than $2000 in profit after taxes for each half year. I think I only paid a few hundred dollars in taxes each of those years due to my income level. 

As to state taxes, Amazon marketplace did not give you an option to collect state taxes, but eBay did, but not everyone is from my state so very few people paid sales taxes.  Technically if you buy from Amazon you are supposed to report the sales taxes yourself to your state since they just don't collect sales tax.Oh one final note I fogot about - the tax id is actually helpful when you go to some used book shops because they waive sales tax for resellers as long as you present the tax id. 

Guest's picture
Olivia

I've had some great conversations with book sellers as I love to visit thrift stores and library sales. It seems if you find an area of personal interest you know sells, it seems go do better. One person sold classics and curriculum to homeschoolers, another sells beautifully illustrated children's books, another elderly couple zeroed in on older hardcover classic fiction and large coffeetable books. They like what they do and get enough financial return to keep themselves afloat. What more could anyone ask from a job?

Guest's picture
Guest

Half.com is brilliant for this sort of thing. I remember clearing a profit of more than $80 from a pile of abandoned books; perfectly good ones left out with the garbage on my street! Whether it's worth the effort for $14/h depends on your situation. For most students, it sure is! My favorite sources in NYC are, in descending order: 1) sidewalks, 2) public library book sales and garage sales, and 3) thrift shops. The best deals are made with the most recently published books.

Regarding taxes, I think that the IRS only takes a closer look if you are selling 4 or more copies of the same book (you're considered a shop in that case, not someone trying to unload used goods at a "loss"), or if the book sale profits make up a significant chunk of your annual income. As things stand now, making money from used books is a better deal than buying stocks.

Guest's picture
pmc2

In theory, yes, one can turn over books for profit using the methods you describe, and yes, proper storage and adequate space is a key component.

In practice, one needs to take into account the costs of shipping, the materials used in shipping, and the means of getting it to your shipper [USPS, UPS, FedEx, etc.] - those costs can eat into one's profits.

If one is not an able-bodied person, moving books around & packaging them for shipping can be daunting. Trust me, I have the backaches to prove it!

It does sound like a good idea on a small enough scale that a college student can pay down some expenses, as you did. On a larger scale, it is something to look into before one leaps.

Guest's picture
Catana

I've sold books on both Amazon and half.com, and still sell them (not as a business) on half.com because Half is more liberal in its payments to sellers. Also, because they charge a bit less for shipping, it's wise to check possible purchases on both sites to save money.

You can no longer drop anything under one pound into a local mailbox. The limit is now 13 ounces.

Best sellers are a good buy if you can buy them cheap, and if they are still on the best seller list. Once a book has lost its popularity, forget it. Be aware that many hardcover books lose their value as soon as the paperback edition is published.

I've always had most success with books that are out of print, particularly if they are academically oriented and published by respected university presses.

Guest's picture
Tina R.

I didn't do as well using Amazon.com. I guess I just didn't have the right books or even enough books to make a profit. Half.com worked much better for me. The fees are a lot less and I sold more books.

I did learn a few things from the article and will use them to boost my sales in the future. Thanks for such a good article.

Fred Lee's picture
Fred Lee

What a great way to make some extra cash, promote literacy, and maybe even meet like-minded people who share your interest in books. Not to mention a nice way to spend a day. Thanks for the tips.

Guest's picture

I think you offer some great tips, but it's easy to get overexcited about this as a business and then be overwhelmed by the realities. A few years ago, my grandmother passed away and I volunteered to liquidate her library of rare old books. Granted, those do not sell as well as newer titles. It was wonderful to go through all the books, but I still have 700 of them sitting in my garage, and that's after culling the undesirables twice. In my experience, it's a big commitment with a long, slow return.

Guest's picture
Guest

Thank you for being honest about taxes. So many people online post their techniques for making some extra money and when you ask them about taxes, they look like a deer caught in the headlights and stammer about how they didn't think they had to report it because they didn't make enough. This after they tell you how much you can make.

It is not difficult to operate a side business. Keep records of what you paid and what you sold items for as well as miles driven to book sales and the post office, postage, shipping materials, etc. to offset a portion of profit and report your earnings on Schedule C and SE (the latter if you made $400 or more profit in the year.)

It's not too difficult to make some money, as you describe, and it is none to difficult to do so honestly and correctly either, if one is of a mind to do so.

Thanks.

Guest's picture
Guest

This was well written, concise and full of timely information. Thanks for showing me how I can make some extra money during this economic slump!

Donna

Maggie Wells's picture

And they got by very well through college this way.

I found a box of Harlem Rennaissance and Black Power (from the 60s) books--all first editions  once and then lived off of the sale of them for two semesters.

 

 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture

Great post. Everyone should have a sideline business . . .

Here are some of my ideas:
Side Business Ideas Recap http://divorceddadfrugaldad.com/2009/02/17/side-business-ideas-recap.aspx

Guest's picture
Michael

Selling used books is also a form of recycling! You can make money and feel good about helping out the planet at the same time.

Guest's picture
Kelly

I found trying to sell books on Amazon, Ebay, Half, etc. was way too time consuming for me and much more than just a "weekend job". Luckily, I found some other sites that bought the books I found. I didn't get quite as much as I would selling them myself, but they gave me a prepaid label so after I entered the ISBNs on the site, I packaged up the books, dropped them in the mail and got my check within 3 weeks. The site I liked the best is www.bookjingle.com

Guest's picture
Guest

i came a treasure of books that was passed on through family members for over 150 years. They were at a local second hand shop along with old family photos, postcards, etc. I bought all the books. it actually broke my heart to think that whomever owned all this, had no one else to leave it too. they passed away, and all there belongings were passed to the shop. well the books are here with me know. i have done some googling to find out that most of them are hard to find. who do i trust to look at these books? i live near London Ontario...

Guest's picture
Heather

I sell my books to MyBookCart.com. It's much easier than selling them myself online. They pay really fast by check or PayPal. http://www.mybookcart.com