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Word to the Wise: How to Make Money Selling Books Online

Have a home library that’s sitting around collecting dust?

Transform it into your side gig by selling your used books online.

With a little know-how, it’s easy to make serious money decluttering your shelves.

While the profit margins are thin, you can turn one if you develop a savvy buying eye - or price your existing collection of books just right.

Here’s everything you need to know to get started selling used books with some of the biggest online vendors.

On the Hunt

Whether you have stacks of books taking up too much space in your living room, or you’re interested in hunting down out-of-print gems, learning how to find and price used books is one of the most important parts of the game.

Estate sales, thrift shops, and library book sales can provide good opportunities for picking over prime inventory.

Most importantly, you’ll need to learn how much books are worth to other vendors in order to make smart investments.

Tools like BookScouter.com and BookFinder.com give book buyers an accurate sense of the book’s price history, including its current going rate.

All you need is the ISBN and a reasonable estimate of the book’s condition to get started. An ISBN, or international standard book number, is the unique cataloging number printed on the copyright page of the book - and it should correspond to the barcode on the book’s back cover, too.

“Just scan the ISBN number [in BookScouter or BookFinder] to see what a particular book is currently selling for, and if it's more than what you can buy it for, snap it up and resell it,” advises Erin Huffstetler at The Balance.

Before you head out on a book-buying venture, arm yourself with the information and tools you’ll need to know whether or not you’re making a good investment.

If you’re trying to offload books from home instead, you can use scouting tools to start feeling good about earning some of your money back.

Time to grab that stack of books and start scanning ISBNs. What have you got to lose?

Smart Packaging

If you plan on selling books online, you’ll need to keep scrupulous records about their condition for other prospective buyers.

While you can get a good sense of how much a book is worth by using services like BookScout, the value will go down if the book is damaged - just as it might increase if you have a unique edition.

“First editions...can prove extremely lucrative, especially when they’re by renowned authors, while signed autobiographies are also likely to generate income far beyond the price of the book when you bought it,” writes bookseller Christian Cawley at Makeuseof.com, a lifestyle and how-to site.

No matter what kind of edition you’re hawking, don’t let shipping books to your customers eat into your bottom line. When it comes to selling used books, profit margins are thin - and it’s an industry standard to ask buyers to foot the shipping bill.

In fact, when you sell through major sites like Amazon’s used book marketplace, the mandatory $3.99 shipping price is set by the internet giants.

“From that $4, Amazon takes what they call a ‘variable closing fee’ of $1.35,” reports Calum Marsh at The Guardian.

“They also charge the seller 15% of the item’s price – which in the case of a penny book is zero. That leaves $2.64 to cover postage, acquisition cost and overhead,” Marsh adds.

If this sounds like a raw deal, you can hunt for other used book marketplaces to try to better control your costs.

Since sending books via media mail costs relatively little per pound, the expense shouldn’t be prohibitive for your customers - and most have come to expect it.

Price accordingly!

Volume - and Value - Counts

Some of the most successful used book sellers are selling books to big online audiences - which directly affects the value of books.

“The [low] price point is partly a result of the market’s downward pressure: at a certain level of supply and demand the race to the lowest price swiftly plummets to the bottom,” explains Marsh at The Guardian.

But if you’re moving a lot of inventory, like Mike Ward, owner of ThriftBooks, low profit margins can turn into big profits.

“All told, we only make a few cents on a penny book sale like that,” Ward told The Guardian. “But keep in mind that last year we sold 11.5 [million] books.”

Not planning on starting a giant used bookstore out of your garage? You may want to stick to selling high-value items, like textbooks.

“Smart traders in textbooks can make a profit by buying them in the summer when prices are low and reselling them in the fall when textbooks are in high demand,” explains Chloe Della Costa at CheatSheet.com.

“Others make money trolling thrift shops with scanners and smartphone apps that tell them the going rate for a book in the Amazon Marketplace,” Della Costa adds.

Vendors like Textbooks.com often buy used textbooks - and their price points will give you a good idea of what’s selling. That way, you can better direct your hunt for the best profit.

Remember, it’s all about turning over your stock - even if you’re doing so a little bit at a time.

Know Your Vendors

As much as making money selling books online is about knowing where to find the best deals, it’s also about knowing the best vendors for selling your wares.

While vendor services like those at Amazon make it easy to move books, they also take a flat fee each time someone purchases a book at your store.

“By selling books yourself on Amazon, you can list your book in the ‘New & Used’ section of a book's Amazon page,” explains Jacob Shamsian at Business Insider.

“With this method, you'll be notified when someone buys a book from your listing and you can ship it yourself,” Shamsian adds.

You’ll also get paid in Amazon credit, rather than bank transfer or check - making it less than ideal for running a small business. Still, that credit is potentially helpful for regular Amazon customers just looking to make some extra money.

Other used book vendors, like AbeBooks and Portland, Oregon powerhouse Powell’s, are great options for those who want to make cash from decluttering their shelves.

According to CheatSheet.com, AbeBooks will “buy back” old textbooks or other lightly used reading copies, and they pay by check. Similarly, Powell’s buys used copies but has a very strict policy about the condition of your books. Expect to receive a check - but if you plan on buying additional books, you’ll get more bang for your buck by taking store credit.

Looking for more ideas for selling books online? Check out AARP’s handy guide to online book vendors, as well as the local options you shouldn’t rule out.

Whether you’re hoping to make some extra money or turn your book-buying and bargain-hunting prowess into a business, the number of high-quality online book vendors makes  it easier than ever to sell your books.

While you can certainly make more per book if you sell high-demand items like first editions or autographed copies, don’t discount penny book sales, either.

As some of the major used booksellers in the U.S. and the U.K. told The Guardian, it’s not a bad business if you can handle the high turnover rate.

You may not make much per sale, but that extra cash can add up!

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