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Confessions of a Used-Book Salesman


Administrator and Stuntman
Staff member
Pretty interesting article about a man who sells used books on Amazon's Marketplace.

Confessions of a used-book salesman. - By Michael Savitz - Slate Magazine

I make a living buying and selling used books. I browse the racks of thrift stores and library book sales using an electronic bar-code scanner. I push the button, a red laser hops about, and an LCD screen lights up with the resale values. It feels like being God in his own tiny recreational casino; my judgments are sure and simple, and I always win because I have foreknowledge of all bad bets. The software I use tells me the going price, on Amazon Marketplace, of the title I just scanned, along with the all-important sales rank, so I know the book's prospects immediately. I turn a profit every time.
I had considered doing this back in '02, but based more on my own knowledge of books/publishing than use a scanner device which wasn't really easily portable and usable back then as it is with iPhone today. I built a nice side book collection in the process but never had the heart to sell any of them - I really can't part with books alas. I also felt, after just a few weeks of building up this collection, that it wasn't something I was comfortable doing for some of the reasons this guy mentions as well as a few others.

There will be no money in this soon as the market to entry for business is reduced to nil. There's also the issue that he's just selling a product, no care for what it is. He and his 'scanning' budies hit a brick wall when they come across books without a barcode. Many of the books in my collection don't have one but they're of value. These guys are also the types who, being so heavily dependend on data mining of data laid down by others, generally mess up advertising listings on eBay/Amazon and the like when they need to list items off the radar. Listing books as 1st editions 1st print when they're actually book club runs. The often have no clue in general.

I don't begrudge these people a living; it's a tough world out there and we can't cling onto this idealist notion that books are holy and above reproach. By I do sympathise with the old guy in the library surrounded by a**h***s. There is something of the parasite in the 'scanning' book seller. No love, no appreciation of what they're selling. As he says 'the energy is all wrong'. I think this guy might be damaging his emotional/psychological health if he feels like this and carries on in this business.

He touches on an interesting point too: "we are not at ease with being outwardly competitive". There will be plenty of other people along real soon who are willing to be competitive. They will mine these stores to death, more 'old' books without barcodes will be thrown away simply because they don't sell... till someone starts to get in on the act there too. In a way it's just an evolution; businesses not adapted to online business models are being served by a middle man able to find a buyer. Libraries probably shouldn't complain right - at least these books are selling? They'd likely be thrown away otherwise. Still, interesting read, thanks for posting it.
I enjoyed reading that. I hope the guy realized that by "going public" like that he's made it harder for him to make a living. This sort of business, which like Will mentioned has a very low cost of entry, suffers when there is too much competition. On the other hand, if he's already established, he can probably weather the coming glut.

My wife works part-time for a local estate sale business. I can't help but wonder now if there are "book scanners" working for the company too, and how many show up on the first day of new sales.

Yeah, I see those scanner people pretty often. I work at a thrift store and there are three people that come in on a regularly to do that. Only problem our store has had with them is when they go into our work room to try to go through books that have not been put out on the shelves yet.