How To Sell Books Online: What I Learned From My First Successful Online Business Venture
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Ever since companies started making money online, I was intrigued. I graduated from high school in 1996, just when the internet was starting to come out of obscurity. At the time, I had no idea that I would eventually sell books online as my first foray into entrepreneurship.
By the time I got into college, there were always stories of online companies raising millions in IPOs on the stock market.
This whole frenzy played a huge part in my decision to go into finance and business management. I was fascinated by the ability of the companies to sell products online. It was just such a new concept back then.
I just had to have a piece of the action!
- How to Make Money Selling Books Online
- Specialized Book Selling Vs. General Book Flipping
- Where Should I Start Selling Books Online?
How to Make Money Selling Books Online
Today, flipping textbooks and selling used books online for profit is much easier than it was back then, thanks to tools like TexTrader that do all the work for you.
But when I got started, the process was much more manual.
It actually wasn’t until about 2001 or 2002 that I finally took the leap to start selling used books online. Of course, the big player in those days was eBay. Now the giant is Amazon. But by this time, it wasn’t quite as big a deal to buy and sell stuff online. However, I had never actually sold anything and I was fascinated with the subject.
I was in college and I was a cheapskate. So, obviously, my investment wasn’t huge, but I decided on selling books online. This is how I made my first buck online.
Essentially, I would go to thrift stores like Goodwill and others and look through the used book shelves and find books that I could sell on eBay or Amazon. This was my process back then in a nutshell.
However, I'm going to share a few ways you can improve your chances of success selling books online.
The key to success in buying and start selling books online is to know how much money you can sell the book for before you buy it. Even though you could buy books all day long at $1 a pop at most thrift shops, that doesn’t mean you should.
You should only purchase a book if you know you can make some money on it. I usually only bought a book for a $1 if I knew I could sell it for $5 or more.
Basics of Selling Used Books Online: 4 Types of Used Books to Sell
In general, there are 4 types of books that you should look for when selling books online. Most books you can sell for any amount of decent cash will fall into one of these four categories.
1. Old Textbooks
The used textbook market is between $5.5 billion and $8 billion according to a recent article. That means there is A LOT of money to be made in this disjointed market place.
Sure a great deal of new and used textbooks sales happen on college campuses. However, a quick perusal of Amazon and eBay listings will show you that plenty of people are still buying and selling textbooks online – both used and new.
Where to find used textbooks to sell?
If you are selling your own old textbooks, that's one thing. But what if you want to become a textbook flipper and start selling textbooks online, where you buy and sell for profit?
I would start by looking in these places:
- Second hand or thrift stores, like Goodwill
- Garage sales…you never know!
- Textbook buyback vendors
- eBay.com. You might be able to pick up a cheap book and then turn around and sell it on Amazon or somewhere else for a higher price.
- Craigslist. Especially if you are near a college town, your chances might be better for scoring some cheap textbooks.
- Ask friends and family. You might be surprised what they have lying around!
- Amazon.com. The chances are likely smaller to find anything really low priced here, but it's still possible to stumble on the right opportunity.
Where to sell used textbooks online?
Old textbooks, in particular, have lots of places where you can sell. You can use Ebay.com and Amazon.com as a great way to list and sell your inventory online.
These are sites that every college student will check for a cheaper version of their required textbooks. This was true in the early 2000s and the only change is that MORE students are looking online to buy used textbooks.
Because the ridiculous markups for the college textbooks in bookstores haven't changed, either. That means there's a big market to ship textbooks.
However, there are also plenty of other textbook-specific marketplaces that are worth taking a look at. Here's a few of the textbook marketplaces for selling textbooks:
2. Modern First Edition Books
Modern first edition books are essentially books published in the last 30 or 40 years. For some people these are collectible for their favorite authors or books. For others they are just willing to pay a little higher price for something that might become collectible someday.
These first editions are not hard to find for books that are current or recent best sellers. However, they do tend to get a bit more difficult they further back in time you go.
When I first got started, I really didn’t know what kind of books to look for. So after doing a little bit of research, I discovered that modern day first editions are collectible!
A modern day first edition is simply the first edition of a recent publication (in the past 30 years or so). First editions for books older than this will typically command even higher book prices.
If you don’t know how to tell if a book is a first edition, its not always easy. But here is a good guide that explains how to determine if the book is a first edition.
Profitable book selling right away
With my limited knowledge of what books to look out for, I probably missed a few good ones. However, I did find a few decent modern day first editions. One book that I sold for about $50 was the first edition of The Firm by John Grisham.
I also found a few other books that sold for $20 or $30. However, the majority of the books that I found sold for around $5 to $7. Still not too bad for a $1 purchase.
If you get a high enough volume of book sales that can be a pretty tidy profit!
I only kept at it for about 3 or 4 months. I would go book hunting on the weekends to start selling books online and mail them during the week. Because I was in school and trying to get my future wife interested in me, I didn’t spend too much time or effort on it.
However, I did manage to make a few dollars (actually a few hundred dollars) here and there.
Where to buy modern first edition books?
- Second hand or thrift stores, like Goodwill
- Garage sales & yard sales
- Flea markets
- Ask friends and family
- Sometimes you can find great deals on eBay if you know what to look for
Where to Sell Modern First Edition Books?
I would stick to eBay most of the time for selling these types of books. People know that they can go to eBay to find rare and collectible items, including modern first edition books. eBay is a great place to go for both Adult and Children's books.
Amazon is probably not the best place to sell these types of books (however, you can also check for your particular books).
If you are looking at this as a long-term project and are willing to keep a large inventory of old books on hand to get the best price for each then you might want to consider an online bookstore.
Abebooks.com is a great option for this, though you will have a monthly fee in addition to the percentage taken from each book sold.
That means you need to have enough antique books and used first edition books on hand to justify those monthly fees. However, if you have rooms full of used books, this can be a great way to get the best price from book buyers for your first editions.
3. Out of Print Used Books
Out of print books are just your standard used books – both adult and children's books – that you might find at any old bookstore or thrift store. There is typically not a lot of money to be made in these “run of the mill” type books. While you won't make the most money this way, it doesn't hurt to give it a shot.
Especially with the competition and fees that Amazon will charge, it's harder and harder to make much money on a book that costs you $1 to buy, and you sell for $5. After you pay your packaging and shipping label and shipping costs, there just isn't much profit left.
However, there are indeed still lots of used books sellers on Amazon selling these types of books. So, you can make it work…but it's not easy.
These are the kind of books that are considered the “long tail.” Many of these books will only sell a few copies a month total, and if there are 50 sellers all trying to sell a used copy of the same book, well you do the math. You might have to wait a year or longer before the book will sell.
Most people making decent money at non-collectible secondhand adult and children's books are either large used bookstores with huge stock at a good physical location or individual book sellers who serve a really specific niche.
4. Collectibles and Antique Books
Many people are surprised by just how much of a market there are for collectible and antique books out there. Selling antique books online, limited first edition books, or even specialty collectible books is a huge market!
Getting good at this takes a willingness to learn some new skills and invest time, but the pay-off potential is huge!
One of our writers on this site, Shane, has bought and sold antique books on the side for over 15 years. He jokes about being able to “smell” the money on any old book at the flea market, garage sale, or even used book store.
While a truly rare book is an uncommon find, it does happen. He recalls buying a 1919 first edition for $55 off eBay, and flipping it four months later on Abebooks for $775.
Five minutes of research before buying, fifteen minutes putting up the listing, and five minutes packaging and shipping costs later and $720 is a great payout for a half hour of actual work!
Most profitable second hand books aren't going to return that level of profit.
As a rough rule of thumb Shane says for every $10 he spent on an old book he expects about $40-50 back. That's still pretty good money selling books as a side gig.
That's not figuring in the major money makers like the previous story. This is the profit margin on the average old book he may find at a flea market, an estate sale, underpriced online, or even the very occasional garage sale.
Specialized Book Selling Vs. General Book Flipping
There are good arguments that can be made for both these methods of selling books online. Finding popular secondhand books you can pick up for nickels and dimes on the cover price that you then sell can produce some very good return on investment.
Then again, while you may have to keep old collectible books or antique first editions longer before selling them online, they often go for much higher prices, as well.
In other words, both of these methods of selling old books online are a great way to make some serious money if you know what you're doing. So is one method better than the other? Which one makes you the most money will depend on your particular circumstance.
Flipping books can make a great side hustle, or even a full-time job, in a variety of ways. The key is to get into the game of selling books online and see what you enjoy most about it, what you can consistently find in the area, and use that to keep moving forward.
A Few Tips from a Book Hound
Shane was kind enough to bring some of his 15 years of first hand knowledge on how to make money selling used books online to this post. He specialized mostly in first edition antique books and collectible older books.
If you tend to like to study things in-depth before jumping in, the ideas of learning to locate, identify, and buy used books before flipping them for a profit can be overwhelming. There's a LOT of information involved in becoming a book hound (slang for someone who does this, especially with antique or collectible first editions).
Enough it can quickly overwhelm you.
But don't worry. If you're excited about the potential profit in that yard sale, garage sale, or library sale, if you love the feel of a physical book in the hands, and then the large number after a $ that shows up after you sell it, then don't let the world of flipping books intimidate you.
Follow these tips, think of it as an adventure, and there's a good chance you'll catch the bug, too! And make a tidy profit along the way.
Be Honest About Condition
You should never lie about the condition of the used book. Being honest is just a good policy, period. But this also applies to gray areas.
What if the book falls in that gray area between “very good” and “good?” Or “fine” and “very good?”
While there are strong guidelines for judging the condition of an old book, it's not set in stone. There are times where a rare book's condition is balancing right between two conditions. In that situation, I ALWAYS label it as the worst of the two.
Because I would rather be known as the guy who sold a very good book at a good price than a scam artist who overcharged and underdelivered.
Reputation matters, especially if you end up going heavy into the rare book or antique book route.
Plus, in the description mentioning that it's really straddling those two conditions but you listed it as worse to be on the safe side…it's one heck of a closing tactic for selling collectible books. Those almost always sold quickly for me.
Every collector likes a good deal. Worst case scenario, they know they're getting a book that is at least in the best range of the lower condition. Best case, they get a great deal. And will come back searching my online store for more great deals on future old book finds!
Unwanted Bulk Books Hide Treasures
Don't underestimate the potential in picking up unwanted books. While these are often picked through more often than not, it's easy to miss some valuable old ones.
Even if there aren't any valuable first editions or college textbooks, many times you can still make a profit selling groups of books on eBay. It won't be a huge amount, but profit is profit.
Get creative if you find yourself with too many books that are hard to move.
Donate to a local library or school library. Create those little street free library houses to make books available to neighbors and kids. Donate to prisons. If you have a blog or website, call local news sites or local bloggers and get some good PR and some backlinks from this.
There are plenty of ways that buying and selling used books can profit you even beyond the direct sale.
Nothing Beats Hard-Earned Knowledge
Many of the most valuable old books are ones that aren't obviously valuable, but they fall into a specific field a collector might like (example: old medical books or 1930s school lesson books) or are ghost written by authors who later became famous under another name.
In this case having that knowledge will let you see valuable books that even the best apps or AI might not see.
If you want to get even more out of selling used books online, buy a few books on being a book hound or identifying valuable first editions.
This will teach you helpful skills like:
- Being able to tell the condition of a book
- Knowing obscure titles that are valuable
- Spotting overlooked potential gems
- Help you remember titles that are worth something to collectors, but not mainstream
The number of times I felt a “ping” in my head like I knew that title from somewhere, bought the book, and then found out it was in one of the many books on valuable first editions I had is pretty substantial.
Trusting that gut instinct, because I knew it came from study and knowledge, has led to some great profits I otherwise would have missed.
Pay Attention to Shipping Costs
If you've done any buying or selling on Amazon, eBay, or anywhere else then you know that what you pay for shipping costs is often a set cost that is more than the actual postal fees. This not only covers envelopes, the shipping labels or stamps/postage, insurance or delivery tracking, but it's also accepted the seller takes a little for their time/trouble.
Keep an eye on what seems like “acceptable” shipping costs for a handling charge. If it's $5 and you're only charging $3 that's $2 a package you're leaving on the table. If you end up selling 1,000 books in a year, that really adds up.
Be Wary of Library Sales
Library sales can be a great place to find used books you can flip for a profit. Especially in bulk. However, if you are focusing mostly on valuable first edition collectible books, keep in mind that an ink stamp with the library's name is a value killer, even if the rest of the book is in surprisingly good shape.
“Library copy” is often a cuss word when it comes to antique fiction book hounds.
Steps to Get Started as a Beginning Book Seller
- Buy some guidebooks to learn about book conditions, how to identify a first edition, and learn about collectible books
- Look for useful apps like Scout IQ or Textrader to stay on top of trends
- Check out common sites to sell books and get familiar with how they work
- For collectible/antique books a good starting rule of thumb is think specialist collector for non-fiction, first edition/first printing for fiction
- Get out there and do it – nothing beats real world experience!
How to Check Selling Prices Before You Buy
Most of you may already know how to check completed listings on eBay; however, if not, its pretty simple. There is an option on the left sidebar that says “Completed Listing.” Simply check this box, and then only the listings for the particular search topic you have entered that are completed will show.
By doing this kind of research, you can find out pretty quickly how much you can expect to sell a book for.
Chances are that you are not going to find any real “gems” in the used book section. You probably won’t find any books worth thousands and probably not even hundreds of dollars unless you are really lucky.
However, you can certainly find some books valued in the $10 to $20 range.
The problem with selling books this way, is that the margins are so low for the amount of time that it takes to find the books, creating the listing, respond to online customers, pack the books, and take them to the post office. I was probably making way less than minimum wage on my little bookselling business venture.
However, I think there really is some potential for someone who gets serious about it.
How to Sell books Online (and make more money than I did)
While there are a couple of different approaches to take, the one I like best is buying used books on Amazon and then right back on Amazon and pocketing the difference. If I were to start up reselling today, this is the avenue I would take.
Selling textbooks online has gotten very powerful. If I were to do everything over, I wouldn't even bother with low priced books. Fiction, nonfiction, it doesn't matter. College textbooks cost an astronomical amount and there's a huge opportunity.
Sound too good to be true?
There are actually more deals out there like this than you'd believe. Thanks to the fact that sellers list and are selling textbooks online for low prices on Amazon all the time, not realizing they could trade that book into Amazon for more money.
For example, you might see a Biology 101 textbook that has a used price of $45 and the average used selling price is $70. Meaning you could buy it at the current low price and potentially sell it right back for about a $25 profit.
There are tons of opportunities like this. Students get new college textbooks every year. And plenty of savvy students don't want the 4th edition that just came out. They are more than happy with the 3rd edition that's less than half the price.
This opens up a massive opportunity for you to buy the “old” textbook when new editions come out. Wait a little bit and there will be more than enough buyers for what you're offering.
You can start searching for deals manually or use TexTrader to speed up the process significantly.
Where Should I Start Selling Books Online?
This can be a crucial decision that really affects your profits. You don't want to make a bad choice. Don't forget on the other side of Shane's story of selling a book for $775 was a person who was happy to get $50 for it.
In that case Abebooks was clearly the right call over eBay for bottom line profit margin. This won't always be the case.
The good news is that there are more places than ever where you can sell books. There are also more used books sold in a year than ever before – so there are plenty of opportunities.
The following is a list of several of the best places to go online to sell books – used and new. Keep in mind that depending on what type of old books you're selling or used books you're flipping, some of these sites will work better than others.
We'll give you the basic guidelines to help make selling books online profitable. Keep in mind that nothing beats good old trial and error testing.
They're the largest seller of, well pretty much everything, in the world. Selling used books on Amazon can be a good option, especially if you get a very popular modern book cheap. And it's as easy as setting up an Amazon seller central account.
Amazon is never going to be the best place for antique books or rare first editions. But for modern books and some popular books like to sell novels, it's a great place to check out. And you can download the Scout IQ app to know what a book is currently selling on Amazon.
This is an app for retail arbitrage that shows you what an item is selling for right now specifically on Amazon. That makes it a great tool for book hounds looking to supplement that occasional big dollar treasure with profitable smaller sales on the way.
Most of the time you won't get premium prices from your used books on eBay. But you can get a lot of sales off this platform. If you are running out of space, or received many relatively collectible first editions that aren't super rare, eBay can be a great way to create cash flow from unwanted books.
Many times eBay is on the short list of places to look for a good deal as opposed to selling books for profit. But if you received a lot of books for a dime each, you might be happy with $10 and let someone else do the legwork to flip it again for more.
Abebooks earned a reputation early on as the place to go for rare books, antique first editions, and valuable collectible books. This reputation remains. If you're looking for a very specific old book, fiction books many decades out of print, then you go to Abebooks.
Which makes this a fantastic place for sellers who have a collection of first edition fiction books, collectible old non-fiction books, or those unconventional books that sell for more but which you also might need time to get the best price for.
If you are more for the “burn and churn” style of flipping books then you can skip this, but Abebooks is a great spot where major money can be made from sales.
Flipsy is an interesting site made for flipping a little bit of everything, but their book section is particularly active. This can be a great place for selling popular books. They have even started to give Abebooks a run for their money when it comes to collectible books.
If you already have sold with Flipsy, then you should check out its book section, as well. This is a place where you can sell antique and collectible books. In addition to more modern popular titles, as well.
Used mostly for looking at used textbooks online, this is a favorite if you can find college students who don't want to spend $350 for a new textbook that then gets used only once.
Which will be most of them.
Local Used Book Stores
This is last on the list because while I'm all about supporting local used book stores. From a pure making money selling books standpoint it's almost never going to be your best option. You will rarely get cash.
That said, if you need space or have a lot of books that you just can't sell quickly, the store credit or gift cards you get are great for filling out your own reading list or shopping for the bookworms in the family.
My Future with Selling Used Books Online
To be honest, every once in a while I still get the itch to go hunting for used books and to start selling them online. If I had some more time, I would LOVE to do this! I enjoy the hunt more than anything. Its kinda fun to find a first edition book selling for $1 at a thrift store.
So, who knows maybe this will become one of my future niche projects that I will document on this website. I am always looking for new ideas, but I’m certainly willing to revert back to something I have tried before.
If you're looking to start flipping college textbooks, I highly recommend checking out TexTrader which will save you a TON of time and hassle.try textrader to start a book selling income stream with ease
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