Books and FBA: The Perfect Combination

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One of my favorite aspects about selling books on Amazon is the reactions from people when I tell them what I do.

A typical conversation:  

“So… what do you do?”

“Well, I’m a medical device sales consultant and sell hip and knee replacements.  Oh – and I also run a small business dabbling in books.”

“Wait… did you say books?  Like actual books with paper and stuff?  There surely can’t be any money in that… seems like everything is going digital these days!”

And that’s usually the extent of the conversation.  A few people grasp that there could be some money in selling used books, but the majority turn up their noses, laugh a little bit, and change the subject to something, well, more modern.

Maybe that’s still your mindset when it comes to selling books on Amazon.  Today’s post will aim to clear up some of those common misconceptions..  Before we go into detail on topics such as sales rank and the ideal technology setup for sourcing books, it’s important to understand two fundamental principles about this business:  namely, why are we selling books, and why are we selling them FBA (Fulfilled By Amazon).

Why sell books:  There is so much chatter online about getting rich quickly through Retail Arbitrage (RA), Online Arbitrage (OA), and Private Labeling (PL).  While there is some great money to be made on each of the above topics, they all involve a significant amount of risk to get started.  I may someday look at some of the above business models, but for now I’m having too much fun selling books.  Here’s why I focus on books:

  • Books are plentiful.  Seriously.  They’re seemingly EVERYWHERE.  I challenge you to find a thrift store or a garage sale that doesn’t have at least a few books for sale.  Most people view books as a liability, since they are heavy and they don’t think anyone will want them.  They usually end up donating them to a thrift store or listing them for free on Craigslist or a similar site.  Don’t believe me?  Jump on your local Craigslist site and type in “free books”.  You might be surprised at what you find!  (You’re welcome.)  Now, just because they’re free doesn’t mean that they are worth anything… we’ll cover how to spot value in a later post.  Once you start opening your eyes to potential book sources, you will start to see books all over the place.
  • Books are inexpensive (usually).  It’s not uncommon to find books for sale for 50 cents or a dollar apiece.  In fact, my average buy cost is just a hair over a dollar, and I’ve purchased thousands of books this past year.  A few thrift stores are starting to figure it out and charge $2, $5, or even closer to $10 for some select titles, but the majority of books are still relatively cheap.  When the average book in your inventory is selling for $15-$20, you suddenly don’t mind spending a dollar or two to acquire the book in the first place.  I challenge you to find another industry with margins as good as these!
  • Books are (still) in demand.  With all the items for sale on Amazon, books are still the number one category for overall unit sales  (it’s been estimated that 1 out of 6 items sold on Amazon is a book).  Whether it’s students looking to save a few dollars on textbooks, travelers looking for that bestseller to read while on vacation, or a gray-haired individual looking for that book that reminds them of their younger years, there’s something for everyone on Amazon.  There are over 50 million book listings on Amazon right now, with hundreds more being added every hour!  In the past hour, roughly 100,000 individual book titles sold at least one copy, and several thousand of those titles sold multiple copies (these figures are based on sales rank alone – I’ll explain this in more detail in a future post).  What are you waiting for?  There’s unparalleled demand for books out there this very minute.
  • Books are easy to research.  Forget about looking up brand names and model numbers on historical sales on eBay to try to judge the value.  A book’s ISBN (International Standard Book Number) gives you all the information you need, including the correct edition of the book and even if it has a softcover or a hardcover.  Nearly every book published after 1970 has an ISBN, and most recent books have the ISBN in a barcode form on the back of the book.  This allows for easy arbitrage opportunities, where you can know the value of the book BEFORE you purchase it.  It’s almost not fair, especially when you invest in some technology to speed up the research process (more on that later).
  • Books are easy to ship.  Sure, they’re heavy, but you don’t have to do any additional prep to them before shipping.  If you are shipping them individually, simply throw them in a padded mailer and off they go.  If you are sending them to Amazon’s warehouses (which you SHOULD be doing), they are relatively easy to package up into a larger box.  If they’re used, don’t even worry about a few dents and dings along the way.  By the time they make it through Amazon’s warehouse and through the FedEx delivery process, they will end up with a few additional dings along the way.  Don’t stress about packing your books with extreme caution… books are fairly durable.

Why sell via FBA:  Enough about books.  Hopefully I’ve convinced you that they are out there just waiting to be discovered and listed online for someone to purchase.  The next list will look at why you should sell your books via FBA.  Many people (myself included) are leery of sending their inventory to some massive warehouse where they could get lost or damaged, and then there’s all the other fees related to selling them FBA versus MF (Merchant Fulfilled).  Up until about nine months ago, I sold all of my books MF.  I was limited by the space available in my house and when I traveled for work (around 40% of the time), I had to put my entire business on vacation mode until I got back so I would be able to meet the shipping deadlines for each order.  I finally made the decision to switch everything over to FBA, and I haven’t regretted it for one second.  I wish I had made the switch years earlier!  Here’s why you should sell via FBA:

  • You can charge more for your books.  Sure, the fees may be higher for FBA (an $8 book will net you around $4 after FBA fees), but you can also charge more for your books.  A lot more.  Here’s an example from a book I sold yesterday:

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 9.25.54 AM IMG_8270I sold the book for $24.95 when the lowest MF offer (in Very Good condition) was $4.03 with shipping included.  Someone paid an extra $20 to purchase the book via Prime and get it with free two-day shipping.  This happens more often than you think.  Oh, and I only paid 10 cents for the book.

  • You will have less competition.  In the above example, I was the only Prime seller among more than a dozen other sellers.  Rather than join them in their race to the bottom on price, I was able to maintain my price at a much higher rate than theirs and I still got the sale.  With FBA, you are not competing against the MF sellers.  This is a HUGE advantage when it comes to selling books.
  • You will open your business up to more customers.  Amazon keeps their facts and figures about their Prime customers close to the vest, but it’s estimated that nearly half of Amazon’s customers will ONLY purchase Prime items.  Why is this?  Part of it is due to the fact that they will get the item quickly with free two-day shipping.  Part of it is because they will deal directly with Amazon’s customer service department and receive no-hassle returns.  Part of it is they paid $99 per year to be part of the Prime program and they feel that they need to justify that cost by taking advantage of the Prime offers.  Whatever the reason, know that you now have access to more customers who are willing to pay a higher price.  It’s a win-win scenario (for you!).
  • You can sell your items worldwide with just a few clicks.  If you’re not taking advantage of the FBA Export program already, you’re missing out on some additional sales.  It’s not often for me, but probably around 2% of my items get shipped outside of the US.  Those are sales that I wouldn’t have made without this program.  You can sign up for it (it’s free!) by clicking here.
  • Your business can scale easily.  When I was selling MF, I ran into space and time limitations.  My inventory was at most around 500 items, and I had to package and ship out a few orders each night and also deal with customer service.  That was precious time that I could have spent hanging out with my family and friends. With FBA, Amazon is now your warehouse, your shipping department, and your customer service department all wrapped into one!  And you get all of these benefits for roughly 2 cents per book per month in storage fees.  It’s the best deal out there!  Now you can focus on sourcing and listing your books, and let Amazon deal with everything else.  I now have nearly 5,000 books in inventory and am steadily adding more every week.  This scale would have been nearly impossible if I were still operating the business out of my basement.
  • You have flexibility and freedom with FBA.  This is by far the greatest advantage of FBA.  Forget higher prices, more customers, and no warehouse leasing costs.  Every time I go on vacation, my business is still operating and Amazon is still depositing money into my bank account every two weeks.  I went on a family vacation last month that was more than 1,300 miles from home, and I sold enough books while away to more than cover the entire cost of the vacation.  Even when you’re not working your business can still be working for you.  Earlier this week I took the morning off to play a round of golf with a friend.  While I was playing, my business was running in the background and generating more than enough income to cover all the costs of my round of golf.  Here was my “view from the office” that morning:

IMG_8254Not a bad way to spend a morning!

Conclusion:  So there you have it.  A closer look at why I believe books and FBA are the perfect combination to create a business model that can fit anyone’s lifestyle.  My next few posts will go more into detail on understanding sales rank and also showing you the sourcing setup that I use to find books every week.  Stay tuned, and in the meantime go flip some books!

46 Comments

  1. Good reasons for selling books via FBA instead of MF. I would be interested in seeing how you grade books (good, very good, acceptable, etc) and learning your philosophy on grading.

  2. Great to have another active book seller blogger. I’ve been following Peter for over a year. Just over 1800 FBA items: most are books, followed by board games (thanks to Smotherman), and misc other stuff. Looking forward to more good tips.

    • Smotherman is one smart dude – I’ve learned plenty from him along the way. I love how he keeps his family a priority and how his wife works in the trenches with him.

  3. Great article! Thanks.

  4. Caleb speaks the truth. I have sold books both as MF and FBA. FBA is the way to go. And yes, books are still in demand. Just do a search for books and see for yourself.

  5. Couldn’t agree more. Love sending the books to Amazon and NOT cluttering my house with them. They come, they go. And I love not racing around before work finding something to ship! Greatly appreciate Jordan’s help, enthusiasm, and inspiration! Keep it cranking!

  6. I’m selling physical products on FBA now and each has to be wrapped in plastic and labels put on them saying the plastic bag is dangerous to children and pets and then the FBA label goes on.

    Do books have to be wrapped in plastic to send to FBA the way products do?
    Can you just put the FBA label on the back of the book and put it into the box with multiple books in an FBA created shipment?

    • Great question – and yes, I have never shrink-wrapped or poly-bagged any of my books, other than a set of books so they don’t get split up. Simply slap the FBA label on the back of the book or dust jacket, put the book in a box, and send it in. You just have to cover the ISBN barcode, if applicable. The prep is incredibly simple.

      • Even books that are “Like New”?

        • I found a bunch of books recently that are in pristine condition (no dings, markings, nothing, they look as good as books at the Barnes and Nobles shelf) I am concerned if I don’t wrap them up, they might get damaged in the mix…. thoughts?

          • It’s possible. But what is your time worth? Is it worth the time to poly bag it or shrink wrap it to make a few extra bucks? If so, then by all means go for it! It’s just not in my business plan or philosophy for me. Take it with a grain of salt!

  7. Hi Caleb,
    first of all thx for your inspiring FBA – Post. Right now I`m a side hustle MF-Bookseller in good old Europe … I’m planning to go full FBA in the future. Therefor some Questions to you:

    – are you labeling the books yourself or have you outsourced this to Amazon?

    – If you are labeling yourself what kind of label-printer do you use?

    – You mentioned the “2 Cent a month” storage fee. What about the 12-mo-long-term-storage-fee? How do you avoid this with an inventory of 5.000 books and sales ranks above 1MM (referring to your interview on FBA-Mastery)

    All the Best
    Anton

    • Hey Anton,

      Greetings from across the Pond! Great questions… here are my answers:
      -Yes, I label books myself. Paying Amazon 20 cents apiece to label your items for you can add up quite quickly.
      -I use a DYMO 450 Turbo thermal printer. It doesn’t use ink and seems to be fairly durable. You can find them on Amazon here: http://amzn.to/1MSX0OK. I also use these labels: http://amzn.to/1LAaU6Q.
      -A nice part of long-term storage fees is that Amazon doesn’t charge the 6-month or 12-month long-term-storage fees for items in your inventory where you only have one unit. Most of my books are individual titles, so very few long term fees for me!

      Keep the questions coming, and I wish you the best with your FBA venture!

  8. Caleb,
    Thanx for the good info. I have just started my book business as a prime seller and have found that prime seems to put a “Good Household Seal of Approval” on the product, but try to be very straight forward with my descriptions. After 50+ sells I have had only one book returned and I want to think that the buyer just found the subject matter not to be what he expected.
    I have a cheaper android phone, with the Amazon app downloaded, but what kind of scanning device do I need? Also, I find that scraping off old labels can be tedious and time consuming. Any suggestions? Tom Rogers

    • Hey Tom – you’ll want to invest in a few items. The first is a true scanning app, like ASellerTool or NeatOScan. Profit Bandit can work alright, but it’s not a downloadable database. For a scanner, I really like the Opticon OPN-2002 (on Amazon here: http://amzn.to/1It2mKi) and for peeling labels go with the Scotty Peelers (http://amzn.to/1MUeni4). Congrats on getting your business off the ground!

  9. Caleb, Regarding scanning books: As I’m just starting out, I have been using the Amazon’s seller app on my android for book scouting at thrift store & yard sales. Since I have a sizable personal library that needs scanning, as well as a large number of boxed books from a friend, I was wondering if there is a desktop app/software you’d recommend to make the job go faster. I also have access to an automatic USB wireless barcode scanner. Since I am such a newbie (truly green), not even sure how to put the barcode scanner to work for me. I did see your recommendations above for ASellerTool and NeatOScan, but as a newbie I’m not sure what their advantages are over the Amazon seller app; would you care to offer some insight on the pros, cons and applicability? Any and all advice is much appreciated.

    • Hey Idella – thanks for the questions. I prefer scanning with a mobile phone over scanning on a computer, because I would rather only bring “good” books into my home. If you already have the books in your home, I’d still prefer using the mobile phone to scan the books where they are (on a shelf or in boxes) over lugging them over to a computer 🙂 That being said… you can scan the books with your barcode scanner on your computer directly on Amazon.com and it will pull up the product page that says how many books are for sale and what the lowest price is. If the lowest used MF price is at least a couple bucks, it’s worth selling. The advantages of a true scanning app is that it will give you “level 2” data (stock trading term). If the lowest used FBA price is $5, I’m not interested in the book. However, if that low price is an outlier, and the next lowest price is $14.95, it may be worth listing. Having more data to see a range of the lowest prices is worth it for me (but I’m a data junkie!). Pros: better data, better market insights to know if the book is worth listing. Cons: cost, but I’ve found I make more money by paying for good software than without it. It takes money to make money!

      • @Idella -There is a desktop software created by Nathan Holmquist at Scanlister.com for bulk book scans with regard to uploading your book inventory quickly and efficiently.

        • It’s some nice software for speeding up the listing process, but it doesn’t allow you to make intelligent pricing decisions from the software. You’ll have to go back later and add pricing, or rely completely on a repricer. Definitely a need for this type of software though!

  10. You sell hip and knee replacements? Very cool. I am a Physical Therapist and have been for 34 years. That’s enough, I think. I am now working on replacing that income using your strategies with bookselling. I’ll keep you posted.

    • I do! I work for DePuy Synthes (part of J&J). It might take longer to build a successful FBA business than it will to recover from a total knee replacement, but you can be well on your way to financial independence in 3-6 months. Let me know how I can be of help along the way!

  11. Nice article Caleb! Definitely agree with your perceptions….I have only been selling on Amazon for less than a year and exclusively FBA. I have concentrated mostly on used books and some board games….In my experience as well, that books are ever so abundant…I visit my local Goodwills and several monthly library sales. I have never paid more than $3 for a book and have sold them for as much as $35! Normally I pay $1 per book. The hands off aspect of FBA is what I love the most. I have had a period of about 3 months of not scouting new inventory for my business due to my full time job and obligations at home and I would get pleasantly surprised when I would get notifications of 2-3 new sales I had during the day. Cha-ching! Which leads into my next point of not being too too concerned about the sales rank in my experience. I don’t ignore it completely, but I concentrate more on long-tail, niche subjects and it seems to have worked. Look forward to reading more of your articles.

  12. Hey Caleb, Great information. Quick question: when selling internationally do you price items a certain percentage higher than U.S. sales? Or do you leave the price the same? Thanks.

  13. It is very nice to be able to scan books using my Iphone. I also use Asellertool and have an Opticon OPN-2002 . I visit a lot of estate sales on the weekend and it seems the majority of books are older and don’t have barcodes or even ISBN numbers. Do you give those much time or do you pass? I have come across a lot of good titles but the process of researching them is very time consuming. Your thoughts?

    • Hey Dave – definitely take the time to scan books without barcodes.  Other sellers are usually overlooking these titles, so it can give you a competitive advantage if you key some of these in manually.  Over time you’ll develop a better “sixth sense” regarding which ones are worth typing in.  At first, treat it as a learning process and see what happens!

  14. Hi Caleb,
    Just started as Fba this week. Am I allowed to sell books as a new seller?Some of the books I’m scannlng are ciming up reject! Thanks Anthony

  15. Hi Caleb,

    I’ve just started selling via FBA and a pro-seller account am I prices my products to win the buy box. Having a couple of challenges:

    1) Not eligible for the buy box on the vast majority of my books
    2) for the books for which I am buy box eligible, I am losing buy box despite being by far the cheapest listing.

    Does time make this better? Are there tactics to get going? I feel like I’m in limbo as my competitively-priced Prime listing are BURIED.

    Thanks,
    Joey

    • Hey Joey – although buy box is super important with most items on Amazon, I’ve found that it’s not as important with books. Will it help you make a few more sales? Sure. But it won’t kill your business if you can’t get it. Are you selling new books? If so, Amazon won’t share the buy box with you on those listings. It’s just the way it is. For used books, it depends on many factors: your seller rating, metrics, proximity of location to your customers, price, etc. Play around with your pricing and be sure to keep your feedback high!

  16. Can Amazon fba scan all my books into the inventory?

  17. So the lowest price book you will sell has to be above $5 dollars? I acquired a lot of books for free and am wondering which ones are worth sending in to FBA. Thanks!

    • Rachel, check out the post I just did called “Marginal Thinking”. It breaks down all the Amazon fees and lets you make an informed decision about which price points you should aim for.

  18. Greetings!

    Great article. Lots of good stuff here. I have the option for buying a big lot of 15,000 books for what seems to be a good price. It seems like a task of epic proportions just to store, sort through and Mail them all in!

    Any ideas or thoughts as to how to tackle such a huge job?

    • Other than “run away”? 🙂

      15k books is a huge task. Be sure that you’re buying quality books, not someone else’s duds. It will be a great learning experience either way, but be prepared for a ton of work. Unless you can hire some local help to sort through them, find the winners, and help you deal with the duds.

  19. Thanks for the post! I’m curious if you know; do you have to go about wrapping and labeling all the books you send in for FBA or can you just list them, make a shipment, throw them all as-is into a big box and send them to Amazon? Thanks!

  20. Hi Caleb,

    If I buy books on amazon and then ship them to a fba shipment prep, and then finally to the fba through my shipment prep, do I list the items on Amazon and then send them to a Fba shipment prep? Just confused as I live out of the US so buying books from amazon directly then sending them to a shipment prep and then to fba seems to be the easiest way. So just wondering how i would approach it?

    • Hey Tom – that would be a great question for a prep company. Normally they would list for you, then you could go in and approve everything before they get uploaded to Amazon. They would either use software (like InventoryLab or AccelerList) to upload directly to your account.

  21. Hello Caleb:
    I haven’t even so much as dipped a toe into selling books online yet, but I think my question is a bit different. I have a fair number of “valuable” books, ranging from 1st editions signed by deceased authors, books published with only a limited number of copies, art books with art inside drawn by the artists, Sixties “zines”, etc. I just want to get rid of my collection prior to downsizing. What is the best route for me to pursue, do you think? And what did you mean by an “undated category except for collectible books for new sellers”? What do you think of alibris.com? Thank you so much for your advice! Very much appreciated.

    • Hey Janine – welcome to the world of book flipping! I was referring to the fact that books are an “ungated” category which means anyone can sell them on Amazon with no prior approvals. Collectible books are a whole different animal, and are a gated category for new sellers. You can sell any books on Amazon as a new seller, but not in collectible condition. For collectible, rare, or antique items, Amazon isn’t the best marketplace for those items. I’d recommend eBay or other markets for those. I don’t have any experience with alibris, so I can’t speak to that marketplace.

  22. Hi, I am planing to get my hard copies books selling through FBA. Does anyone know how many quantities should I send in my hard copy book to Amazon kindle for sell?

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