one size does not fit all

Used Books: A business model for every lifestyle


You’re probably familiar with the phrase “Different strokes for different folks”.  I’d like to propose a slight tweak to this popular saying to make it relevant for booksellers:  “Different wages for different pages”.  Now before you start rolling your eyes at that bad pun, allow me to explain what I mean in this week’s post.

Last weekend I attended a bookseller’s dinner in Louisville.  It was a fantastic networking event and there were lots of lessons to be learned from all of the attendees.  Even though we were all “competitors”, everyone was excited to be there and to learn from each other.  I believe that everyone who attended the meeting was able to walk away with a few ideas on how to build their own business more efficiently.  In what other industry can you have a friendly meeting with your competition??  I truly love this business and have a great deal of respect for the booksellers who are willing to share their business insights with others.IMG_8671There were a few topics of discussion that stood out in my mind:

  • Repricers:  This topic came up quite often.  Some sellers refuse to use them, while others reprice weekly, daily, or even multiple times a day.  One thing we all agreed on was that all of the currently available repricers out there are lousy.  As one of the attendees put it, it’s like trying to use a chainsaw when you really need a scalpel.  I have just started using a repricer for my older inventory, and I’ll be doing more tests in the near future and sharing those results on this site.  Bryan Young over at uses a repricer for ALL of his inventory, but that’s partly because of his business model.  I’m not quite ready to give up complete control of my pricing, but perhaps after my tests I may feel differently.  Stay tuned…
  • Acquiring inventory:  The key takeaway with this discussion was that booksellers view books as gold, and those with books usually view them as a liability.  At most thrift stores, perhaps only 20% of the books that are donated ever end up on the shelves.  The rest are trashed or recycled.  How can you find ways to approach store owners and get their excess inventory for free?  Or possibly have THEM pay YOU to haul their books away?  Put yourself in their shoes and then offer them services accordingly.

one size does not fit allThe biggest takeaway from the evening was getting to look inside the various business models of the attendees.  No two businesses were exactly alike, and several were on completely opposite ends of the spectrum!  The used book industry allows you to pick a business model that precisely fits your personality and lifestyle goals.  Here is a small sampling of the various models that were discussed:

  • The solopreneur:  This is by far the most popular model of those in attendance.  The solopreneur does everything on his own, from sourcing, listing, taping boxes, managing pricing, etc.  Using FBA is a huge competitive advantage for this business model as it allows you to command higher prices for your books.  More importantly, it outsources all of your order fulfillment and customer service to Amazon and allows you to focus completely on sourcing, listing, and pricing.  It’s the best of both worlds – you can control your own schedule and partner up with Amazon to help remove some of the workload from your plate.  This model also allows you to reach a variety of income goals.  There are people who buy and sell books on the side, apart from their 9-to-5 job, and use the money to pay for vacations or house projects.  There are others who deal in books as their only job, and can make upwards of $100-500k a year just on their own, depending on how much time and effort they want to put into their business.
  • The traveling guru:  One of the most unique business models was one run entirely out of an RV.  Jerry Siegel travels around the country with his wife and pays for the whole adventure by sourcing products along the way.  They are modern day treasure hunters – showing up at a small town and extracting all the value they can find before driving to the next town.  This lifestyle business is extremely attractive.  How else could you find a way to travel the country and still make money at the same time?  Again, the FBA business model allows them to scale their business as much as they would like, without having to worry about dragging around a trailer full of items and deal with shipping them out as they sell.  Be sure to track down Jerry on Facebook and follow along as he tours the U.S.  I love the traveling model of paying for trips as you go – in fact, I sourced enough books on my trip to the bookseller’s dinner to more than pay for the flight, rental car, and dinner fee.  You can read all about that story here.
  • The outsourcing mogul:  While most of us spend our days “out sourcing” books, Bryan Young spends his time “outsourcing” his business.  He has built an impressive empire by hiring scouters, listers, and even a manager to oversee all of the operations.  In less than a year, Bryan has gone from around 1,000 books in inventory to over 16,000 today, and he shows no signs of slowing that growth.  The best part?  He doesn’t physically touch a single book during the entire process!  You can read all about his business model in his free book.  I plan to take a serious look at hiring people for my own business as I continue to scale.
  • The textbook hero:  I’ll admit it… the first section I go to at any thrift store or library sale is the textbook section.  You have the highest probability of pulling a $50 or $100 book from that pile, especially in the months of August or January.  One man at the dinner decided to take this model to the next level.  He spends his time knocking on professor’s doors and offering to buy their textbooks for cash on the spot.  Most professors have a treasure trove of valuable books on their shelves, and publishers actually send them free copies of future books to try to entice them to use that textbook in their classrooms.  Some of these are stamped as “review copies” and are tough to sell, but lots of them are the regular student editions.  He makes some decent coin with this business model!  He has thick skin too, as he is told “no” quite often and has even been escorted off a university campus or two by security guards.  All in all though, this is a genius way to track down expensive inventory before it’s put on the shelves of thrift stores for other sellers to find.
  • The recycling warehouse:  One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.  This couldn’t be more true for books!  Every year hundreds of thousands of tons of books are sent to landfills or recycled and turned into paper towels.  Two of the sellers at this dinner have built their businesses around the recycling industry.  They simply pick up the phone, call recycling companies, and offer them more money for the books than they could make if they recycled them on their own.  Then they send a truck to the recycling center to pick up the gaylords of books and bring them back to their warehouse to “scan for gold” and list the good ones on Amazon.  This business model isn’t for the faint of heart, as there are huge expenses in renting a warehouse and hiring an army of employees, but it is a scalable model that removes the pressure from finding books.  They have more books than they know what to do with!  Instead, their challenges revolve around logistics and hiring quality employees.  You can find Greg Murphy on Facebook, or over at his website,  He has an MBA in economics and is one smart dude!  The other gentleman is Ford Perry and he runs The Dollar Book Exchange to help sell his books that aren’t worth selling online.

Whether you are just starting out on your own book venture or are looking for ways to tweak your current model, you can learn something from each of the business models described above.  In my opinion, it is important to start out doing everything on your own to make sure you understand all of the complex nuances involved in sourcing, listing, and pricing your books.  Once you have a solid grasp on the fundamentals of this business, you can be as creative as you want in finding ways to scale your empire, either on your own or with the help of a team.

Thanks for reading!  If you have other business models that weren’t described in this post, please share your story by commenting below.  I’d love to learn about other angles to consider with the used book market.

As always, happy flipping!


  1. Thanks for the wrap up. I would have liked to have made it but it was just too far to come for a dinner and I couldnt make it for the whole conference. Still hoping that someone puts on a books only conference one of these days

    • Challenge accepted! I really like that concept, actually. We could have sessions related to the various aspects of selling books, invite the key software players (ASellerTool, NeatOScan, Inventory Lab, etc) and make a fantastic weekend out of the whole thing!

      • years and years ago i ran a comic book distribution business..once a year i invited retailers to a convention in Vegas where they could hear upcoming product directly from the turn, each publisher sponsored a break, a breakfast, lunch or there was time to meet with publishers when the speeches weren’t on podium..i think something like that scaled down would work here..big plus..hotel rates were reduced for all attendees and publishers with a free suite for me to hold meetings with retailers..i also got a free room for every 12 rooms rented, which allowed me to bring my warehouse managers for a well deserved break..
        you work out hotel rates first..

  2. Caleb,
    Great Posting! I started out in Books and always will sell them, great margins and THE THRILL OF THE HUNT!

  3. Good content Caleb. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Thanks for the detailed summary Caleb, it was great to meet you in person!

  5. The current state of Repricers is a great topic that many do not understand.

    For FBA booksellers it’s a tough road. My main issue is that repricing services use incomplete data. The same data that scouting apps use. Amazon’s API provides access to the lowest 20 prices in new, used and collectible. Quite often the FBA sellers are priced above the bottom 20 in used and do not show up in the data.

    Ever scan a book in your favorite scouting app and it shows the lowest FBA competition is a new offer at $59.95, only to dig deeper and find there are actually 14 used FBA offers starting at $4.75? I see this all the time! Of course many scouting apps like FBAScan have a workaround. You can press the FBA button to pull up the amazon sales page to look at the true FBA offers, but what about repricers? Nope.

    The trouble here is that as an FBA seller, you are trying to compete against only other FBA offers (most of the time) and that repricers often will not “see” your FBA competition. This causes the repricer to fall back on a “default” price, and of course, there is no “default” price that makes sense for every book. You could price against MF sellers by pricing above them by $5-$10, but that scheme has it’s many pitfalls as well.

    The limitations in Amazon’s data may not be much of an issue for people selling in other categories, but for me in books, it’s a deal breakerfor repricing services, especially when many services are $50-$200 monthly! I have tried just about all of the major repricers on the market and yes, they all suck because they all rely on incomplete data.

    Now, having said all that, I plan to experiment with an idea I have which uses a repricing service for only a limited/specific action in my pricing scheme. Even with the limitations, it may be useful based on my idea. I will most certainly use Repriceit as they are the cheapest and really offer just about everything you get elsewhere. So, I believe there is potential for these services, but not how they “should” work anyway.

    My $0.02 (plus shipping of course)

    • Robert – thanks for your insightful comments. However, since you’re talking about FBA, I refuse to pay your shipping costs and I demand free 2-day shipping 🙂

      You are spot on regarding the limitations of Amazon’s API when it comes to both scouting books and repricing them. I’d love to hear more about your pricing experiment if you’re willing to share. Guest post sometime?

  6. Robert, where is the FBA button on FBA Scan? I use them and have never seen that button.

  7. Another great post! Can’t wait until your next one.

  8. Another great post! Can’t wait until your next one.

    Could you post a link to your interview with Greg Murphy? I wasn’t available for the webinar, and I’m unable to find the replay. Thanks!

  9. Caleb, I am a new reader of your blog after your excellent webinars with Greg Murphy 🙂 I have a question regarding textbooks. You mentioned in your post that the textbook seller who knocks on Professors’ doors gets review copies from them to resell. Isn’t that against Amazon’s rules – to sell a review copy? Just wanted some clarification. Thanks!

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