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John Henry vs. Book Shovel

David Maxon

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Book seller dripping sweat
(Khanh Tran)
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Every once in a while a piece of technology changes an industry completely. Imagine what it would have been like to be a scribe when the printing press came out in 1439. Well, booksellers have gone through a similar experience recently. They've spent their whole lives gathering arcane information about the books they sell - and now an invention has come along and made all that studying completely unnecessary.


"We're going to be opening up in fifteen minutes!" a volunteer yells. "Please line up according to your numbers!"

It's early Saturday morning in New Town, Connecticut, and about 200 people are standing in line outside a local elementary school. Jay and her son Allen are right at the front. To get that spot, they had to save their place on Thursday. But this isn't a rock concert or the release of a new cell phone. It's the Friends of the C.H. Booth Library book sale, and all these folks are booksellers.

When this sale started 33 years ago, it was no more than a booth at a local parade. This year there's a mad rush when the doors open.

"A stampede is the word." Jay says. "Fights break out, people cutting in line. I've actually had guys grab the same book out of the box that I do and not want to let go! And try and do like a tug of war."

In fact, fights are not uncommon. The New Town Police Department sends a deputy to the sale every year just in case it gets out of hand. So how did this cute little charity book sale become so intense? Mary Maki, one the sales organizers, says the culprit is technology. "Around 2000, we noticed college kids coming in with their scanners," Maki explains.

Turns out, there is a whole industry of digital tools to help people find out exactly what books sell for on used book websites like Amazon.com. One bookseller here has a thousand dollar PDA that scans bar codes and speaks the online price in a robotic voice. All this technology has turned people into book harvesting machines. College kids, stay-at-home parents, retirees - they're all getting in on the action.

Then I meet a man named Matthew Singer. He runs a bookstore called Airstream Books in Brooklyn. He's an old fashioned bookseller. He relies on specialized knowledge of arcane books that don't have bar codes. He does not use technology to find books, like the people he refers to as "Scanners."

"I like to use my brain," Singer says. "And Scanners will often scan a book and if it doesn't meet their criteria, they'll generally just pile it up. It can get a little out of hand and it's obnoxious really. Because the barrier to entry is so easy, you don't really have to have to have much knowledge about printed matter."

The Scanners can cut profits for traditional sellers like Matthew, putting some of them out of business. But with the barrier to entry so low, technology dependent sellers could become victims of their own success. They seem to realize that. When I posted to the Amazon.com sellers forum trying to get information for this story, no one wanted to talk. One told me: "Loose lips sink ships!"

Jay explained, "There's already too many of us out here, and´┐Ż it's like you get a bunch of amateurs coming in, then it effects everyone else's business."

After the initial rush when the doors fly open, it's actually remarkably quiet. All you can hear is the sound of shuffling books. The concentration is intense. Some dealers drip with sweat even in the air-conditioned gymnasium. Jay and her son are busily scanning away. I ask how much she hopes to make today.

"I usually try to work in multiples of ten," she says.

In other words, if she buys a book for a dollar she hopes to sell it for ten. So, the profit potential is definitely there, for now. That is, until someone invents a robot that makes human booksellers obsolete.

  • Music Bridge:
    Bag's Groove
    Artist: Ron Carter
    CD: Dear Miles (Blue Note)


  • Comment | Refresh

  • By Shawn A

    From Somewhere between GA and NC, SC, 10/13/2008

    The bottom line of online book selling is not multiples of ten. Working in multiples of ten is a general ideal but not necessarily the actual net after expenses.

    First off a pda, scanner, data service monthly fee sets you at a loss before even buying a book ($400-800).

    Detracting from this multiple of tens ideal are time, gas, online comissions, service fees (for scouting database), friends of the library membership, packing and shipping materials, storage, internet access, etc.

    Two other factors in which this article did not point out are:

    1) Sales ranks are not fixed and flucuate all the time. Some books enjoy enjoy a short lived stint due to a revitalized demand. Books like this may have been in decline for a while though the scouting service says to buy it.
    2) Most books do not sell overnight. This is a cold hard fact. When books do not sell overnight or even within a month your invested capital is tied up and not of any current use and is actually a negative operating cost. If you are lucky 10% of your scanned books sell within a month no matter the sales ranking.

    It should also be mentioned that many buyers stay away from new sellers due to fears of inexperience or bad online buying experiences with new sellers. It takes time to build a good reputation and negative feedbacks are devastating early on. It takes time to learn the ins and outs of books especially in describing them.

    All of this is said to pop the belief that online book selling is easy money. For many of us big money success is a fleeting and maybe unattainable dream but a delusional love of books keeps us intoxicated in the meantime.

    By Harry W.

    From Forest Hills, NY, 10/04/2008

    3 years too late.

    Overlooks the fact a "experienced" seller in a 10 minute get all you can of value or pick 100 of value [I like all that you can] - in a final tally the experience will win.

    There are genres, publishers etc as well as unintentional dis & misinformation you can get with a digital device. Use a certain sites "stats" without knowing the algorithm or formula they are using for popularity or "possible sales" also put you at a disadvantage.

    A popular book will get quickly flooded with used copies. You will get stuck if you are after the cresting of the wave.

    A less popular book is still sellable but only if you are in it for the long haul.

    How much is your scouting time worth?

    If this is your hobby/part-time career ok - but as a business model its too time intensive.

    No substitute for depth of experience.

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