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Despite what you hear on YouTube ads, creating an online income is really freaking hard and either takes a huge investment of time or money. There is no turn-key solution to get rich quick. However, there is a way which offers flexible hours, high profits, and the possibility of positive cashflow from day one. Since you’re already reading this article, it’s probably pretty obvious that we’re talking about selling used books online. Selling books on eBay and Amazon is one of the craziest opportunities there is right now (at least in my opinion). Even with the massive influx of sellers there is still a ton of money to be made and it’s not trick at all to be making $100/day within a month or two of starting.
We’ve only been selling books on eBay and Amazon for 5 years or so but in that time we’ve met teenagers who sell books for pocket money, college students who need a way to buy more ramen, single mothers who need rent money, and older couples who want to vacation more or stretch their retirement dollar. And then there are weirdos like us. Young couples in their 20’s who got started selling their old textbooks, and couldn’t stop!
While we’re not the biggest sellers (we actually have other jobs and only sell online part time) we do our best to streamline the process and make the maximum amount of money in the smallest possible time frame. In the past couple of years we’ve used the money we make from selling online to fund several vacations, put a down payment on a house, and pay for tons of medical bills.
It’s always a comfort (especially in the current world climate) to know that if I were to lose my job tomorrow, things would be tight but we wouldn’t starve!
Well enough of that, let’s cut to it and get you started on the path to bookish wealth and freedom! If you really want to sell books on Amazon or eBay, we recommend starting the right way from the very beginning and creating a solid foundation. When most people start they simply run out and buy a bunch of books, meaning that they have to return to the basics in the future in order to create a more workable business model and system. So let’s start off on the right foot.
Why You Should Sell Books on Amazon
First off, why used books? And why eBay and Amazon? Well, apart from the obvious (there is money to be made) there are actually a ton of reasons why selling used books can be the perfect side hustle or even full time job:
- It requires zero experience. I am one of those people who went to college and have 80% of two different degrees. That leaves me with a lot of knowledge and experience but a hard time getting a job. The possibility of avoiding job applications and making a ton of money as my own boss is appealing.
- Extremely low startup cost. Really, you don’t need any money to get started. Most booksellers get started by selling their own books or books they get for free. Even if you don’t have a source for free inventory you can invest $100 and have a working business.
- Ridiculous profit margins. In our eBay store, we shoot for 40-50% profit margins. In our web design business, we shoot for 70%. Well, what if I told you that, in bookselling, it’s possible to make 100x your money (or more). In the past couple months, we’ve sold 2 books for over $400, both of which we paid less than $2/apiece for.
- It can be automated. There are people who run six-figure bookselling businesses without even touching or shipping a book. You can hire people to scan books (or buy them in bulk), process them, and then send them to Amazon to sell.
- More work means more money. I’m one of those people who has always avoided being paid a salary. I know that I usually make more on a per/hour basis as I tend to be a workaholic and put in more hours than anyone. However, selling books is even more attractive because, if you want more money, just work more hours!
The nitty gritty…how much can I really make?
Without a doubt, one of the first questions we get is, “How much money can I make?” Well, that depends…how much do you want to work? Working for yourself is great because your profits are all based on how skilled you are and how much work you put in. In other words, unlike at a 9-5 job, you’re actually rewarded for working harder and not just putting in your time! Now for the real answer: we make around $2,000 a month selling books part-time. We have friends who make more, and friends who make less. There are full-time booksellers who make $5-10,000 a month working from home and full-scale used book businesses which are selling a million dollars worth of books a month. The sky is the limit! However, we would expect the average person to build their part-time business up to $1,000 in sales a month within a couple of months.
What Tools Do You Need To Sell Used Books Online?
Thankfully, you don’t need many things at all to get started (which explains the minimal startup cost). However, there are a number of things that will make your life easier and maximize your profits.
If you can’t afford any of these, don’t worry about it. You could, in theory, find free books and list them on Amazon using a free computer at a public library. You’d require zero tools and would only have to pay to ship the books when they sold. However, if you want to invest in your business, here are the 3 things you should pick up (in order of importance):
A scanning tool. The days of recognizing profitable books without the internet are long gone. It used to be that you went to a bookstore and trusted your gut. Now, you can (and should) avoid wasting money by looking up every book you find. While you can use your phone to read barcodes and look them up on both eBay and Amazon, you’ll be 5x faster (and therefore more profitable) if you buy a bluetooth scanner. There are tiny little devices that connect with your phone and allow you to read barcodes with the touch of a button. You can find our favorite scanner here on Amazon or read our full review and recommendation here.
An app. The Amazon Seller’s App provides basic functionality when it comes to looking up the price and ranking of books. You can also use the eBay app to see what it currently for sale and sold but it is even more time-consuming. The problem with both of those apps is that they have to use data with every request to look things up. This takes time and time is money in this game. You’ll want an app that stores all the sales ranking and price information right on your phone in a database. This allows for nearly instantaneous feedback when you scan a book. Consider asellertool or Jungle Scout as great options for beginners.
A printer. One of my least favorite parts of selling books is the necessity to ship them. Even if you choose to sell via Amazon FBA (and have them do the shipping) you have to get the books to them. This is made 100x worse if you have to go wait in line at the Post Office to ship a stack of sold books. Invest in a great thermal printer so you can print off labels right at home. Shipping from home can get you huge discounts from most package carriers so your printer will pay for itself in no time. What’s more, they don’t use ink or have any breakable parts so they’ll last forever!
That’s really all you need! As you grow your business you’ll recognize the need for mundane items such as a tape gun or a lightbox but you don’t need them to get started!
Now we get to the actual method for selling used books on eBay and Amazon. We’re going to break this down into 4 parts:
- Sourcing (Acquiring books to sell)
- Choosing a Platform (eBay vs. Amazon)
- Listing Books for Sale
- Inventorying and Storing Your Books
- Shipping Your Books When They Sell
If you can master those four facets of bookselling, you’ll have a very hard time not being successful and making money!
When it comes to selling books on Amazon and eBay, you can list a hundred books a day but, if you’re choosing poor books, you will never even break even. Conversely, it is possible to make hundreds (or thousands) of dollars per month by listing only a couple books a day! In fact, a friend of mine (who is very particular about the books he buys to resell) purchases books only from thrift store and sells less than 30 books a month. From those 30 books he makes almost $2,000 which pays his mortgage! It takes the same amount of effort and money to choose and buy poor books as profitable books.
So what books sell best on Amazon or eBay? And how do we find them? Well first, we need to understand our customers.
Why Do People Buy Books On Amazon and eBay?
From our experience, there are four different types of people who buy books on Amazon and eBay:
- Those who buy books online because it is more convenient. They don’t care as much about price and typically buy new books.
- Those who simply want the best deal possible. These people often buy penny books and, unless you are planning to sell thousands of books a month, these probably aren’t your target customer. The exception to this rule is people who are shopping for textbooks, professional books, etc. all of which are profitable even at a discount.
- People who need a book on a specific topic. Whether they are looking for a book about The History of State Fairs in Arkansas or a Cookbook for the Diabetic Schizophreniac, these people are great customers to target. The more unusual or specific the book you find, the more you can charge.
- Lastly, collectors of books. These people are looking for a book because of the value that it has to them, information aside. It could be a first edition, a signed copy, or a rare antique copy. Books that go to these buyers sell slowly but are very profitable.
So how does understanding who buys your product help you make more money? Well it’s simple, selling on Amazon is a unique business model because each one of your products is totally different. Unlike most businesses where you might spend days or weeks choosing a new product before spending thousands of dollars to stock your inventory, every time you go to source for new books you find a dozen new products! If you are making decisions that often, keeping in mind who will buy each one of your books will help you make a much better decision.
So what kind of books do people want?
If you are interested in selling high-profit books, you are looking to sell to the last two groups of people from the list above. So you should be looking for books that they can’t find at their local book store. That is, books that are either too niche-specific for a bookstore to stock, or books that are discontinued/unusual in another way. Naturally, this also tell you what kind of books to avoid. If your buyer can go to Barnes & Noble and buy the book today for $14.99, why would they buy it off Amazon, pay for shipping, and get it several days from now?
While sourcing books, we ask ourselves three questions:
- Was this book expensive/valuable when it was new?
- Textbooks are a good example of “valuable when new books.” Romance novels were never valuable, even when new.
- If it was, is the information still valuable to someone?
- Outdated textbooks are totally worthless, vintage car manuals still have a market.
- Is there something about this book/copy that makes it rare or unusual in another way?
- Is it illustrated? A large print edition? In an unusual language? etc…
If the answer to any of these is “Yes” then we make the split-second decision to put the book into the cart! Before we leave the store, we find a spot to sit down and actually look up each of the books on Amazon to sell if they are truly worth buying. Alternatively, you can just scan every single book on a shelf and base your purchases off of your app.
Where to find books to sell:
Finding valuable books at a thrift store or garage sale is no big trick. At thrift stores they are often up front in the “collectibles” sction, and at garage sales they are usuallly the individually priced books set apart from the rest. The real trick to running an online book business is: can you consistently and quickly find books that are underpriced? If the answer is yes, you can pretty much write your own ticket to a great part time income.
Books that are priced well below their online value can be found in many places. However, they may not always be what you think. Let’s take the following two books as an example:
Where you found it: The “collectibles section at a local thrift store.
Online Value: $65
Net Profit: $22.90
Where you found it: In a box of books at a neighborhood garage sale.
Online Value: $22
So which of the two books above would you choose to buy? Let’s add a real world problem to the mix. You are not made of money. We are not made of money. If you were, you probably wouldn’t be looking into selling used books on Amazon. So what if you have $100 to invest? If you invested $100 into books like book 1, you could buy 3 books, have $195 in sales, and make $68.70 in profit. But what if you invested $100 in Book 2? You would have 200 books, $4400 in sales and $3170 in profits. So where can these underpriced books be found? Well, lucky for us, just about everywhere!
Spot #1: Your Own Book Shelves
Building a bookselling business can be faster if you have some capital to invest but, if you’re short on funds, you might have all the startup money you need sitting on your bookshelf
My wife and I were great lovers of books and bought a ton of them…until we had our first daughter. Then we discovered that, within our hearts, we were truly great lovers of having rent money and buying diapers. So we slowed down our personal book-buying and started looking no-cost online startups. It was then that we realized that we already had a pile of cash sitting on our bookshelves.
Of course, we had grand visions of being able to pay our rent with the “rare” books we had, but the result, while far less grand, never-the-less put us on the path to some semblance of financial security. In the end, we made over $400 by cleaning off our shelves! Of course, the secret with any business is to grow your business by reinvesting the profits. So that $400 has turned into 100k in the 4 years since. Try finding a mutual fund that will do that for your savings!
Spot #2: Thrift Stores
Anytime we visit Goodwill or any other thrift store, there are at least a couple people combing through the books with their phones out. The great thing about thrift stores is that, not only do they have thousands of books, but you it is totally acceptable to take your time and look up each book individually. While the price per book is often higher than at garage sales, we find that our success rate is higher as well.
Tips for Finding Sellable Books At Thrift Stores
- When they are thousands of books to go through, speed is the name of the game. When we pick up a book, we make a judgment call within a couple of seconds if it’s worth buying. If we think it is, it goes straight into the cart. Before we leave, we find a couch and look up each book on Amazon to make sure it is profitable before we buy it.
- Get a database app! Most sellers who are cruising thrift stores use them and go through every single shelf. If you don’t have one you are at a huge disadvantage from the second you walk through the doors.
- If a section is typically unprofitable, skip it. While there might be a single rare or signed book among in the teen fiction section (unlikely…) it’s not worth looking through the 1,000 unprofitable books to find it. Stick to where to going is easy.
Spot #3: Garage Sales
Call us socially awkward, but garage sales have not always been our favorite places. While we totally love the idea of finding great deals, it used to be that we’d only stop if the sale was already popular. It’s so uncomfortable to be the only person looking through a yardsale (while the owner watches you…) only to find that it’s all garbage. However, since we “grew up” and decided that making money was more important to us than any semblance of our pride, garage sales have become one of our largest source for inventory.
Tips For Finding Sellable Books At Garage/Yard Sales
- Make an offer on many or all the books. We often buy books by the box and simply donate what isn’t worth listing.
- If the owner sees you looking up books and watches you pick out only a couple, they will be far less likely to negotiate. If you find a valuable book you’re probably better off to put it in with a bunch of romantic novels and offer them $5 for the lot.
- If a sale has tons of books, leave you name and number with the seller, offering to buy whatever they have left when the sale is over. (When we do this we typically offer a “per-book” price of $0.10 or so. Anything less is typically not worth their time and they won’t call.
Garage sales and thrift store are responsible for around 70% of our book profits. While there are other options available for more serious and advanced sellers, these two are more than sufficient to keep you busy and line your pockets. We have 6 thrift stores within 20 minutes of our house and figure we can revisit them every 2 weeks or so. From thrift stores alone we have a relatively constant supply of about 50-100 books per week. It may be intimidating to step into a store or walk over to a garage sale for the first time, but remember, you’re a business owner now and it’s up to your to make the deals and the decisions. Never be afraid to walk away from a deal, or leave a store empty-handed. Knowing when not to buy is the mark of a true businessman/woman.
2. Choosing a Platform
eBay vs. Amazon: Where should you sell books?
Knowing where to list your books is not just important, its essential if you want to maximize your profits. We’ve had books that haven’t sold for months on Amazon only to be sold overnight when we shifted the listing to eBay. The reason is, the platforms attract very different audiences and have different reputations.
- Listing format is better suited for showcasing books that are unique or special in some way. It is much more picture-centric.
- A larger number of collectors shop on eBay. They are often looking for specific books and are willing to pay a premium price.
- eBay’s used book market is less saturated.
- More versitile shipping options.
- Lower fees
- Easier and faster to list books.
- Amazon attracts a huge number of customers who are looking specifically for books.
On paper, eBay is a clear winner. However, the truth of the matter is, the bulk of our book sales are on Amazon. The speed at which you can list books makes it a non-choice if you want to sell at volume. Any typical book we get can be scanned and sold on Amazon within a couple of minutes. We reserve eBay for special types of books.
The Magic of Amazon FBA
If you dream of making big money selling used books online, you’re going to need some help. The real key to growing a making a ton of money is to sell a ton of books. That’s where Amazon FBA comes in.
If you sell books on Amazon but store and ship them yourself, you are a “FBM” seller. Not only will you have to spend time shipping but you will have to charge lower prices and you’ll have a lower well through rate.
Will FBA (Fulfillment by Amazon) you have the option of things shipping via Amazon Prime, customers trusting your brand more, etc. Not to mention the fact that you won’t have to store or ship books to customers. With FBA you print off a small label to go on each book and scan it into your inventory. All of your books are then boxed up together and sent to Amazon. Once Amazon receives them the listing goes live. Amazon then handles all shipping, customer service, returns, etc.
The main downside to Amazon FBA is increased fees. However, if you’re trying to grow a large business, this is just one of the costs you’ll have to consider!
3. Listing Your Books on eBay and/or Amazon
As with most things, the best way to learn something is simply to do it and course-correct as you go! So get up right now and find a book of yours that you no longer want. Seriously….do it. Go. Now. If you’re serious about this then there’s no time like the present!
Are you back with a book? Good! Let’s get busy. First things first, I’m operating on the assumption that you have a smartphone. If you do not, you can still use a computer.
Let’s get started by downloading the Amazon Sellers App. Once you download it, set up an account and sign in. Now grab your book and scan it using the app. Add in the condition, use Amazon’s suggested price, and presto! It’s listed!
Don’t worry if this first book isn’t worth much, it’s purpose is simply to learn how to list and get the ball rolling. So congrats! You’re now an Amazon selller! If you’re like us, you’ll probably head straight back to your bookshelf and see if anything you have is worth more! We ended up listing at least half of our books when we first started selling. In fact, most sellers advocate starting by selling your own books/items to fund your first trip to a thrift store, making this business totally free to start!
eBay has a nearly identical system for listing books, both new and used. Download the eBay app and set up your seller account. You can then go to your Selling Page, scan the barcode of the book, and eBay will populate nearly all of the crucial information for you. Simply state the condition and set your price and shipping method (use media mail) and you’ll be set!
Strangely enough, the very best way to store books you have for sale, is on a bookshelf. We typically list books that we source within a day (so they don’t build up) and they go straight on the shelf in the order that they’re listed. We have one shelf where you can find vintage/antique books, a couple of shelves for fiction, and the balance for modern non-fiction books. Since we focus on books that sell for at least $20 we avoid clogging up our storage space with books that are low profit and slow to sell. At any given time, we have around 500 books in our inventory which can be stored on 3 bookshelves in our small bedroom.
Since we typically sell less than 10 books a day, it’s not a problem for us to remember the rough order things were listed in find them on the shelves. However, if you sell lots of books, you will either need a more sophisticated inventory system than ours or you should move to Amazon FBA.
The only reason that we don’t sell FBA currently (we have in the past) is because of the fees. If we were to go full-time we would instantly transition into being FBA-only sellers.
So you sold a book and got paid! Hooray! But now what? Do you need to go out and put a box? Or maybe you could just wrap it in paper? Well, we’d invite you to take advantage of our plethora of mistakes and use what we consider to be the best way to ship books you’ve sold online.
First, however, let’s talk about one of the costly mistakes we’ve made in an attempt to save money.
The Wrong Way To Do It:
When we first started selling books on Amazon, a truly terrible person advised us to go out a buy a roll of brown paper. They told us that if we simply wrapped the books we sold in the brown paper, taped it up with packing tape, and wrote the address on the front then we could ship them super cheap! Thank our lucky stars that we didn’t jump into it whole hog and tried it on a single book first. The $80 physics book we shipped totally went missing in the mail…but we did get the torn brown paper back. Things get tossed around enough in the mail that it’s far too easy for the paper to simply tear. Since the book doesn’t have an address on it, it never makes it to your buyer or back to you! After receiving several angry emails, we ended up refunding the buyer and receiving negative feedback. Stay away from the brown paper trap.
The Right Way:
After our disastrous brown paper attempt, we started looking for other cheap/free ways to ship the books we sold. After all, every dollar you spend shipping the book is a dollar lost from your profits. We investigated using recycled boxes from local businesses. Too unprofessional and unreliable. Polymailers? Damaged books. So what to do? After all of our trial an error, we have two methods that we keep on hand for shipping our books:
Books That Sell For Under $30
As far as we’re concerned, bubble wrap poly-mailers are the wave of the future. They are simply plastic envelopes (so they don’t tear), with bubble wrap lining the inside (so books don’t get squashed), and an adhesive strip on the top (so they’re super easy to close). We keep two sizes on hand (8.5×11.25 and 10.5×16) and can drop a book into one and seal it up in less than 30 seconds. Check them out here on Amazon!
Expensive or Fragile Books
Since we love to sell antique books, we often feel they need a little more support than a poly-mailer has to offer. These books come flat but can be made into a box in 10 seconds or so. We typically keep only one or two sizes on hand at a time and, if the book moves around too much inside, we stuff the empty space with crumpled paper or bubble wrap.
If we sell a very expensive book ($100+) we’ll typically put the book in a bubble mailer and then in a book box. Check out the book boxes we use here.
If you’re serious, about selling used books online, here’s our best advice: get off this website and go do it. There is no time like the present and it’s about time you got started.
If you’re a bit unsure, don’t worry, there is no hurry and there are a ton of other ways to make money online. If you’re into clothing, check out our blog posts about selling used clothing online as well as our lists of brands to look for. If you’re not into clothing, we have hard goods too.
SO whichever option you choose, work hard, work smart, and have fun!