eBay Offers Trap Door on the Book Market
Collectors for years could not sell their material efficiently.
By Bruce McKinney
A Needed Way Out
A generation of book owners is looking past weak offers from dealers and limited opportunities selling
via traditional auctions, marketing their books, manuscripts and ephemera lot by lot on eBay. The
results are inconsistent but encouraging both for sellers and buyers. For sellers it's the chance to
control their own destiny, converting market observations into listings, transactions and private
client lists. In short order sellers on eBay achieve a working competence to match their commitment to
the endeavor. The selling is easy, developing techniques that achieve the best financial outcomes more
difficult. For many, selling on eBay is not a career path, just a better option than selling dirt cheap
to a dealer or giving the material to a library or Good Will. These sellers will do and be done. A
few will find a metier. For buyers who pounce on interesting material as it arrives on the block it's
an equally good opportunity: the chance to buy material without substantial mark up. In short, eBay
is the emerging cash market and in fact already a very large one.
What sells on eBay?
Everything sells on eBay including old books, manuscripts and ephemera. Transactions tend to be in the
$10 to $250 range however which is less a function of value than market experience. In other words
bidders consistently buy good material in this price range and come to the market expecting to find
more. If your item is significantly more valuable you may exceed their financial capability or force
them to forgo other material. In the end they may simply not bid the full value for reasons beyond
your listing and the quality of your item. Think of it this way. eBay has a sweet spot. It's huge
but clearly distinct from the premium materials that documented auctions specialize in.
Easy to List, Difficult to Achieve High Prices
For sellers eBay provides support although they may not emphasize one fact: it's easy to sell but
difficult to get a high price. The description is the key to visibility. How well you prepare it will
effect how many people see it. It's true you will be visible in category searches even if your
description is thin as gruel but categories are large so your chances of being seen small. In the book
category today there are 467,955 listings. You don't want to exclusively depend on bidders finding
your speck of sand in that pile so you also need to be highly visible in the term searches which
experienced eBayers use to locate gems among the clutter. To do this you need to write thorough
descriptions. With each additional descriptive term the chances of showing up in buyer searches
eBay Offers Trap Door on the Book Market
Selling on eBay isn't easy for everyone!
At the same time you are attracting an audience to specific listings you are also conveying a broader
impression about what and how you list. To the extent eBayers find your listings interesting they'll
add you to their favorite searches and choose to receive daily emails of your new postings. Think of
this as a variation of Sally Field's Academy Award speech, "You like me. You really, really like me."
Yup, that's what it means. Experienced sellers work hard to build a following.
If of course you are in a pure liquidation mode you start out prepared to get what you get and don't
care if you sell cheap. For you victory is a clean house and eBay will help you do this.
There are two parts to your listing. At the top there is a header and subheader. On book listing
sites books are listed by title and author. Not here. On eBay they are listed by hooks or search
terms that you believe will bring buyers to your listing. So "A History of George Washington" in an
eBay header might be "Washington History Inscribed Boards Levenger." This translates to the subject
WASHINGTON, the type of material, HISTORY, a signed copy, INSCRIBED, the binding, BOARDS, and a past
owner named LEVENGER. Think of this as chess, not checkers. This is all about hits or clicks on the
In preparing the second part of the listing, the description, we now have the chance to create
opportunities for searchers to find the listing. In doing this we need to be honest and complete while
relentlessly answering the age old question: why should I buy this book? Show the title, author, date
and place printed. Then look on listing sites for other copies to see how it's described. Look
carefully at how book condition is evaluated. Now describe your book in appropriate terms. Is your
copy in any way special? Has it been signed by the author or owned by someone? In every case mention
this. Books that have been signed by their authors are always worth some premium but no, don't start
practicing forged signatures. George Washington died in 1799 so he didn't sign your book that was
printed in 1924. If your book has a jacket, mention this. They were uncommon before 1900. Condition
is VERY important so be conservative.
Many people selling on eBay quit right here. Serious sellers go on. List the table of contents,
perhaps the preface and book reviews if you can track them down. You are building a mountain of
material that will create matches for buyers searching the eBay anthill. Consider using a scanner and
optical character reader if you decide to get serious. You can scan pages of material in a few minutes
that would take hours if you type it. Of course you may only be increasing the realized price by $10
so be realistic.
Setting the Price
Here we find out if you really want to sell. Again let's look on the listing sites for a sense of
what the asking prices are. Let's say there are 4 copies. Three sound like yours and they are priced
at $40, $60 and $75. There is also a signed copy [by the author] for $150. Yours is not signed so
ignore the $150 copy. The average of the others is $58. Start the bidding at $15 or about 25%. You
want bidders when they see the listing to say "this is interesting" and add it to the items they are
following. You'll probably get about $30 for your copy. Chances are that if you look on the listing
sites in three months all four copies that you used for price comparison will still be available while
you have already converted the proceeds into baseball tickets.
eBay Offers Trap Door on the Book Market
Learning to sell on eBay is like learning to drive a car.
How will you get paid?
On eBay there is a payment processor called PayPal. If you are going to be selling at least fifty
lots I would use it. It makes it easy for people to pay and I think increases, at the margin, what
people bid. I know that if a seller requires I pay by check I specifically look to see how many lots
they have sold and what their feedback is. If I have the slightest doubt I pass. The downside of
PayPal is that it isn't free. To compensate you may want to buy some eBay stock before you begin
selling. All in all PayPal is worth the cost.
eBay virgins know how to save money. They list for only 3 or 5 days because it is marginally cheaper
than 7 and 10 day listings. Go with 10 days. You are looking for exposure. Give yourself the
opportunity to get some. If the lot doesn't sell you can relist but it's not free. Give yourself the
best chance now.
When do I start my listing and when does it end?
I personally think listings should end on a Monday or Tuesday if I'm selling and Wednesday or Thursday
if I'm buying. Mid-week seems to be quieter and the prices lower when the auctions end later in the
week. For ten day auctions if you start them on Friday or Saturday they will end on Monday or Tuesday.
Don't end them on Monday if it's a holiday. The world is full of people who say "I would have bought
it but..." So you're thinking it doesn't make a difference really because you can bid anytime while
the auction is underway. True but I have lost too many lots by leaving an early bid. I don't do it
anymore. You will see me for the first time just as the clock expires. I'm not interested to give
other bidders a moment to think about whether they're willing to increase their bid. TOO LATE! For
sellers this means that you are going to relive, with each eBay lot, the military adage "Hurry up and
Use the optional visitor counter to see [and show] the traffic count on your listing. As an eBay
seller you will also be able to see how many people are TRACKING the listing. It will be visible in
your eBay seller's control panel. You may not have any bids yet but you can see what the flow
is. With experience you'll sense what is happening.
Most eBay sellers seem to take a philosophical approach. They post ten items and some do well, some
okay and some badly. On average they do fine. If you did a thorough listing, started it at the
appropriate time and obtained only a fair result chances are the market value is simply less than you
expected. The listing sites may have it posted higher but if in three months those listings are still
there who is to say the price you received isn't the right price.
Best of luck if you decide to try it! Its great fun and I'll be bidding on some of your items if they
fit my collecting and research interests.
Editor's Note: This article has generated several Letters to the Editor. To see them, Click here.