Textbooks – Profits and Perils


I heard this story on NPR recently about two guys going to make their fortunes selling used textbooks. Just as with stocks, they will buy low, sell high, and time the market. Well, maybe, but I’m doubtful it will work any better for them than playing the stock market does for most of us.

Textbooks are very profitable. Textbooks are a waste of time. Textbooks are a source of customer problems. These are all true statements. We’ve sold many textbooks for good prices but we’ve also had more problems with them than other categories of books. Here are some suggestions for having the most success with the least stress.

The most important point is to have the exact edition described in the Amazon details. Do not attempt to sell an older edition on the current one’s page, even if you state that you have a different edition than the one displayed. This creates confusion for the inattentive customer which leads to complaints when he doesn’t get what he expects. The book should have the identical ISBN and be the student edition. Amazon’s policy is to prohibit the sale of Instructor editions; many such are in their catalogue, however, so enforcement is erratic.

As always, describe the condition of the book accurately. Be particularly clear about the condition of the text – be explicit about any highlighting or notations, coffee stains and the like. Check if supplemental materials are supposed to be included, e.g. a cdrom or access code; state if such are present or missing.

Price to sell. You don’t need to be the lowest price, but place your copy at the lower end of pricing for comparable condition. Textbooks are a perishable commodity – classes start, new editions are published.

Offer Expedited shipping. Many students will wait to the last minute to order and will be looking for a seller offering faster shipping times. You can add a few dollars to your asking price to cover the difference between Amazon’s fee and the cost of a flat rate Priority box.

Many college courses assign supplemental readings in addition to a standard textbook. Watch for imprints from University Presses, reprints of classic works, or other scholarly treatments of specialized topics. Those can command very good prices and are well worth listing even if the sales position looks high. All you need is one professor to assign that obscure title for you to make the sale.

Be a bit cautious about listing an older edition of a current textbook. One of the curious consequences of computer driven pricing is that the price of the out of date edition is sometimes higher than for the current edition. Because there are fewer copies of the old one listed the computer thinks it’s “scarce” and thus valuable. Most students will want the assigned edition, but some, if the discount is deep enough, will make do with the older one. By all means, if you can offer last year’s edition for a good price (not forgetting the likely extra postage costs), do so.

There are some perils to textbook sales, so be prepared for a higher aggravation factor. Your customers are students, after all. What are some common characteristics of students?

Procrastination. You’ll get messages such as “class started last week so can you get this to me fast?” or “I didn’t need this book after all so I want to return it” (three months after purchase).

Confusion. Student will click one link too far, lose track of what edition he’s looking at, and order the wrong book. Student will decide to drop the class and want to return the book.

Victim of Professor’s whim. Efficient student orders book only to find on the first day of class that the professor has changed the syllabus. Again, a return.

Attempting to time the market seems unimportant to me. Our inventory of textbooks is generally small and our time can be better spent than checking price fluctuations from week to week. If you don’t catch the start of the Fall semester, there’s the Spring semester. There are schools on a trimester system, there’s summer session. School is in session somewhere year ’round.

5 thoughts on “Textbooks – Profits and Perils

  1. Jane Rutledge

    About the CD-Roms and access codes — if a book is supposed to have one and doesn’t, we just don’t list it. As with variant editions, listing the lack in the item description is iffy — not everyone reads them, and if a student decides that the book is not as listed having the caveat in the condition description will not help you in case of a claim made through the Amazon system. When in doubt, we just put it in the local sale.

    That said — textbooks are a great source of revenue for us. Thanks for outlining the basics so clearly.

    1. Miriam Geib Post author

      You’re right about listing a book with missing materials. We almost never do, but occasionally, if the supplement seems minimally important, if the selling price is high enough we can discount it and still make money, I will give it a try. I always feel just a bit of anxiety, though, about an A to Z claim coming back at me.

  2. Jane Rutledge

    In late December we received a request from a buyer to return a book for a refund — when I looked back to see the details of the sale I discovered he had purchased the book in late August and that it was a fairly technical title that might be used in an upper-level or graduate course. Does it seem suspicious to you that at the end of the semester he suddenly decided that the book was not what he wanted? Of course he was way past Amazon’s 30-day window for refunds, which I pointed out to him, and we’ve not heard from him again. I guess he figured it was worth a try …

  3. Miriam Geib Post author

    Beyond suspicious, I’d say, although – knowing the habits of college students – it’s certainly possible that he just found it while cleaning out his room at the end of the semester. We’ve had several like that recently. One woman told us that the professor only used the book for the first week so it was in really good shape and she’d like to return it now. Maybe they think we offer a rental service? Thank goodness for the 30 day limit, which shields us from many an argument.

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