Costly pile

As an avid reader, it often occurs to me just how second-hand book retailers manage to turn a profit. Even assuming the raw stock can be acquired at very little cost, the vast majority of books can go unsold almost indefinitely, all the while occupying shelf or storage space that costs money to maintain. I read somewhere that on average a second-hand bookseller can expect a third of his stock to be sold within six months, another third to be sold on an indefinite timescale, and the final third to simply go unsold. Obviously this has a knockon effect where turnover is slow. On a recent trip to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town, I came across plenty of bookstores that clearly have to elevate prices to remain profitable. No doubt in their case, the annual book festival and holiday season are a major source of revenue that would otherwise cause most to close their doors in an otherwise small and overcrowded market ecosystem.

In this matter, the Internet must have been a major boon to many sellers. By opening themselves up to such a vastly larger market, second-hand book stores can be guaranteed an extra income stream. But at what cost? How can resellers make themselves known on the Internet market, and whilst open to such massive competition, remain profitable? It’s pretty clear on the face of things that Internet prices for second-hand books are much reduced from their on-shelf equivalents. In Chapters’ new premises in Dublin, the second-hand book section prices are so ‘astronomical‘ such that you can occasionally find copies of the books cheaper in their own new books section. The same book on Amazon’s marketplaces, Abebooks or eBay might technically be listed for as little as a penny.

Of course, it would be folly to think that those prices are actual representations of the cost to the buyer. There may be many reasons for such low prices being on offer, one of which is clearly the threat of competition, as buyers generally list items by price and only buy those which top the list, but there are obviously other problems for the seller to overcome. The problem of putting themselves on the Internet market can to a large extent be negated by using services such as the ones I listed above – the problem however is being able to afford to do so.

On a recent purchase from Abebooks, I was dismayed to note that whilst there was technically a benefit to purchasing more than one book from the same seller in terms of postage costs, the reduction was clearly much smaller than what should be expected. One paperback cost £3.35 shipping, already a little extreme you might think, whilst eight paperbacks cost £16.00 – for roughly the same weight of parcel, Royal Mail quote a first class delivery (whilst the quoted price was for second class) at £8.22. This kind of price shuffling is fairly typical, which recently caused a fairly negative reaction from Abebooks through adding fees to the shipping prices. Whilst charging shipping at such high prices might seem unfair, however, it seems entirely just when considering the number of charges laid at the sellers door when dealing with the large marketplaces. I recently saw a sale via Abebooks wherein the total order amounted to £3.92 excluding shipping, and Abe’s commission was £2.10. Add to this the fees charged by Paypal (as that was the payment method) which could be as much as 20p plus 3.5% on the total amount including shipping, and it’s little wonder that book-sellers try to add extra to their shipping costs in order to maintain a sliver of profitability. For those that deal in rare books or expensive volumes, the smaller cuts that are made through listing and payment fees might be dealt with, but for smaller sellers just getting a foot on that ladder seems like a daunting prospect.

Unfortunately, there would appear to be very few alternatives. Even Abebooks was recently acquired by Amazon, and no doubt their fees and market models for second-hand sellers will be homogenised further than they already were. Sites such as UKBookworld from The Clique offer no commission sales in return for annual listing fees (amongst other services), though leave sellers to handle credit card or other payment methods themselves (though thereby avoiding a ‘skim’ from the host). The site of course suffers from a small number of participating shops, and tends to focus more on antique and out-of-print volumes than low cost second-hand paperbacks as a result.

Unless bookshops can set up their own sites that are popular enough and large enough to attract customers and direct sales, is there any alternative for those needing to use one of the main marketplaces mentioned? Or is this just an example of the failure of the Internet to democratise finances as well as ideas?