Selling Books for a Penny... Now How Does That Work?

Go pick out a couple of books from the shelf that you have recently read or plan to read, scan them with your smartphone and favorite picking app, and observe the lowest 'Used' price on Amazon that other merchants are selling it for.

Yup. One cent. A lousy, measly, nearly-worthless penny! Now, why on earth would somebody sell a book on Amazon for only a cent? Aren't they losing money when you factor in the cost of picking the book and the Amazon fees? How could selling a book for a penny possibly make good business sense?

The short answer: Shipping charges... and lots of them.

I was once privileged enough to visit and get an inside look at the operation of one of these large Amazon sellers that deals in penny books. It was a huge warehouse full of shelves of books and DVDs with giant piles of mixed books and people with scanners scanning and sorting them and another room with people on computers listing them and another room for shipping. It was pretty impressive, but how is could an operation like this be sustained by penny books, I asked.

The math is actually quite simple. This operation buys books and media in bulk, and often can even get bulk books for free. I was told it costs an average of $100 for a palette of over 500 books and movies, sight unseen. So that averages to about two cents per book for the picking cost.

Now, a couple of these books are gold. It might be a rare occurrence, but all it takes is a few decent textbooks or artist monograms that can be sold for $20-30 each and the costs on the whole palette is recouped. When you're dealing in bulk like this, you only need, like, 5% of your books to be worth just a few dollars each and things can really start to get profitable. So even if two-thirds of the palette should be classified as 'penny books', enough profit is still generated from that other third to begin to cover the costs of storage and labor.

So, you're thinking, all those penny books are just the leftover chaff to be recycled. They're a liability, right? Nope, those penny books also generate profit not in the sale price, but in the leftover change from the difference between the shipping funds collected by Amazon and the actual shipping costs. And when you ship hundreds of books a day like this operation does, you can qualify for bulk shipping costs, which are much lower than even media mail.

We're talking actual shipping charges of about a buck per book. So even after Amazon fees and the costs of shipping materials like padded envelopes and labels, these penny books are bringing in a buck or two each. Do that several hundred times a day, add it to the bigger profits made from the sale of book and media that actually has value, throw in the occasional rare mega-valuable book, and you have yourself quite a thriving business.

This Amazon Forum thread about penny books from a few years back breaks down the math with some more detail, so give it a look if you still are scratching your head.

Obviously, selling books for a penny does not work for the Part Time Picker. A penny book operation requires cheap laborers, large warehouses, forklifts, and all kinds of crap I have no interest in dealing with. That doesn't sound like fun at all.

Sure, I'm happy to pocket the proceeds that come from the low costs of shipping a lightweight book, but I'm not about to base my livelihood on the principle. Don't get me wrong, I love penny books... love buying them, that is. (But then, of course, I'm paying the shipping charges too, so they are really $4 books, now aren't they.)

And since your so good at math there is no need for me to explain that books sold for a penny but using FBA results in nothing but a loss for the merchant. If you see someone selling a book for one cent with free FBA shipping, you should buy that book just to teach that idiot merchant a lesson.

Pick-tionary: BOLO - Be On the Look Out

BOLO: The acronym, not the tie.

If you spend any time perusing the internet for blogs and groups and comments about picking and flipping items on eBay and Amazon, you are no doubt going to be seeing the word BOLO being bandied about. What it means is Be On the Look Out. It originates from 1960s American Police jargon and is basically the same as an APB, or All Points Bulletin. But we're not out looking for crooks, we're looking for big picks with which to make decent dollars.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of the phrase BOLO. Maybe it's that I just don't like acronyms (although I was delighted to find that 'Scuba' is one). Perhaps the word reminds me of the hideous neckwear. Maybe seeing this phrase in all caps over and over again just gives me the willies. And, technically, shouldn't it be BOTLO? Either way, I hesitate to use it here at Part Time Picker. But I do want you to know all about it. Why?

Because when you are combing the net for picking blogs and comments and such and you come across somebody posting a BOLO, you should sit up and pay attention. BOLO posts are a great way to build your mental radar for potential picks.

The online community of eBay and Amazon sellers is very generous with sharing their tips and finds. They love to brag about the huge profit they just made on an unassuming item, as do I. While many BOLO posts are about very specific items that you may never find and shouldn't waste your time searching for, it never hurts to know. Heck, I even keep a notebook handy to keep a list of potential BOLO picks I may have otherwise overlooked.

Two Facebook groups I like to scan for BOLO posts and comments are Stay at Home Moms Selling on eBay (those moms make up a large demographic of picker blog interactions online) and Thrifting With The Boys, who have one of those preposterous cable shows that make everyone think they can get rich quick by picking antiques.

So, yeah, that's BOLO. 

The Color of Money: Selling PRISMACOLOR Pencils on eBay.

Color me slightly wealthier.

Here's an easy one that has been raking in side-cash for me for years now... big lots of colored pencils. But not just any old brand of colored pencils. I specifically seek out, pick, and flip Prismacolor pencils.

I find these things all the time and can usually get them for 10 cents each or even less. They are normally sold in sets 12, 24, 36, 64 or 132 originally (and also individually) and can be quite costly to get new at an art supply store. But, alas, once a few of the pencils from the set are used up or lost, the rest sit around a desk drawer for years. Once the long, slow path towards perceived uselessness is complete, they are donated to a thrift store or left in a box at a garage sale or just thrown away.

After all, who would want to spend a couple quarters on eight or nine random colored pencils? You, that's who! These suckers cost about $1.50 each new, and folks will usually pay nearly a buck each for them on eBay, particularly if offered as a large lot.

And they don't even have to be unused to fetch the dollars. As long as they are long enough (say, over 6 inches), they are a solid pick.

After flipping (and occasionally coloring pictures) these things for years, I finally got a bit curious about why Prismacolor pencils are made by different brands. So here is a little history: Prismacolor started in 1938 by the Eagle company, then changed name to Berol in 1969. It was bought by Empire in 1986 and finally by Sanford in 1995. Sanford is currently owned by Newell Rubbermaid, but the current Prismacolors have the Sanford name on them. In the UK and Canada they kept the Berol name until recently, and they were also called Karismacolor (and they have oak colored barrels rather than solid colors).
Update: The day this post published, I came across Scholar Prismacolors! So look for those as well.

I have had no problems mixing Prismacolors of all brands into a single lot. In my experience, a vintage Prismacolor with the Eagle name does not sell any better or worse than the others, so there is no need to separate them into a different lot. I also will include doubles (and triples or more) of colors in my lot. They do not all need to be different colors to be sold together.

There are currently 150 colors offered in the Prismacolor line. This isn't really relevant to them being flipped, but I just thought that was an interesting tidbit to share.

You will also find other types of art supplies with the Prismacolor name, such as watercolor pencils and markers. While I have had more picks of the straight-up color pencils, I don't see why these others things won't do well in a large lot if you can snag them on the cheap. Just make sure to test those markers, because they will dry up on you.

What I haven't done well with, however, is flipping lots of other brands of colored pencils. So leave those Prang and Crayolas alone.

So don't be afraid to get dirty digging in the pencil drawer. If there are other art supplies or inexpensive items that are pretty easy to collect in lots that you have had success picking and flipping, let me know in the comments. Have fun out there.

Feedback-pocalypse: eBay's new Detailed Seller Ratings

Everybody panic!

August 20th, 2014 has come and eBay's new Detailed Seller Ratings are in effect. What this means, and I'm still not entirely clear about it myself, is that all that the right to sell on eBay, and the benefits entitled wherein, can now be revoked or otherwise altered based on those five star ratings, which are now combined with regular old feedback to create the new "Transaction Defect Rate".

People seem really shocked and appalled in particular by the new requirement that eBay doesn't consider your packages shipped until the shipping service scans them in. So, basically, the seller is on the hook if the post office drops the ball.

A sampling of the 'blogosphere' shows reactions to this new evaluation / consequences system varying from rage-filled tirade-comments against eBay threatening to never use the service again (nothing new there) to utter relief that the sun did in fact rise this morning and we are still somehow free to sell junk online.

So how is your boy here at Part Time Picker reacting to all this? By not worrying about a damn thing. Here's why:
  • I always describe my items accurately and try to take multiple good photos. I do this because it helps get me more bids, more sales, and helps my items show up more often in searches within eBay's Cassini Search system
  • I don't gouge on the shipping charges. If I'm not doing Free Shipping, I keep those charges at or below what the actual costs will be. Nothing turns a buyer off faster than insane shipping charges. And in that very rare instance when I do accidentally overestimate and overcharge on shipping, I refund the overage to the buyer right away, even if they don't ask for it.
  • I usually ship the next day after the auction ends (or the item is bought). Why wait?
  • I also always get tracking on my shipments. Always.
  • I respond to all inquiries, questions, and other contact the same day, usually right away if I can. I don't like having some unresolved issue hanging over my head. And with my smart phone, it is super easy to respond from wherever I am. If you don't have a smartphone, you should just stop reading this and go back to gathering nuts and berries to store in your cave because the winter is coming.
  • I generally give great service. It's called being good at business and everybody should be doing it. It's how you get repeat customers. It's how you succeed. 
If you are already doing a good job at communication, item description, and shipping (which you should have been doing all along), you don't need to do a thing in regards to eBay's Transaction Defect Rate. Just be cool and keep picking the deals. Sure you'll occasionally get screwed by the post office or some idiot buyer who just gives you an unjustified bad rating, but, take a deep breath, everything will be ok. I promise.

There is a pretty good and even tempered blog about all the DSR controversy over at that you might enjoy as well.

What to sell: Magazines

Come to Papa.

There they are: under the coffee table, cluttering the shelves, in the bathroom, on the mantle, in your bag, all over your office... magazines are all over the place. They have a very limited time-frame of usefulness and are basically designed to be read once and tossed.

I'm not going to tell you to hoard magazines. For for love of all things sacred get rid of your old magazines. But before you dump them all in the recycle bin, take an extra moment to see if they can get you a spot of cash on the 2nd-hand market.

And once you notice what magazines are selling on eBay, you can often pick them for next to nothing. After all, magazines are rightfully considered wasteful clutter pretty quickly.

So what magazines have value (other than that National Geographic of the girl with the haunted eyes)? With a bit of research, I've discovered there are lots of mags that can be flipped for bucks. Few magazines will get big dollars on their own, but if you are paying very little (or nothing) for them, you can make a few bucks of profit pretty easily.

  • First, the obvious. Vintage and antique magazines (and catalogs). While an old magazine is not guaranteed to fetch a high price, it is a good place to start. Make sure to take good photos and describe the contents in your listing. Many people are more interested in the images of celebrities or the advertisements in old magazines than the articles.
  • Specialized interest and industry magazines. These can often be very expensive new and not exactly common at the newsstand, so folks will buy them online. Whether the topic is dentistry or fly fishing, there are professionals and hobbyists who need that back issue.
  • Art magazines. Some of the more high-end art magazines have massive retail prices when new, but can later be found for a few coins at a garage sale or library clear-out. I have personally made a killing on several occasions reselling Raw Vision folk art magazines that I bought for only a dollar each.
  • High end Knitting Magazines. My wife loves these things but usually will just photocopy a few pages she likes and then pass them on to me to for online sale. Some of these issues sell for over $20 each!
  • Fashion and design magazines (or any magazines, really) from overseas. Again, these things have a hefty price tag when bought new at the newsstand in the US, but lose their value real quick afterwards.Same with UK music magazines like Mojo
  • Recent issues of magazines. I gleaned the knowledge of reselling recent issues of magazines from the Suzanne A. Wells blog. Sometimes issues from the past year can be resold for decent bucks. The celebrity on the cover is a big selling point for some of these so make sure to put their name in the subject of your listing. If your friends have a subscription, ask them if they will give you their issues when they are done rather than recycling them. 
  • Bulk Lots of magazines. And, of course, the classic. Any regular readers of this blog know that I don't like taking the time to list items that are only going to fetch me a buck or two in the end. That's why I'm a big fan of selling small profit items in lots. While I won't bat an eye at a magazine flip for $4, selling a lot of ten mags for $40 profit will get my blood pumping for sure.
A few other things to remember about picking and selling magazines:
  • Use the old standby of completed items eBay search to do quick research. Realize that you may not get the same results you see, particularly if there is a small sample size of completed listings.
  • Some specific magazine back issues can be sold through Amazon. Particularly for those giant 'book-sized' (and 'book-priced') magazines.
  • Ask your doctor, dentist, or other waiting room having professional if they are recycling their old magazines. If they are, maybe they will let you have them.
  • Magazines without a mailing label (or remnants of adhesive from a label) will get better dollars.
  • Magazines don't qualify as Media Mail (because they have advertisements in them), so set your shipping charges accordingly.
  • Magazines can always be put in the recycling bin later, so if you have a chance to get them for free, go for it. Free magazine issues are basically a no-risk pick. 
So there you have it. Keep you eyes open for possible magazine picks and you'll be padding up the paypal account in no time.

Relist for Success

Don't worry, just hit 'Relist', sit back, and relax

If there is one thing that season after season of finishing at the bottom of my fantasy baseball league standings has taught me, it is that past performance is no guarantee of future performance. What's true in make-believe sports team management is often true in selling on eBay. Just because something has sold for big bucks in previously completed eBay auctions, that doesn't promise a repeat performance. Fortunately, the opposite is also true.

This was illustrated pretty dramatically when I recently auctioned off pack after pack of unopened, but expired Polaroid 600 instant film. As I've posted about before, Polaroid film frequently fetches $20 per pack, so when I was listing a pack on eBay every week for 6 weeks in a row, I expected to have grossed around $120 bucks when all was said and done.

I started each auction at $9.50, a price I thought would be low enough to get a good deal of 'watchers', but high enough that I would still make a profit if it went for only the opening bid. Week One's auction closed at $22, right on target. But the next week the same pack of film only brought me $13. What gives?

Even more curious, no one bid on the film pack the next week. Not a single bid. Had the market for Polaroid film crashed? Was somebody else offering the same item much cheaper? Was my computer malfunctioning? I couldn't figure it out.

My head really started to spin when, the following week, that same pack that had not garnered one bid the previous week sold for $35! The remaining three packs of film sold for $18, $25, and $22.50 (averaging $22.58 for all six packs). So the prices I was fetching varied by over 20 bucks from week to week.

This statistics-filled tale is an illustration that prices can fluctuate without much reasoning. With that in mind, it is always best to set your listing price at a comfortable level, making sure you are assured the profit you need for that item. It is better to not sell an item than sell it for too little.

Sometimes items will sometimes go from no bids at all to a bidding war after a quick relist.

Similarly, items that don't seem to interest anybody in an auction format can sell like hotcakes with 'Buy It Now' pricing. Certainly there are a great deal of people who want to purchase that item right now and are willing to perhaps surpass a deal for the immediacy of a purchase guarantee. Some folks don't want to wait days to see if they may or may not have won an auction... they literally want to buy it now.

And I won't even begin to launch into the fact that certain items fetch much higher prices in different venues. I know several sellers who purchase vintage things on eBay just to turn around and flip them for profits on Etsy. Remind me to write about that later.

So don't be discouraged if nobody seems interested in your treasure. Click that 'Relist' button and be patient. Try a 'Buy It Now' price. Maybe change a few words in your subject line. Good things come to those who wait, so don't sell your pickings short.

Big Score: Yashica Film Cameras

Now that you're all keyed up from my recent post about how film cameras as prime-time Picking gold for a big-bucks eBay flip, let me share two of my recent 'Big Scores'.

The Yashica T4. This looks like a crappy point-and-shoot camera that can't be worth very much. Well, how does $170 sound? That's right, the T4s (as well as T3s and T5s) fetch huge dollars on eBay. They are easy to spot because they have a viewfinding window on the top. If you see this camera, you get it!

I'm always juiced when I find an inexpensively priced medium format camera. These things are sought after by serious photographers. It isn't very common to find one priced on the low-end, but I was able to pick this Yashica Mat 124G up at a garage sale for $40. When all was said and done, it sold for over $150 in "As-Is" condition. Not bad. 

So, what kinds of big camera scores have you come across?