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"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Friday, 23 August 2013

Watching books die, slowly

I just finished selling books for a charity, and it was a grim experience.

I did it for a year, I was paid to list donated books onto an Amazon seller site; an online chairty bookshop, in effect, competing with hundreds of others of independent dealers in the UK and worldwide. All using the same system to spearhead their virtual sales machinery.

After a while, once the number of titles on offer passed a critical point (around 3500) , the operation seemed to lift off, and sales would begin to soar with little or no further effort, for a while. And then my work was cut out, packing, franking these books, then dragging them in an old ladies' shopping trolley up the hill to the post office.

With more effort - maybe six days instead of three per week, more help, more co-operation, it could have been so much better, and so much more money might have flowed in.  But this particular charity seemed to have a terribly bi-polar approach to selling books.

One thing I learned was that the hottest-selling books - apart from the obvious new bestsellers, which we didn't generally get - are quite tricky things to predict. But if you can predict them, you will do very well.

For example, best-sellers from 2 or 3  months ago might sit on the shelves for months, for years -  but a series of Freud's writing, or a desirable paperback imprint of modern classics - not just Penguins, though they are sure-fire sellers - but newer rivals like Vintage,  or an out-of-print biog of a disgraced Radio 1 DJ,  or a of recently deceased politician - all these things will sell in flurries, if you happen to have them on your shelves. For example, five copies of the new Vintage edition of Jeanette Winterson's Oranges are the only Fruit sold on the day I unpacked them.

Sometimes it's a simple mention on a TV show or in a review somewhere - or it's Radio 4 serialising some forgotten classic.

And then of course there are the seasonal staples. I hate to confirm that in January sales of all those dreadful dieting and exercise books that had sat on the shelves for months did suddenly pick up. As did demand for the self-help titles, the more optimistic the title the better.

Charlatan business guru type texts also do depressingly well. Spinning out the obvious into 12 long chapters full of homilies and cringe-making down-home parables.

The worst thing about this job was seeing how rapidly the value of what seemed to be fine books plumetted. In general, it seemed, most titles were destined to lose value, week after week, until they join that huge ocean of Amazon floaters, bobbing around on a sea of drowned and brine-sodden paperbacks, all available for one penny or less plus  the standard postage rate, in Amazon's case, £2.80.

Of course one longed to find books that had high value and small size - small enough to qualify for "large letter" postage rather than "small parcel". Some of the most profitable sales were in fact of slim volumes of paperback poetry - £5 or £6 cover price, 81p postage. In this respect we were lucky, every so often. The high point of it all, for me, was opening a box of donated books and finding a mix of recent titles from someone like Bloomsbury, Vintage, or Hogarth Press, sometimes they were proof copies or damaged stuff, but usually there were plenty of saleable books. We'd get US and Australian editions,  translations into all the languages of Scandinavia, review copies, stuff that had obviously languished in a warehouse for decades.

And just occasionally you'd find the right buyer at the right time, before the value of that heavily sun-burned bonkbuster trickled away into the sand.

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