Experience report: So much for having a virtual bookstore

As part of my experiments in entrepreneurship, I decided to try out selling used books online. I like books, and am happy to keep a small library of my favourite titles in order to reread, give to friends, or resell.

I checked out Toronto Reference Library’s bookstore, focusing on donated hardcover business books that had never been in circulation and limiting it further to books that I had liked.

Listing my books on Amazon was quick and easy. I described the condition and picked a price in the neighbourhood of the other sellers.

After two weeks, I received an e-mail telling me that someone had bought one of my books: Dan and Chip Heath’s Made to Stick, an excellent book on how to make ideas more memorable. I wrapped the book in bubble wrap and dropped it off at the post office as soon as the store opened on Monday.

Here’s where the wrinkle is: Canada Post is expensive. Let’s break the transaction down.

Price of book CAD $10.50
Amazon fees CAD $-3.31
Shipping credit CAD $6.49
Actual shipping cost (regular parcel, no insurance) CAD $-13.71
Cost of book CAD $-1

Net: $-1.03, not including packing costs and time. (“That’s all right, we’ll make it up in volume!” as the joke goes…)

There are probably cheaper ways to ship, but I can’t imagine that they would be drastically better, or result in anything close to minimum wage.

On the plus side, I got a blog post out of it, so that’s not too bad. I’ve increased the price on the other book I listed, but I don’t mind not selling it either – the benefits of picking books I like anyway.

Selling books online might work fine in the US and other countries with inexpensive postal systems, but probably not here. I think my future experiments will focus on things that don’t need to be physically shipped! =)

  • Steph

    What I’ve seen other people do is they charge the shipping fee on top of the price of the book.

    It may be worth checking out whether your postal service has a special rate for enterprise entity.

  • Josh

    You might want to think about building a book review site (with affiliate links to booksellers). The handful of book reviews I’ve read here have been very good, so you’ve already got the experience doing that…and you do read voraciously. Just my unsolicited $0.02.

  • Steph: I’ll certainly plan for that in the future, and I’ll look up business rates too.

    Josh: Thanks! That’s definitely one of my upcoming experiments. I read a ton, and I want to help people save time by focusing on the good parts of good books.

  • David S. (@seemsartless)

    Wait, rather than ending this experiment with “Selling books online might work fine in the US and other countries … but probably not here”

    Instead, don’t you mean “Now I’ve identified a problem that many Canadian companies must face… Next step: Experiment with possible solutions!”

    I assume you don’t want to open a physical store to sell used books, but maybe make an agreement with a local coffee-shop for book pick-up? Maybe they would even include a coupon for a free snack w/ a coffee purchase too?

    I think it is this HBR podcast talks about training your customers to do some of the work for the company (Zipcar is a good example, or printing movie tickets at home) http://blogs.hbr.org/ideacast/2012/02/the-end-of-customer-service-he.html

  • If I want to deal with only people in Toronto, I can arrange that sort of pickup. It would be difficult to take advantage of Amazon’s marketing infrastructure, then, and listing individual books on Craigslist appears to be much less common than listing lots of books (and usually for free). So that runs into questions of what people are used to paying.

    I’ll experiment with setting my base price higher to cover more of the shipping charges. I’m also experimenting with visual book notes, which I may break out into a separate blog for ease of navigation when I have more of them.

    Good point about digging for the positive in experiments, though! There’s probably room for disruption here, and if I happen to find any competitive advantages (or develop an overwhelming desire to fix the system), I might even explore it someday. In the meantime, there are lower-hanging fruits to try. Thanks for the insights!