October 20th, 2013

Today's Activities Include: a Powerbook G4

My friend Rorschach told me when I was pregnant with T. that one of the things I should buy was a laptop. I didn't act as promptly on this wise advice as I should have, so I didn't buy my third computer and first laptop until early 2006 (just barely missing the opportunity to start with the Intel Macbooks).

I loved it. I had owned two Macs previously. I bought the first one when I retired (I had always mooched computing before that, because I _knew_ how hard it was to get rid of computer equipment once you owned it, and I didn't want a bunch of doorstops dogging me), and the second one when the first one developed Issues. The first one was refurbed and sent off to my then-boyfriend's mother. The second one was the iMac that I spent a bunch of time on earlier this year getting all the remaining data off of and then bringing to Best Buy to recycle.

The laptop developed some Issues in 2009, and was replaced with the laptop that I recently replaced with a Macbook Air. That second laptop was sold to PowerOn for a $400 gift certificate, which was a significant motivator. Not only _not_ a doorstop: I got money for it! The motivation (other than the money to spend at the Apple Store) was additional AirPlay features, lighter, etc.

The summary of all this is that I only had one doorstop computer left: a 2006 Powerbook that I didn't need the data off (that migrated to the 2009 laptop and then to the Macbook Air -- I had, in fact, learned something from the abandoned iMac fiasco), but didn't want to dispose of without formatting. I knew where the laptop was (I'd seen it often enough on shelving in the unfinished attic space, while looking for other things like kindle fire boxes); I didn't know how to securely erase it. Also, there was some question about whether it would power up and boot.

It _does_ power up and boot (but boy you cannot unplug the power) and connect to the wireless network, so that's all fantastic. Way better than the situation with the iMac (lesson learned: the longer you let this stuff go, the harder it is to deal with). I realized this would work best if I found the install disk, so I then had to track down the shipping box. That took a while, but I found it, and it contained the install disk! And the drive works, so it'll boot from the install disk. Miracles!

But I'm too chicken to actually pull the trigger on this, so I'm going to wait until R. gets home for consultation. If we need to re-install the OS after zeroing out the disk, I probably shouldn't try to do this while T. is circling me and repeating everything I say, because the way I stay on task when doing something like this is by talking to myself - and having that repeated back at an unpredictable interval is _really distracting_.

The power cords for the laptop were in a media box, along with some other odds and ends. T. and I poked around in the box and found a dead Palm smartphone, a Treo PDA, and various cords, docks, etc. Also the box for a network card and documentation for a Samsung flip phone. I extracted the Palm and Treo stuff and stuck them in a bag; I'm going to see if I can recycle those at Staples, along with an old iPod and the laptop. Otherwise, it's a trip to Burlington or the Ham to go to Best Buy.

What's Going on with Used Books?

Pew's most recent survey suggests that large fractions of the US population now own tablets (about a third) or e-readers (about a quarter). Of course, research continues to show that people who have an e-reader or otherwise read ebooks (like on a phone, tablet, laptop, etc.) also buy and read pbooks.

When Nate over at The Digital Reader posted this infographic about used books:

http://www.the-digital-reader.com/2013/08/06/infographic-why-buy-used-books/

I got to thinking. In my head, people who converted early-ish to ebooks are now starting to drastically reduce their pbook inventory (that is, sell, donate, give away their pbook library), and this isn't a trend that will be stopping any time soon. This _should_ have several effects.

(1) In conjunction with Hard Times for large fractions of the population, this new supply of pbooks should make selling used books a pretty good business. Supply is up. There are more buyers (because they've down-scaled from buying new books). It's easier than ever to connect buyers and sellers (through bookfinder, alibris, amazon third party sales, etc.).

(2) But because there's so much supply and the barriers to entry are so low, a lot of people might enter, thus reducing margins. Kinda catastrophically. This could be particularly bad for:

(3) Long time participants who are accustomed to buying at too high a level, because they think they can sell it for more than they realistically can anymore, in a world in which literally every copy of that item and a bunch of things kinda like it are available for two day shipping. Worse:

(4) When most people have switched over to pbooks, _they_ will be dumping their pbooks -- and they won't be buying them any more. So after this amazing ramp _up_, the supply will head straight to the moon, while demand entirely disappears.

Any evidence for this theory?

http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/44091-used-books-on-the-up-and-up.html

This is from 2010. I always find it easier to predict things that have _already happened_. I learned that by reading golden age sf authors Explaining How It Is Done.

Half Price with lots of stores and opening more, check (they continue to expand, with plans extending into next year).

Independent book stores starting to sell used to go with new (of course, other coverage of the same phenomenon is presented as sort of a desperation measure to deal with drop off in new sales and general loss of customers).

Here's one indication that growth was occurring because buying used was outpacing selling used:

"For her, one of the biggest challenges is simply keeping up with the buying. "Our business is up all the way around. Just in the last year it's exploded," says Morton. In 2009, Iliad doubled in size to 5,000 sq. ft., and it recently hired a fifth full-time staffer with a sixth to be added soon.

Morton attributes Iliad's uptick in sales to the economy. "People who have been collecting for years are suddenly selling their collections. They're telling us they've had to downsize; they've had to move.""

Powell's has always been an exception. This is no different.

""It's nice after years of buying locally and selling globally to be able to buy globally," says Jon Guetschow, director of used books, who is bullish about used. "We don't know the limits of what we're able to sell. So far we haven't reached the point where the supply exceeds the demand.""

Makes sense. They were the only bookstore out of Seattle I would call to see if they had something I wanted (when I lived in Seattle).

But someone who has been doing this as a family for generations is a little concerned:

"Unlike many booksellers, he is far less gung ho about the long-term prospects for the used-book market. "We've seen the market shrink over the last 15 years," says Weller, for whom one of the biggest challenges is curbing the appetite of the store's used-book buyers. "The easiest mistake is to buy too much," he says,"

And Elliott Bay has figured out that while the profit on used books seems good (price paid vs. sales price), someone they still don't make much on it. I could have told them that. I've been telling people that about used books for ... a really long time now.

I'll be back with more.

ETA:

From 2012: hey, make money at home selling used books, starting with your own, and then getting supplies from discount stores, yard sales, and friends of the library sales:

http://EzineArticles.com/6981952

Whenever someone says:

"You don't need to write a business plan."

I hear: "You don't need to actually make any money, and _definitely_ not enough to be minimum wage hourly."

At this point, there are really big operations at every point in the used book chain. Operations like Better World Books, Discover Books, Got Books and similar run bins to collect in communities, and will also collect used books from people via mail, freight. Operations like this one:

http://www.blogistics.com/library_book_logistics.php

will take _anything_:

"All your library media discards can go in the same shipment. Fiction, non-fiction, hardcover, paperback, VHS, DVDs, magazines, newspapers, damaged items, encyclopedias, journals - even your office paper can now be included in your discard shipments. In fact, the more you send the better. This is the perfect opportunity to get rid of the donations of textbooks, Readers Digest Condensed Books, and National Geographic magazines that come in from the community. In fact, you can turn your library into a drop-off point for community book recycling."

All those things everyone says they don't want from you? VHS, encyclopedias, Readers Digest, NatGeo, textbooks, etc. -- they'll take all of them and your office paper, too. It constantly amazes me that anyone can make any money attempting to cherry pick the stream any more, with organizations like this (their charges are _really_ reasonable, too: $35 to coordinate a pickup if you are within 100 miles of one of their locations, and they'll take it out of whatever they get for what you give them. Convenience AND cheap upfront).

Speaking of cherry picking, here is some used textbook arbitrage from 2011. There must be way too many people doing this now to make it possible any more:

http://www.thepennyhoarder.com/how-to-make-750-a-month-selling-used-books/

Finding a niche in used books has gotten so bad, the antiquarians have taken to selling manuscripts:

http://www.ioba.org/standard/2013/02/don%E2%80%99t-do-it/

It's a _really great read_ and worth your time.

I'm still trying to figure out why I don't remember this bookstore:

http://www.ioba.org/standard/2012/08/pistil-books-online-seattle-wa/

I bought my condo on Cap Hill in the fall of 1997 and was there until the fall of 2003, and I walked up and down the Pike/Pine corridors often enough. And I hung out on the hill long before I moved there. *shrug*

This one has some gems in it:

"Also, if many people read digital versions of books and fewer physical books are printed, we could see “common” books actually increasing in value down the road. Our biggest problem right now, guess what, is storage space."

Uh, okay. That made the opposite of sense.

If you are wondering what a megalister is, exactly (you know, obviously, but if you want to know more):

http://www.ioba.org/newsletter/archive/7%282%29/article1.php
http://www.ioba.org/newsletter/archive/7%282%29/article3.php

It is more than a little strange that IOBA writers conflate people who sell stuff they don't have for _way_ more money than people who have (had) it for sale, and people who sell stuff they have for _way_ less money than other sellers. The two groups share only the characteristic of scale. Obvs, the people scraping other listings are more than a little annoying (especially when they cannot fulfill, which has happened to me. Once. I did a little digging on the smaller listing sites the IOBA crowd likes. They don't seem to have the rarest books I've bought recently, altho I will note that someone on Amazon has a copy of _Dear Cousin_ for $55. *sigh* I feel like I should buy it, because that's sort of a screaming deal, but I'll just let a distant relative be all happy when they track it down instead.). But I don't see any reason why the cherry pickers should get a crack at stuff when someone else is willing to deal with the entire stream.

A little blast from the past (2009):

http://voices.yahoo.com/6-reasons-why-selling-books-online-harder-2009-4726894.html?cat=3

"Dave, they're all dead. Everybody's dead, Dave."

Book Hunter Press, which used to have a database of every used book dealer in the US and categorized them by open shop, appointment only, etc., sputtered after around 2008 (maybe their last guide was published in 2004?), was bought in 2011 by Nigel Beale, who runs literarytourist.com, and when I go to their website now, I get stuff in a language I cannot read.

The original megalister

Once upon a time, I worked for an online bookseller. It was a while ago. I won't name them here.

The online bookseller decided to get in the business of selling used books, not just new books. The catalog had kind of gotten about as big as it could easily get selling new books and the bookseller could jack its numbers up for PR purposes by selling used, specifically OOP. I'm not sure if I'm allowed to tell how we did this, but let's say it involved purchasing a bunch of data from the Library of C. and listing it in the catalog.

At this point in the life of this online bookseller, virtually no books were stocked. Orders were placed, then the bookseller got them from the distributor, sent them to the customer and then used the money for growth purposes (because the distributor didn't expect to be paid for, like, weeks. Kind of amazing.). So it wasn't _that_ much of a stretch to imagine listing used books and fulfilling them after the order was placed. Orders were fulfilled by calling all the used bookstores around town (and then further) to see if anyone had it, getting it from that bookstore, and shipping it off to the customer at a hefty markup. The OOP/used listings didn't have pricing on them. We told you we'd get back to you with what that price would be. In that sense, we were acting like a no-upfront-fee book search service.

There were some problems with this rollout. I was a complete asshole because I predicted there would be problems (and they wouldn't be in my area, altho to be fair, there was this problem with correctly displaying the year of publication, because the Library of C. gave it to us as a two digit field and it wasn't always obvious how to interpret that) and then when there were a variety of problems, I held that over people's heads until I left the company. Because I Am Not A Nice Person.

After rollout, there was a list of frequently requested used books that we were completely unable to fulfill -- at any price -- floating around. When I heard that this thing existed, I asked where _The Big U_, by Neal Stephenson was on the list, and got a somewhat flabbergasted look in response. I think it was #2. I bugged the author about it at a University Book Store sponsored event sometime after that (I think we just asked him flat out what it would take to get him to agree to republication, because it was definitely authorial intransigence that was keeping it OOP at that point. I believe S., who was with me, suggested dancing girls.). Eventually, someone dangled enough data and money in front of him, it was republished, and I was forced to agree with the author that it probably wasn't worth reading -- but I was extremely happy I had a chance to buy it new and learn that in the traditional way: by reading it.

This is all by way of providing a little background with which I read this:

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/14/books/review/Sussman-t.html

With the exception of the Badfinger book (which continues to be rare), everything else is available for cheap in any format: including kindle.

What goes around, comes around. As soon as that horde of megalisters followed in the footsteps of the original megalister (of course _at_ the original megalister), the original megalister had the data needed to make sure the customers got what they so clearly wanted. Which is what markets are supposed to do, but does tend to make it awful hard on these petty capitalists, trying to find a niche.

I feel really weird, reading IOBA pieces about how "evil" scrapers are for listing books they don't have, fulfilling them later at a huge markup. We did that, and my complaint was always that we still weren't making enough to justify the activity. Looks like a whole lot of people have to learn over and over and over again that the logistics of used books are so awful that there is no markup sufficient to make money in that business. Also, it sort of makes my former employer feel like a weird ponzi scheme, collecting money on everyone else trying all the same not-very-successful money-making-schemes we tried first. Of course, whenever something works, they totally take it over and wipe out all the little guys -- and they don't have all the costs of experimenting.