How to Start a Textbook Business: The Ultimate Guide to Buying and Selling Textbooks for Profit
Do you want to start your own business buying and selling textbooks? If so, you need to know the best places to find used books at low prices and the best outlets for reselling those same textbooks at high prices so you can turn a healthy profit. You'll also need to learn how to run a lean, efficient business that maximizes your earnings. Fortunately, everything you need to start your own textbook business is right here in this guide!
Getting started: the business end
Very briefly, we should mention that if you're serious about starting a textbook buying and selling business, you should check with local, state, and federal authorities to determine how to legally file and prepare for taxes. A business attorney and an accountant can help you do this, but you can also get plenty of free advice from the Small Business Administration, the IRS, and SCORE (Service Corps Of Retired Executives), who will even provide free business mentoring.
It's also a good idea to create a business plan. There are plenty of free business planning resources on the SBA's website. You probably don't need to go overboard with a complex business plan when you're starting out, but you should at least create a one-page business plan that lays out your goals, objectives, methods/strategies, challenges you might encounter and their solutions, and – bottom line – how you're going to make money and how much you expect to make.
Even if you're starting out as a hobbyist, it's a good idea to familiarize yourself with business laws, insurance requirements, and tax requirements before you launch your textbook empire.
Tools of the trade
Here are the tools you need to succeed in the textbook business:
- BlueTooth scanner: Lets you scan textbook barcodes to instantly look up prices (you can get an Inateck BCST-10 for around $70)
- Flipsy.com: Instantly see what the highest-paying textbook buyback vendors are willing to pay for your textbooks
- DirectTextbook.com: Check the lowest prices to see if you’re getting a good deal
- Inventory tracking software: There are free and paid inventory tracking applications available, or you can use a simple spreadsheet to keep track of your inventory. Google Sheets works perfect
Which textbooks should you buy and sell?
Knowing which textbooks to buy and sell is the key to success. It's obvious you need to buy textbooks you can sell for a healthy profit margin, but there's more to running a successful textbook business than that. You also need to know:
- Which textbooks are in demand? Which are the most popular textbooks?
- Which textbooks are the most profitable?
- What conditions can you sell, and how does condition affect profit?
- What editions can you sell?
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When you buy in-demand textbooks, you know you can resell them quickly. That means your investment won't be tied up, and you can turn a profit fast. Plus, in-demand textbooks often have the highest profit margins if you know when to buy and sell (more on that later).
You're only one person, so it's important to invest your time into finding only the textbooks you can sell quickly and for a healthy profit. This makes your business more efficient, wastes less time, and ultimately means more dollars-per-hour. Remember that phrase – dollars-per-hour – because it will be important later.
Textbooks are categorized by ISBN and can be issued in multiple editions:
- Numbered editions by chronology
- Instructor’s editions
- International editions
- Solution editions
- Study guides
- Hardcover, softcover, and loose-leaf
- Ebooks (which cannot be resold)
In addition, some textbooks come with access codes. If an access code has been used, it's no longer valid – which diminishes the value of the textbook. Valid access codes on used textbooks, on the other hand, can increase their values significantly.
It's also important to consider condition. Most buyers expect used textbooks to have some wear and tear, but if a book has torn or missing pages, water damage, or a damaged cover, it's going to be difficult to sell.
So, how can you find textbooks that are in-demand, in good condition, and can turn profits? Here are some methods:
- Browse the bestselling textbooks by subject on Direct Textbook. The list is updated daily
- Go to eBay and search for “college textbooks,” then refine the listings to show only those that have sold. You might be able to scroll through and identify trends for top sellers
- View Amazon’s textbook bestsellers list
- Study syllabi for popular courses at major colleges and universities. You might even be able to get a booklist from campus bookstores, especially just prior to fall semester
Use these resources to create a list of textbooks that are in-demand. Add the ISBNs for each to your list along with any notes regarding access codes or accompanying workbooks. Finally, add their bookstore prices to your list – the more expensive the textbook, the more likely students are looking for a cheaper option.
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How to find out which textbooks are profitable
Next, find out how much each textbook is being sold for outside of the bookstore. Direct Textbook is a great resource, because you can instantly look up all the books on your list by edition, condition, and even access codes. Write down the lowest price for each textbook on your list.
The next step is to find out how much you can sell each textbook for. Go to Flipsy and enter your ISBNs (up to 100 at a time) into the search box, then jot down the highest offers for each – including their conditions, editions, and access code validity.
Finally, subtract the sell price from the buy price to see which textbooks offer a healthy profit.
Here's an example:
- Let’s say we visit Direct Textbook’s bestsellers list and find Human Anatomy and Physiology is one of the bestselling Anatomy textbooks. We click on its listing and find it can be purchased used in “used” condition for $78
- Next, we visit Flipsy.com and search for the same book by ISBN, and find it can be sold for $94. The buyer will pay shipping, so we can profit $16 from this book if we buy it now and sell it right away – but that’s not necessarily the best strategy, as you’ll soon see
Do this for all the books on your list, and you'll quickly discover which are the most profitable and deserve most of your time. Now, you can make a "hot list" of the textbooks you want to buy.
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When to buy and sell textbooks
Generally-speaking, textbook coincides with the academic calendar. Textbooks are in highest demand at the beginning of fall semester, and the lowest demand in the summer. Accordingly, prices are highest during high-demand seasons (just before the start of any semester) and lowest during low-demand seasons (mid-semester). The fall sees the greatest influx of college students and the summer the fewest, which is why those semesters result in the greatest and lowest demand seasons, respectively.
Buy textbooks during low-demand seasons as much as possible, then sell during high-demand seasons. As reported by NPR, one textbook business found that a single textbook (a used copy of "Adult Development and Aging") sold for as little as $22.99 in mid-summer, then for as much as $299.57 when winter quarter classes started – that's a difference of $276.58!
Though that type of profit margin is atypical, the example illustrates the importance of buying and selling at the right times to maximize profits.
Where to buy, where to sell
You have multiple options for buying and selling textbooks.
Where to buy used textbooks
You can buy used textbooks directly from students on-campus or near campus. Many buyback companies set up stands at the end of the semester. Others post advertisements on student bulletin boards and school-specific online forums. As long as you're conveniently located and offer more than the bookstores will pay, you'll be able to purchase textbooks with plenty of room for profit margins.
The only drawback is you'll also have to invest a lot of time and, potentially, money in advertising and manning your stand. This is where the concept of dollars-per-hour comes into play: you'll need to be able to purchase enough books you can resell for a profit to make the endeavor worth your while.
If you do set up shop during buyback season, you'll want to have a service like Direct Textbook pulled up on your phone so you make on-the-spot offers that leave room for profit margins. You'll also need to have a good amount of cash in-hand for instant payouts.
Book sales, book fairs, flea markets
Book sales, book fairs, and flea markets can all be textbook sources, but chances are you'll spend a lot of time searching for good textbooks with little to show for your efforts – this is, unless the book sale you're attending is only for textbooks.
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There are many online options for buying used textbooks, from Amazon to eBay to Craigslist (which usually requires offline meets). You can also check student forums associated with specific colleges to find textbooks for sale.
DirectTextbook.com searches more than 200 online stores to find the lowest prices for any given textbook – including sites like eBay and Amazon – so you can use it to find low prices for the textbooks on your hot list.
Buying used textbooks online is the most convenient option, especially if you do not live near a major campus, and allows you to start slow and learn the ropes of the business. In addition, this strategy doesn't require much upfront investment compared to the cash you'll need to compete on campus.
Where to sell
Your best bet is to sell used textbooks online. It's the fastest way to find buyers. You can either sell directly to students via sites like Amazon and eBay; or, use Flipsy.com to find the highest-paying buyback sites and ensure quick sales.
Selling directly to students will net the greatest profit margins but also take the greatest investment in terms of time and effort. Selling to buyback vendors is quick and easy, though you won't get quite as much as if you sold your textbooks on the private market (buyback companies need to turn profits, too).
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Again, the concept of dollars-per-hour is relevant. You'll make the most money per-textbook if you can buy textbooks directly from students during off-peak times like the summer months, then sell them directly to students during peak times like the beginning of fall semester. However, you'll also spend a lot of time going this route. On the other hand, you can quickly buy books online and sell them to online buyback vendors. Even though your profit-per-book might be less, you'll be able to sell more books in less time and earn greater overall profits for your efforts.
Start slow with just a few books to see which method, or combination of methods, works best for you; and be sure to reinvest part of what you make back into your business to buy more books. Over time, you'll learn what works, be able to identify trends, and grow your textbook business into a profitable full-time income.
Keep in mind any profits you earn might be subject to other fees: shipping, packaging, PayPal or other payment processor fees, and of course taxes. Here are some tips for keeping everything in order and maximizing profits:
- Opt for check payouts versus PayPal whenever possible to avoid payment processing fees
- Sell only to buyback companies that will pay shipping, which can have a significant impact on your bottom line
- Purchase packaging materials (boxes, bubble wrap, etc.) in bulk to keep costs low. Uline is one option, but there are many other bulk packaging sellers
- Put back at least 20 percent of your profits for taxes
- Be sure to track all inventory in a spreadsheet or other inventory management software. Study your sales trends so you understand which textbooks are most profitable and which offer quick sales so you can make your business more efficient
Starting a textbook buying and selling business isn't difficult, but competition is steep and pricing is everything. Work hard to buy low and sell high, and over time you can grow your textbook business into a textbook empire.
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