Arbitrage

by on October 22, 2010 at 5:27 am in Books, Economics | Permalink

I make a living buying and selling used books. I browse the racks of thrift stores and library book sales using an electronic bar-code scanner. I push the button, a red laser hops about, and an LCD screen lights up with the resale values. It feels like being God in his own tiny recreational casino; my judgments are sure and simple, and I always win because I have foreknowledge of all bad bets. The software I use tells me the going price, on Amazon Marketplace, of the title I just scanned, along with the all-important sales rank, so I know the book's prospects immediately. I turn a profit every time.

Sometimes the guy spends eighty hours a week in used book stores, and if you are an author think of this as your competition.  For the pointer I thank Andy Howard and the full story is here

Along related lines, Adam Ozimek thinks that "Brain Mounted Computers are a Dominant Strategy Equilibrium."

1 BC October 22, 2010 at 2:56 am

A bunch of snobbish people are making this guy feel guilty, I don't see what's wrong with it. The books he are scanning are for sale, he is buying the books, what's the problem? You would think the book dealers would do some scanning themselves and set the price accordingly.

2 Chip Hessenflow October 22, 2010 at 3:30 am

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/08/sports/08otb.ht… I can't help but think of this story… The guy making a living picking up discarded track bets.

3 David October 22, 2010 at 4:09 am

Its amazing how many people do this at yard sales.

4 Bob Knaus October 22, 2010 at 4:38 am

Eric – the used marketplace is always a competitor to the new marketplace, whether we are talking books, autos, or operating systems.

The author would prefer everyone to buy a new book and throw it away when they are done. The used bookseller competes against this preference.

5 Andrew October 22, 2010 at 4:42 am

Eric, I'll take a shot. People don't always decide they want Book A and then go get Book A. If you gave me the choice between the Library of Congress for free or paying for the new Harry Potter book I might go with the free option. And that's a bad example because Harry Potter has a lot of network effect. I think Tyler is saying that for the more generic new book, the arbitrageurs bring the world closer to that example.

6 Mathew Toll October 22, 2010 at 5:05 am

Sounds like a wonderful idea.

7 Andrew October 22, 2010 at 5:09 am

80 hours a week in book stores, though. If I'm a writer, I'm not too worried. If he were so disposed, I think his time might be better spent reading and reviewing some of the cheaper books.

But, then he might be accused of 'talking his book.'

8 Bill October 22, 2010 at 5:53 am

The question should be: why don't libraries scan the books themselves and set the correct market price, or go online and their sell books. In other words, why is the market imperfect. Is it because library staff doesn't share the interests of the institution, are not rewarded for this effort, or that the cost of doing this internally is higher than having an independent agent do this. Or sloth.

9 anonymous October 22, 2010 at 6:02 am

Adam Ozimek was doing OK (though belaboring the obvious) until near the end.

"All of accounting will take a week to learn." ? Only in the same way that memorizing the Oxford English Dictionary will make you a best-selling author. Knowledge of disconnected factoids will help you win Jeopardy or do crossword puzzles, but learning to synthesize and apply what you know is another thing altogether.

His argument about memory loss is equally silly. It was probably first trotted out when writing was invented, liberating people from the necessity of committing epic poems and sacred writings to memory.

10 Dan Weber October 22, 2010 at 6:09 am

Two computer-brain-mounted arbitragers are walking down the street. One sees a copy of Richie Rich #1 lying in the street and bends over to pick it up.

"Don't bother," says the other computer-brain-mounted arbitrager. "A real copy of Richie Rich #1 would have been picked up long ago. Syntax error. Kill all humans."

11 MW October 22, 2010 at 6:30 am

"you are an author think of this as your competition."

Competition or distribution system? The movie studios used to think the movie rental business limited sales of video tapes … until the evidence piled up otherwise.

12 Finch October 22, 2010 at 6:53 am

I know two people who do this. My understanding is that it's really low pay per unit time, but it's easy, and it appeals to people who might be hanging around used-book stores anyway.

In the article, he says he's up to 30 books a day. $10 a book is optimistic. That's a little under $20 an hour for his 16 hour days. No accounting for the need to store and finance his inventory of 1000 books. And the article gives the impression that this guy is relatively good at it.

He should hire cheap labor, not do this himself.

13 Rahul October 22, 2010 at 7:19 am

Does anyone else see a similarity between this guy and the high-frequency traders? Aren't they extracting value by exploiting an arbitrage that is inaccessible to others due to a lack of technology? Both areas are new technology and highly in flux. Both areas are the domain of nerdy tech type. And the snobs of yesteryear look down upon them because they feel it is some sort of underhand profession.

Too bad the bookseller is making $1000 / week whereas the high-frequency trader makes maybe, $10,000 /week.

14 Seth October 22, 2010 at 8:11 am

"I turn a profit every time."

Accounting or economic?

15 Condor October 22, 2010 at 8:30 am

The man's opportunity cost must be really low if he's resorting to this as a serious living. Around 80 hours a week sounds a bit suspect, how long until he runs out of scrap books to flip? Wish him luck though

16 MW October 22, 2010 at 9:04 am

"But you have people like the Harry Potter woman (forget her name), who says her books will NEVER be made available in electronic format."

But J.K. Rowling did make them available in electronic format. Moving pictures and all that.

17 Ryan Vann October 22, 2010 at 9:41 am

John P,

You mean like how musicians loved Napster?

Anyway, my advice to future authors: get sponsors and do up your covers like a Nascar. Steven Colbert is already ahead of many of you.

18 Scott Burger October 22, 2010 at 10:37 am

I bought used books and sold them on eBay in the nineties. It helped me save money for a house while working for small wages at my night printing job. I saw some people go into it full time and had warehouses for books and paid people to list for them.

Eventually the market on eBay got really tight and I was not making as much money as I used to. Plus my regular job wages went up as it evolved into a daytime IT job. So, I stopped being a part time book reseller. What's next?

19 mulp October 22, 2010 at 12:57 pm

you are an author think of this as your competition

I didn't get a chance to respond on the "expecting too much" post a few days ago, but the above statement by Tyler strikes me as classic in the difference between Tyler's "expecting too much" and my "high expectations".

Given the millions of authors with a high fraction of them somehow saved from the trash bin of history, like Melville, for example, one of many authors who were commercial failures, but artistic successes of huge measure, the high standards of competition for authors is baked in, my expectation is an author writes for a combination of personal need and drive, and the drive to inform or affect or entertain anonymous readers, with the greatest authors unmotivated by monetary gain.

The number of authors who were both successful as authors as well as financially successful is small.

I interpret Tyler's view of authors as laborers who crank out words and books only for money, so anyone who increases the supply and diversity of books in the market place is only driving down the price of words and books. Tyler's expectation of authors is they merely quest for money.

20 Daran October 24, 2010 at 2:21 am

"I turn a profit every time."

Accounting or economic?

Social? Doing your own thing instead of flipping burgers?

21 One October 26, 2010 at 4:08 am

Books? Oh, you mean those things made out of paper…

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