The economics of used book sales

Matt G. asks me:

Twice a year the San Francisco Public Library holds a book-sale benefit at which it resells a warehouse’s worth of used books that have been donated. They advertise that +500,000 items are available. Not matter freaking what, every hardcover is $3 and every paperback is $2. The books are loosely organized into “fiction,” “history,” “essay,” etc but beyond that totally unsorted.
  1. Among fiction, which is the biggest section and my interest, I noticed an extreme preponderance of middle-tier literary authors. There was practically no James Patterson and Danielle Steele and similarly no DeLillo, no Pynchon, no Roth. But you could have filled a u-haul with any of, in particular, Gore Vidal, Annie Proulx, Tom Wolfe, and some others. Plus an absolutely disproportionate Herman Wouk showing. Why would these be the most donated books in San Francico?
  2. Say you had only an hour to spend at this sale but were ready to part with even a couple hundred dollars. How would you strategize sorting through everything, what kinds of things would you be hoping to walk away with? What if you had the same amount of time and $20?

I say the people who bought Pynchon tend to keep him, and the potential donations of the most popular authors are rejected by the library staff, on the grounds that they otherwise would be accepting too many copies and selling them at too low a price.  I, too, have seen plenty of Herman Wouk at Virginia sales, what is up with that? Do they simply not know they ought to reject his titles?

The way to do well at those sales is to arrive with a knowledge of which editions and translations of the classics are the worthwhile ones.  Otherwise, in this age of used copies available on Amazon, I don’t see why attending such sales should be worthwhile.  They can be good for atlases and picture books.  In the old days I used to scour used book sales for copies of Augustus Kelley editions of the economics history of thought classics, do they still turn up?


Maybe clients of these shops are people who read a lot. They probably have already read the books written by the most famous authors and won't buy them. They are interested in mid-tier books and happy to buy them used.

Patterson, Steele et al can be picked up for 25c in any charity store

You're right on the Amazon bit. I'm uninterested in the book vs. e-book debate simply because used books on Amazon are cheaper than anything else except library books.

The best place to do a book search is:

That site aggregates other book search sites including Amazon (but not eBay -- which is too bad because some of the best bargains are on eBay). I used to spend much of my free time visiting used bookstores, but I hardly ever do that anymore. Too much effort to find too few books -- good prices and far greater selection over the net.

"You’re right on the Amazon bit. I’m uninterested in the book vs. e-book debate simply because used books on Amazon are cheaper than anything else except library books. "

I like the storage options for e-books. They take up minimal shelf/luggage space.

A very famous economist once told me that as a teenager in a not-wealthy family he made money by selling encyclopedias. (Remember those?) There was a lower price for someone upgrading from an earlier edition, and the company demanded in this case that as proof that this was indeed an "upgrade" the salesperson was required to tear out a certain page and send it back to the company. So he used to scour the used book sales and garage sales for old encyclopedias in order to buy up the appropriate volume of old editions, so that he would have the option of offering a few wavering customers a discount.

In all fairness, it is possible that he also looked out for interesting books on economic history but that was not part of the story.

'I, too, have seen plenty of Herman Wouk at Virginia sales, what is up with that?'

Sometimes, the ivory tower is just too high to see all the people in the DC area who retired from the military in the last generation, isn't it? Admittedly, they are starting to die off.

I'm guessing the same applies to anyone unaware of just how important the military was in the Bay Area a generation ago, too.

I'd even venture to say that this is a testable observation - anyone from San Diego or Virginia Beach willing to comment on the prevalence of Herman Wouk's works at library book sales?

I regularly scan the second-hand book stalls and books often arrive in batches. One weekend there is a lot of holocaust history, the next weekend Dutch literature, then architecture books, theology etc. Often they're books that were popular in the 70's (like: Heinrich Böll). This supports the "personal book collection" hypothesis. Books move quickly from the 5-euro table to the 2-euro and 1-euro tables. I know that storage space is the major limiting factor for the book sellers. Probably even on-line sellers will try to sell books as quickly as they can. Except for real antiques, these are kept for special occasions (like national book fairs).

The dealer presence is huge. They're the ones buying piles of books at these sales, so the market must in some way cater to them. For example, the unsorted nature of the books doesn't matter to a dealer with a phone and scanned. They just look at the resale price and decide if they can make make money on it. Doesn't matter what it is.

I think they are book pickers. These are the people who scour book sales, Goodwill store donations, and the like. They in turn sell their books to used bookstores. At least they used to -- maybe nowdays they're selling on eBay.

I used to talk about the business with the old man at my favorite used bookstore, and I once asked him what was his best deal ever. He said it was the result of a fire. An insurance company had paid off the value of a large collection of books about butterflies and contacted him trying to salvage whatever value they could. He told me that one of the hardest things to burn is a book. Most of these books had dust jackets, so he could just remove the dust jacket and lay the books outside over the summer to get the smoky smell out. He found a collector in Europe who bought them.

The eBay picker phenomenon is very real. They love second-hand shops because everything is subject to the "one price fits all" scheme above - a brooks brothers shirt, and a walmart house brand shirt will both be marked at $3. Gresham's law?

Our local Goodwills used to do a clearance sale on books one Saturday a month. I would regularly see the pickers with their scanners, and step back to give them priority in the section I was browsing, as I know that they would blow through in seconds and move on to the next section. We never bought intentionally for profit, but we did find that once we read our Goodwill finds, we could usually sell them for more then we had paid.

They used to have something similar where I used to live in South Carolina. After the first couple of years, I noticed a propensity of people showing up an hour before opening, armed with smartphones (some that even had little barcode scanners). They would run through the hardcopies, scanning books quickly against some sort of database. My assumption is they would quickly assess the value of the books and pick up any that were worth over $10-20. I am sure that any who had collected a box full of these books happily went home to post the books on ebay or amazon for a healthy profit.

I've done extremely well buying 78s at library sales. I might just have been lucky though. If you have an interest in 1920s pulp, that's also a disproportionately good place to find it. Actually if you are interested in anything from the 1920s - a lot of out of print books that can be rather interesting.

Thinking about this further

My strategy:

1. Rush to the record section, good stuff sells fast, and you can find some unusually good things if you know what your'e looking for. Particularly if you're in Virginia, where there's a disproportionately large number of record collectors and good records. 78s tend to still be under-appreciated despite their musical quality/monetary value.
2. Check foreign language books, which tend to be under emphasized by shoppers, but also be the most likely place to find hard-to-find books.
3. Look for areas with poorly sorted magazines and pamphlets. Particularly if you're at an academic library sale or if there's generally an older pile of books around. You're most likely going to find worthless ephemera here, but might be a few things that make for good stories later.
4. Check old academic journals for names you recognize. Particularly foreign language ones (found an uncollected Andre Breton essay once).
5. Older books from the 1890s-1930s (found an early edition of "The Clansmen" once, though I wouldn't buy it on principle. Once saw an early edition of "The Bitter Tea of General Yen," but it had already been bought.)

I used to visit used book shops until I realized that the books I bought were not so interesting. I realized it when you get back home with 3 used books and only read 1 because there are other books more interesting. Books are relatively cheap, if you pay full price for them you can read precisely what you want instead of something it's midly interesting but you're happy to pay 70% for it.

In conclusion, used books with no possibility to make a catalog search is a waste of time. You end up buying books because they are cheap not because they are what you're looking for.

My strategy: I use the secondhand book-stalls as a serendipity generator. The randomness of the collection protects me from my personal selection bubble. I look for outliers and gradually have developed a filter ("search image") for outliers, although I couldn't write down the exact criteria. In this way I can discover books that I never though could exist. Note: Pointers to books/articles on serendipity and search strategies will be greatly appreciated!

And - from personal experience - I find it plausible that people browsing physical book-stalls could use a "Levy flight" algorithm. This would fit the "collections in batches" observation. - -

Agreed. These types of sales are a great way to diversify your reading. The cost of getting a book is much lower, which means you can be less selective. If you pick up something you don't like, that you hate after 20 pages, you aren't stuck with the large sunk cost of a major new book.I used to attend a similar sale run by a book publisher based on their excess stock - the best value was large glossy cookbooks. I could afford to buy a bunch, and if it proved to be a cuisine or writing style I didn't like, it would quickly get donated to a community library.

This used to be a particularly good way to find interesting science fiction. Provided the writing quality is acceptable, science fiction can actually improve with age, since different decades' preoccupations vary. There's a lot of stuff from the '70s that in retrospect was motivated by Club of Rome, Zero Population Growth, etc, that seemed original and thought provoking in the '90s.

Herman Wouk is no mystery. Wouk was in his prime from 1955 to 1978. The people who bought his books 40 years ago are now either dead or downsizing. The same is true with Vidal. His main career as a novelist was '73 to '84. The main supplier of used book sales are people either cleaning out their own attic or some relative's.

That sounds plausible. Actually, all the old books from the USA end up in the Philippines, where I buy them for about 50 cents USD. The thing is: they don't sort the books at all. You will get old copies of the Federal Register, which is obsolete, as well as "Your Guide To WIndows ME edition" (c) 1999. I have picked up a lot of good books however. In the tropics things tend to decay, but I have these books in a cool place.

PS - Don't Stop the Carnival - Herman Wouk is good at capturing the spirit of living in the tropics...oh, watch that lovely sunset and see the "Green Flash"!

There we go again. There's no reason Wouk's books shouldn't continue to be popular except for the fact that they're not "new", although literary styles change through the years. If Sinclair Lewis or Max Shulman or even F. Scott Fitzgerald and Hemingway popped up today they'd probably have a difficult time getting published. Sadly, there doesn't seem to be anyone carrying on the most distinctive American literary genre, the "Southern Gothic" of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, James Dickey and others. Their books probably attract little interest now.

I haven't read Jeff Vandermeer's stuff yet, but it sure sounds like he's something of a heir to the Southern Gothic tradition.

Yes. This trilogy has a southern "look and feel":

Annihilation is a great book (the other two not so much), but calling it an heir to Faulkner is supremely odd.

2: Browse aggressively, looking for obscure editions of stuff that strikes your fancy (i.e. things you'd never think to specifically look for online). I like odd cookbooks, atlases, seriously outdated historical nonfiction, genre sci-fi/fantasy, and the like, so I'd zero in on things like that. Make no effort to get anything valuable to anyone but you, and be aware that even among the stuff you buy you're looking for the one fantastically interesting item whose utility to you will cover all the other crap.

Then donate all the other crap for a tax break.

Used bookstores and used book sales: it's not about making sense. It's the thrill of the chase.

Also, the wonderful vanilla smell of the slowly volatilizing lignin in old paper.

..."....and the potential donations of the most popular authors are rejected by the library staff."

I am doubtful if time and effort are put in by the staff to reject stuff while accepting donations. . At most when sorting or putting for sale , there maybe rejections if there are too many of a particular kind.

If I could ban everyone with an ISBN scanner from library books sales, I would. Yeah, I know, efficient markets and all that, but they really clog up the lanes and aren't discriminating at all.

And everything is more expensive in SF, it seems. The library book sale here sells hardbacks for $1 and paperbacks for $0.50.

Enjoy it while it lasts. Houston used to be like that too. Unfortunately, every month it seems like more and more of the thrift stores etc move to the 3-2-1 pricing model.

The Seattle Public Library just announced their upcoming sale in May, and said "no scanners" for the preview night. I doubt that will keep the cellphone-scanners out, but at least it's a start.

As a non-practicing librarian I'd say the most likely cause is the bulk of large donations is people dieing or moving into a smaller abode by family members. That would explain a large part of why you don't see a lot of contemporary pulp. Additionally a lot of newer books are paper backs and not necessarily in great shape and are culled the moment they're donated. Librarians generally have to come to terms with destroying books and culling collections pretty quickly you run out of space fast and you can't get upset about every copy of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that comes in with a torn cover.

I'm almost exclusively a reader of non-fiction. I enjoy library sales because I can get old books that I just can't find anywhere else. In other words, there are books whose existence I don't know about but that I would be interested in, which I find out about because they are on the table at a library sale.

I don't think I can really search Amazon's used books in the same way. And I don't think that every obscure old non-fiction book you can find at a library sale is also available on Amazon.

You'd probably be better off at a large used bookstore. Totally unsorted stuff donated by the general public is low-grade ore. Once it's on the shelf at a used bookstore, it's been through one or two levels of screening. And, it will be sorted by category, so if you find your favorite category you're likely to find books you didn't know exist and you're likely to find adjacent categories that you'll also enjoy.

True, but used bookstores are more expensive; you're basically paying for that screening (which can be valuable, of course).

For sure, I love used bookstores too. And many of them have a $1 or $2 shelf.

I'm not concerned about price at $1 or $2. The space in my book collection is more valuable than that. What I used to do when entering a large used bookstore for the first time was go to the front desk, explain I was probably going to buy over $100 of books that day, but I'd buy more if I got a discount. If they said just bring the books to the front desk and we'll talk about it, I'd say it'll make a difference how many books I want if I know what kind of discount I'll get. I'd usually get like 30% off. They'd clear off a space on the counter so I could bring out the stacks of books I was buying. Then, I'd have to make multiple trips back to the car to get them all in there. It was a good feeling driving home with a car full of books. I haven't done that in ages, and now the space they consume is the bigger problem. For quite some time, I've been more focussed on getting rid of the junk I've accumulated. One bookseller told me that two of the categories I was buying were the slowest moving books -- linguistics and education.

My impression is that is the cheapest...most books (that aren't released in the last few years) can be purchased for $3.99 (shipping included). I'm curious if this has been the experience of other MR readers; I've never used amazon used books.

At library sales my best finds have been nice versions of the classics (early 1900s versions ofGibbon, some Loeb editions), atlases, or 'special interest' books that are never cheap on thriftbooks (tintin, still current textbooks).

I use, which scans sites like Thrift Books.

I am suspicious of used books. How do we know people have not read them in the bathroom? We do not. Therefore I only handle used books when I am drunk.

I frequent Powell's Books in Hyde Park near the University of Chicago. I've probably been in there 30 times in the last three years and I've never come across two titles: Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited or David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. But there are certain titles they seem to be able to replenish from their stock with regularity. (I know because I've bought a few that always seem to reappear: McCarthy's Border Trilogy, Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop, the two volume edition of Updike's Rabbit series and Waugh's Sword of Honor trilogy.) It's very interesting.

Similar observation: In secondhand bookshops you can find most publications by 19th century author Robert Hichens except "The green carnation". That one is exceptionally rare. (As observed in a 1986 book on "forgotten books" by Dutch author Gerrit Komrij.) - But a search on disproves this observation: 299 carnations out of of 879 hichens.

I have a strong preference for . With regard to Brideshead Revisited, here is a good example of why:

You can probably pick up lots of Bibles; just don't try looking for them under "fiction."

my parents are from the bay area and had a lot of those mid-tier books because they used to belong to book-of-the-month clubs which would push those kind of titles. people of their generation might be downsizing homes and reading marie kondo and donating them.

I too am a fan of the Augustus Kelley reprints and, yes, they do still turn up at library book sales (college and university libraries hold these sales as well; that's where I usually find them).

We have these types of sales twice a year where I work. These are books in new condition that our reviewers received from publishers. I only by nonfiction and I typically buy books that I didn't think worth the price on Amazon, but for $1 or $2, they're a good buy. The proceeds go to the local library foundation.

Markets work.

1. Librarians get the first pick, so what you see is what was originally available.

2. There are bar code apps linked to databases which tell a shopper what the market price is for a book. I've seen persons scan books, and asked one person how much he made: $200 on a good day.

correction: what you see is not what was originally available.

the sales are superb for subjects that once were popular and no longer are -- e.g. Greek and Latin.

Hi Tyler (and Matt G)!

Really love this question and comment thread. Thank you for posting! I work for the organization that puts on these annual Big Book Sales! We are Friends of the San Francisco Public Library. The San Francisco Public Library does not hold these sales. It's an important distinction because we are a nonprofit that supports & advocates for the Library and proceeds from our sales & our bookstores support the Library. The more people know about and support Friends, the more funds we can raise for the Library.

But YES: twice a year we sell hundreds of thousands of books & media and nothing is over $3 (most items are under). On the last day of the sale all items are only $1. Shameless plug (besides that one): the next Big Book Sale is just around the corner! The 6th Annual Spring Big Book Sale is happening March 30 - April 6 at the Festival Pavilion in Fort Mason Center, San Francisco from 10 am - 6pm. For those of you who already make the case for coming to the sale: mark your calendars!

For everyone else (and to Tyler's "in the age of Amazon I don't know why these sales would be worthwhile"):

Here's the biggest and the best reason why these sales are worthwhile: with every $ you spend at this sale you are supporting literacy, strengthening community, upholding free & equal access to information and helping to bridge digital divides. And you want to live in a city that is literate, community driven, and whose every population has access to information and technology, yeah? Well, you are absolutely not doing that by spending your $3 at Amazon.

You know what else isn't happening while you're at your computer making a purchase that supports a company that supports the shut down of brick-and-mortar? Enjoying one of the best parts of book buying: the browsing experience. The true, unique, treasure-hunting joy of discovery what happens when you browse the shelves of a bookstore or, in this case, walk the rows upon rows of tables filled with books (over 75 categories!). Sure, if you're looking for just that one book and for the cheapest price possible, Amazon might be your best frenemie. (Hot tip: San Francisco has some of the best local & independent bookstores in the nation. You want to live in a city with great bookstores right? Go check them out. Also: the library. It's FREE.) But if you happen to enjoy the feeling of finding an item you had forgotten you were once interested in (for yourself, for your partner, for your neighbors!) or an item that looks wacky, weird or wanted.... if you enjoy the feeling you get when you run into a friend or someone you haven't seen in a while and you can compare shopping carts and maybe trade tips... if you enjoy your books with the view of the Golden Gate Bridge (COME ON) with the view of hundreds of other people who enjoy the view of books (you're not alone! these people exist!) if you like how it feels to leave your desk, your computer, to look up from a hand-held device then, well: you and I have made the case.

Come on down, the book buying is fine.

(ps: yup we get scanners at the sale. and bookstore owners. and teachers, and librarians, and students, and people planning a wedding who want to use books only for display purposes and couples who are on their first tinder date looking for something esoteric to do on a Saturday and hoarders who have discovered another nook in a corner of their cramped apartment they want to fill with even more unread books and record collectors and cookbook enthusiasts and people who speak Chinese, Spanish and Russian - yes, we have foreign language sections! - and tourists and mothers and fathers and on and on. We get everybody.)

Join us.

* Correction: The 6th Annual Spring Big Book Sale runs March 30 - April 3, not through April 6th. Alas.

If you'd like to view more information about the sale & Friends of SFPL check out our website:

The proportions are perfectly explained if you realize that a substantial proportion of the supply is stuff that belonged to the donors' parents or grandparents.

Herman Wouk is evidence #1, even more than Gore Vidal

Now of course both are underrated...

A friend of mine who ran a used bookstore told me that some libraries have deals where they let some used book dealers get preferential access to the donated books prior to selling them to the public. There's apparently software that runs on your mobile phone that allows you to quickly scan the ISBN and reports what the items sell for used on Amazon allowing them to cherry pick the valuable books with little effort.

I've had a couple of Pynchon books for years, but I haven't read them. I keep thinking I'll get around to them. If not for that I would've donated them long ago.

So maybe Pynchon and others of his tier are not donated because all the people who own them are avoiding reading them. Meanwhile they race through James Patterson and Tom Wolfe.

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