E-books aren’t the only book-related revolution ushered in by the Internet. On Slate, Michael Savitz writes about his profession as a PDA-assisted used book reseller on Amazon Marketplace—and an interesting profession it is, too.
Savitz spends as much as 80 hours a week haunting used bookstores, library sales, and other sources of second-hand books. He takes along an old Dell PDA with a bar code scanner (like the one pictured plugged into an iPAQ at left) plugged into it, with software that immediately tells him the going rate on the Amazon marketplace for any title he scans. He spends his time scanning book after book, sorting out and buying the ones that are in demand, then listing them on Amazon Marketplace. He uses an obsolete PDA for the purpose because with its online database, it is much faster than smartphone apps that have to look to the web.
The article is sprinkled with a lot of little details and tricks of the trade, and it sounds like an interesting way to earn a living. Savitz claims it is possible for someone working alone to make $1,000 a week this way, and someone insanely dedicated (or with helpers) could make more. Of course, this relies on beating out the competition who are looking to do the same thing, and also requires venues that do not forbid use of electronic devices.
One interesting thing is that, despite the thrill he describes in finding a resalable book, Savitz seems to feel about the job about the same way that A.J. Raffles felt about his life of crime. He writes:
If it’s possible to make a decent living selling books online, then why does it feel so shameful to do this work? I’m not the only one who feels this way; I see it in the mien of my fellow scanners as they whip out their PDAs next to the politely browsing normal customers. The sense that this is a dishonorable profession is confirmed by library book sales that tag their advertisements with "No electronic devices allowed," though making this rule probably isn’t in the libraries’ financial interest. People scanning books sometimes get kicked out of thrift stores and retail shops as well, though this hasn’t happened to me yet.
He writes that he’s not alone in that feeling, either; the colleague/competitors he meets at sales seem to feel the same way—especially when people who actually want to buy books to read are around. Guilty conscience over using tools to give them an edge in picking out the “good stuff”? The reason isn’t entirely clear, even to Savitz himself. Probably the open disdain that some other sale browsers seem to feel for the PDA-users when they encounter them does not help.
But for me, the most interesting thing about this article is not anything in it, but that this profession even exists at all. I had never thought about how all those used books wind up on Amazon before, but I get the sense from Savitz’s piece that it’s not an uncommon thing at all for PDA-toting Amazon marketeers to haunt used bookshops and sales, extracting their middleman value from used book arbitrage.
Just think, fifteen years ago nobody was able to do this. There might have been used book sellers online, but there weren’t any with the expertise or tools to pluck out the diamonds from the rough, throwing up just those titles that they could know for a fact were in demand by the market gestalt. Now there are people who can make a decent living that way.
Of course, this still doesn’t earn the authors or publishers any additional money, and publishing types are incensed enough over just plain used book sales as it is—let alone sales that specifically target people buying from Amazon. But thanks to the first sale doctrine, used sales of physical items are a fact of life, and that’s not going away. And neither, I suspect, are these PDA-toting book-pluckers.
(Found via Slashdot.)