iPAQ 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.)


  1. I don’t stand there and look up prices when poring over the local public library’s sale table — I just grab anything that looks like a good bet. David Ely’s SECONDS cost me fifty cents and I sold it for ten or fifteen dollars; one of Octavia Estelle Butler’s early novels also cost me fifty cents and brought me about $85 after Amazon took its cut. Over the past couple of years I’ve turned a decent profit from the library sale table, though not enough to earn a living — I’m not inclined to spend all my time at garage sales and flea markets, so I’m strictly a nickel-and-dimer. Some of the stuff I grab with a mind to resell winds up back on the tables if it doesn’t go in a few months.

    So why do I feel guilty profiting like that? Because the library could do the same thing and use the money for books and services. But I’m not forcing the library to ax so many titles, so as long as they’re putting the stuff out there for fifty cents a pop, I’ll keep at it.

    Bests to all,


  2. Anyone who would even think of trying to sit still long enough to scan a book would not last long at my local library’s sales…

    Sales run 3-4 times a year, and the line stretches all the way to the front door. Anyone who sits still too long after the doors open risks being trampled.

  3. I think this is a great service! I buy physical books almost exclusively from the Amazon Marketplace. People like the author of the article do the dirty work for me, scanning and shopping for books to offer for resale so that I don’t have to. I don’t have the time to spend that kind of time and time is money.

    Our library booksale is coming up next weekend, they have it twice a year. They offer exclusive access for members the night before when electronic devices aren’t allowed. Everything is fair game after that with the remainder sold for $5/box/bag on Sunday.

    Jean K, if you read the article, you’ll learn that scanning only takes a couple of second and provides a green light or red light for the buy. The user is not “sitting still”.

    I don’t see the reason for anyone feeling guilty. The technology isn’t a secret and is available to libraries if they want to use it. If they don’t, everyone else benefits, the seller for making a bit of money, the eventual buyer for getting a book from Amazon at a good price. That’s how the free market works.

  4. I’m with Jean on this one. For some years now the book baskets at yard sales and estate sales have been emptied within an hour or so of opening. Library book sales–that used to last 2-3 days–are down ot half a day, just due to the number of folks buying multple books, grabbing titles based soely on whether or not the cover looks interesting. The article writers needs all the help he can get, but there may not be a great deal of room for others in that particular market.

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