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Need cash? Check your bookshelves

Online booksellers are buying. You won't earn a fortune, but at least you won't have to pay for postage.

By Donna_Freedman Feb 26, 2010 2:15PM
Once I'd finally finished my undergraduate degree last December, I started eyeballing the stacks of books I'd bought for my university classes. Some I wanted to keep. Most I wanted to kiss goodbye.

Could I really find a buyer for titles as specialized as "Creating G.I. Jane: Sexuality and Power in the Women's Army Corps During World War II," "Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace" or "Female Spectacle: The Theatrical Roots of Modern Feminism"?

Yep. I sold 32 books, both fiction and nonfiction, to three different online booksellers. Since that's where I'd bought almost all of my required books, in order to beat the high cost of textbooks, it seemed appropriate to get rid of them that way, too.

You probably won't get rich with casual sales like these. But it's a simple process that could result in some extra cash. Or you could use your earnings to peck away at debt or to jump-start an emergency fund.

My total earnings were $112.28, or an average of about $3.50 per title. The buyers paid the postage. Best price: $18.44 for "Ain't No Makin' It," a book I'd picked up for $1 at the university's lost-and-found sale. Lowest price: 25 cents for Alice Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy," a paperback that had been on the shelf for quite a while.
Start with a search for "sell books online" and start typing in ISBN numbers at the sites that pop up. Once you accept an offer, you'll be e-mailed a postage-paid label and instructions on packing. Follow these instructions because your books will be worth less if they're damaged in transit.
A few other tips for would-be sellers:
  • Both classic and more contemporary books may be salable. I jettisoned chestnuts like "Ethan Frome," "Orlando" and "Winesburg, Ohio" along with titles by Walker and Buchi Emecheta.
  • Run ISBNs through more than one seller, since there's no predicting what companies will or won't buy -- or how much they'll pay. I noticed differences of up to $2.
  • Make a list of those ISBNs on your computer, so you won't have to type the same numbers over and over.
  • If you get a surprisingly high payment for a title (see "Ain't No Makin' It" above), consider looking for copies at thrift stores. Hey, if you're there browsing anyway, or waiting for someone who is ....
  • Some sellers use the U.S. Postal Service and others use private carriers. (I was lucky since there's a UPS store within easy walking distance of my place.) You have to provide the box, but a prepaid label means you can just drop off the package -- no waiting in line.
  • Don't bother misrepresenting a book's condition. It'll get inspected before any payment is made and the offer downgraded if you think "like new" means "lots of yellow highlighting and that cute girl's phone number scribbled on the back cover."

An unexpected bonus of this bookselling experiment: After I pulled a lot of titles off the shelves, I decided to keep them off. It's not that they weren't good books, it's that I'm trying to de-clutter. Since then I've given some books away and am donating the rest to Superfluity, my church's delightfully named rummage sale.

Wish I'd remembered that de-cluttering vow yesterday, though. While visiting the University of Washington campus, I chanced on -- you guessed it -- a used-book sale. Two dollars for all the books you could fit into a shopping bag. I walked out with 13 new titles. Well, they're new to me.

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