The Harsh Reality of Amazon

[Editor’s Note: Here is an email from one of our readers concerning selling books on Amazon and how lower cost items can be very difficult to make a margin on. We completely agree and now very rarely sell anything worth less than $20.00.]

After reading the entry on how to open a bookshop that is sure to fail, for which I really appreciate the candor of Bruce Hollingdrake, I wanted to add this comment. I have been reselling my books on Amazon for about a year, and in that time have realized that at such a small volume, the amount of profit one makes from each sale is hardly worth the effort. One has to price the book realistically, but often someone has already low-balled the price: do you try to compete with a giant used bookshop or hope that your personalized description and the fact that the book is in really good shape will outweigh the lower price elsewhere? Recently I sold a book for a total profit of @1.04 after postage and handling (and that didn’t include my using the car to go to the post office to mail it). The most I ever made on a book after all costs to sell it was about five bucks. I decided, that was the last time I’ll resell online unless it is a collectible, and even then I’d rather use craigslist. Why bother? From now on, I’ll either take the books to one of the few used bookshops left in Vancouver, or donate them to a library or seniors home or school.

Michael Cox

Graduate Liberal Studies,
Simon Fraser University

Editor, Coastline Journal

13 thoughts on “The Harsh Reality of Amazon”

  1. Absolute, Amazon isn’t for everyone. Depends what kind of inventory you have and what kind of time you’re willing to put into the process. I only sell online. I don’t have a bookstore. Most of the books I sell are older used books of all genres. For me, eBay and Craigslist are NOT the venue that makes the most sense, unless I’m selling a bulk lot of one specific niche interest and think I can generate some interest/bidding wars.

    When I started selling on Amazon, my cutoff was that I wouldn’t price anything under $2, because I wouldn’t make any money on it. For a long time, I had about 80-120 items on sale on Amazon, and my sale would range from $2 books to $30 books, though certainly skewing to the lower end of that.

    I had worked aggressively the last 18 months to acquire quality used books cheaply and build up my online inventory on Amazon. I admit that, in my mind (it’s an art, not a science), I have raised up the idea of my preferred minimum price to list a book on Amazon. It’s probably closer to $4 now as the minimum price to make it worthwhile to list a book. Still, that leaves with a good number of sales where I might only net $1-3 dollars after all the fees/mailing/etc. My thought is that I don’t mind those low-end sales because — 1. a bunch of them can add up in the long run, 2. I’m already going to the post office three times a week anyway, 3. it helps build up good feedback for my amazon profile

    That said, I only think it makes sense to make a go of it on Amazon if your books fall into categories in which there are fewer copies available and the prices are good. I can make out really well selling 1950s through 1970s non-fiction in certain genres on Amazon, with a lot of sales in the $15 to $30 range. I’m getting those niche books in front of the widest audience possible and I think those books, frankly, are going to sell much more quickly online than they would in a used bookstore, where you have to wait for someone with JUST the right interests to come across that book and have the inclination to buy it.

    So is Amazon for everyone? No. I would not try to make a living selling Tom Clancy, Goosebumps and romance paperbacks on Amazon. But with kind of product I can get cheaply in my area, Amazon is the best option for me.

    • Chris,

      I commend you on your well thought out processes in selling on Amazon. It seems to be really working for you. Good luck to you in future decisions in your business. In 2008/09 I was selling well on Amazon in the UK, I specialised in Theology and Religion and had a good source to acquire these types of books very cheaply. When scouting for books I would generally rely on my instinct – I stayed well clear of certain genres within my specialised subject (ie inspirational and self help books) and kept to what I considered the classics or what generally interested me. This seemed to work for me and I managed to ilk out a nice little secondary income for myself. In 2009 I moved back to Canada and initially thought I would do the same and opened a seller account on In Canada my Amazon selling hasn’t really worked out for me – one of the main reasons for this is the postage costs here are less competitive than they were in the UK and Canada Post simply cannot compete with the subsidised pricing of the US Postal service. Hence you have your back against the wall before you even start selling. I no longer sell books on Amazon and I am currently accumulating stock with the view to sell from a flea-market type store.

  2. This is completely true, I have an author as a neighbor and everytime he sells on amazon it’s a hassle. His account is messed up, he never knows where he is selling. He doesn’t need to know who he is selling to, but it would be nice to say I sold x amount in the midwest or CA, NY or MN, TX, at least then you can see how far your readership stretches. Besides that, the cut amazon takes for really doing nothing, isn’t worth it, you might as well sell it yourself on your own site or somewhere else.

    Amazon is like vzw, big, no customer service and survive because people won’t challenge the status of them.

    • Do you sell on Amazon? It sounds like you don’t. It has its issues but customer service isn’t one of them. You can talk to a person on the phone in about 30 seconds. I have never been in queue waiting to talk to someone.

  3. Addendum (knew I’d forget something): I now have 900 items listed on Amazon and about 5,000 books that I’m steadily working my way through, to see what makes sense to list online. I’m at the point where I make about $400/month off Amazon sales, though that keeps creeping slowly upward and I’m please to say I just did $725 in sales in January. … And, yes, I’m at the point where I’m starting to wonder when I’ll reach the point where it makes sense to starting thinking about small-scale brick-and-mortar operation: a stand at a flea or antique market or something like that, to get my foot in the door. But that would be a big step and I’m not sure if it will ever come.

  4. There are many different types of booksellers in this world. Some have owned bookstores for many years, love the smell of old, rare books and indulge in their literary mystery. They simply love collectible books in general. These booksellers are slowly vanishing into the ether because they’ve realized that 1. they have a very limited market to sell to and 2. they typically charge too much because they believe their books are worth more than they think.

    Another type of bookseller is the bookstore owner that is a little more open to change and to where the future is going in technology. This bookstore owner supplements some of his slow sales in his brick and mortar store with online sales and has begun to really learn the differences in the online vs. offline market.

    You then have booksellers that have never had a store and don’t know anything there is to know about selling books. They simply know a little about the online world and know that you can sell books on eBay and Amazon and decide to give it a shot to make a few hundred bucks off of textbooks.

    After you account for these type of booksellers you then have individuals or whole families starting an actual business selling books online. They don’t know much at all about the bookselling world but they’ve chosen to learn as much as they can and to start buying used books for resale wherever they can find them around their home. They will typically do this if a member of the family lost their job or they’re simply wanting some extra monthly income to purchase things that they couldn’t on a regular salary. These types of online booksellers might make a few hundred or thousand a month selling niche books with high sales ranks but manage to sell enough to make a pretty decent income.

    Finally, you’ve got the mega sellers selling books by the pallet. These sellers are selling best seller books for a penny, get hundreds of thousands of remainder for nothing and then turn around to sell them for nothing on Amazon. Mega sellers are hated by the small guys that can’t find a way to compete.

    What does all of this have to do with selling on Amazon? Each of these types of sellers besides the old school book guys are trying to make a buck on Amazon and do it in completely different ways and have completely different business models to do it with. Would you rather deal in commodity books and make less per order but more sales or would you rather deal in typically older, non-fiction, niche books with sales ranks approaching 1-2 million+ with slower sales?

    Every Amazon seller is a little different but each one, if they want to make a business out of this, needs to decide how they’re going to compete. The online world is a very competitive and dynamic atmosphere. If enough thought is put into the business and the seller is willing to turn on a dime when the market say so, this will make the seller a much knowledgeable and RICH seller when it’s all said and done.

    I’ve been selling on Amazon for 2 years now and made more in my part-time business doing this than I did in the full year in my full-time job as an IT consultant. It can be a very lucrative business but you have to have the desire to learn, patience, a flexible attitude and lots of hard work. It pays off.

    I was a little off topic on this comment but close. 🙂 I just had to comment and speak my peace because I believe while running my blog at I’ve seen just about every different seller you could think of.

    – Adam

  5. One trick that does work for amazon is bundling light books together. (kids books particularly) Bundling 3 chapter books together from the same series and shipping them as a single item seems to entice people to pay a little more for them than they’d pay for the books individually since they’re all coming from the same place. Just make sure the bundled weight stays below the average weight for reimbursement. The customer pays a higher upfront price, pays less in shipping. You get less in gross sales, but get more as net since its run as a single transaction, not 3 separate ones.

    I don’t bother with books on Amazon that are going for pennies due to the margins. If I’ve got things that are only going to net a $.50 to $1 in profit per book I bundle them in lots on ebay. The per book price might be a little lower than Amazon at the end, but it’s DONE. I got rid of 20 $.50 books in a single go, one listing, one package, one trip. I can go focus my time and effort on other more valuable items. And trims my backstock of things before it takes over the world. I can better spend my time doing a more detailed description of the $200 item. Better use of my time.

    • Nora,

      How do you sell bundles of books on Amazon? It was my understanding that you’re only allowed to sell full products such as one book or an entire set of books.

      • We basically sort through our stock and figure out what is a set that’s just lost the box. It’s pretty common with kids books for the slipcover to get destroyed or not get turned in with the books. Until you look at them closely you may not realize there’s a box set minus box in the pile.

        Kids books are really inconsistent in how many books are IN a box set. I’ve seen sets ranging from 3 to 12 books. Sometimes they’re issued in multiple versions with different numbers some of which are in print, some of which are not. So look up sets on Amazon and see what sets were issued. Then consult your pile and see if you have the relevant titles/numbers. Then you can check the publication data and it’ll often turn out you have a whole set with no box. Then list it as set missing the box.

        Just make sure to list there’s no box!

    • Creating your own bundle of books is a good way to have your account suspended if Amazon notices or someone else reports you. You can only sell “bundles” of books if they were bundled that way by the publisher.

      Just because you can create your own page for items doesn’t mean you should.

      • No custom pages are required for Amazon. We get in a lot of kids books that were originally sold as box sets but they’re turned in without the box. Kids destroy the boxes pretty frequently. When the pile gets too big for a certain kids author, we do a little sleuthing to sort out a full box set out of the random pile. Double check they’re all from the same box set and same printing of the set and list as set without the slipcover.

        It requires a little more research than just putting them in one by one, but evens out to less labor than packing and shipping each individually.

        Bundles that aren’t full sets we usually only list on ebay or own website, since we can’t find an item match with Amazon.

  6. There is a difference between belling a bookseller, a seller of books, and a business person. While it is easy to be one of the first two, most people are decidedly not the latter. Your situation is a reflection of that.

    There is an old business adage: You make your money when you buy, not when you sell. If you consider your profits too low, you only have two choices: buy books cheaper and reduce expenses, or raise prices. Complaining about a competitor with low prices doesn’t make you money. Emulating a successful business is a far better way to learn to compete in a competitive marketplace and a much better use of ones time.

    I’d highly recommend Amazon’s seller discussion boards for valuable advice from seasoned and successful sellers. There are sellers who post in the forums who are clueless, trolls, or simply generally negative people. Ignore them.

    Save whine for cheese.

    • My post was not a whine, it was a cautionary tale. I am not a business person nor am I running a business selling books. I have the odd book I want to sell; I tried selling on Amazon; it wasn’t worth the small income. End of story. I fail to see how I can make money buying…but then, I”m not a bookseller…nor am I a troll.

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