Why sell to half-price books?

Laura and I unpacked all our books yesterday and realized that we have a shelf-space crisis in our new house, so we decide to try selling some to Half-Price Books. We picked out three boxes of books, probably around 40 books total (though maybe more, I didn’t count). The were mostly hardbound, and many fairly technical, which according to HPB’s FAQ are the kind of books that fetch the most. We carted them down to the Bellevue HPB location, and I waited 30-40 minutes for their buyer to assess the haul. The final offer? Twelve dollars. That comes out to something like 30c per book.

Now, I’m a big believer in the free market, especially for things like this, so I can’t criticize HPB for trying to pay as little as possible for their inventory. What I can’t figure out is this: Why would anyone would ever bother to sell them books in the first place? The HPB is located about 4 miles from my house, and gas here is $4.40 per gallon, so just the cost of driving there ate up about $1 of my gross. Counting driving and waiting, the trip took about an hour. I specially selected books that I thought had a chance of being valuable, rather than just grabbing the many tatttered pulp paperbacks in my library, that probably added an extra hour to the process. If I value my time at Washington’s minimum wage of $8/hour, the whole trip was a net loss for me. I would have been better off just taking the oldest and most tattered books from my library and throwing them away. It would have gained me just as much shelf space with far less time and hassle.

I can’t figure out how selling to HPB ever comes out to a rational thing to do.  If you have a few high-value books (e.g. first editions or collectors editions) HPB will probably offer more than I got, but you’d still be better off selling them individually as an Amazon seller.  If you have just the average haul of old books, HPB will offer you peanuts.  I get a sense that a lot of their customers buy books there, read them, and then sell them back. If the books they buy are high-value, then maybe the fetch more on resale, but it’s still a net loss for the consumer. That’s certainly a nice deal for HPB, getting to resell the same book over and over, profiting each time. But for the reader, it seems like it would be far more economical to just use a library. At least I have the satisfaction of not having recycled any of the $12 back into HPB’s till. I just took the cash and left.

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5 Responses to “Why sell to half-price books?”

  1. Mike Says:

    While it’s great to buy things at HPB, don’t go there with any expectations of actually getting any reasonable amount of money out of selling your used books to them. The phrase “financial anal-raping” comes to sums up what they’ll offer you.

  2. Jaime Frontero Says:

    Alas, you don’t understand.

    Here’s what happens to 100 books sold to Half Price Books – or, really, any successful used bookstore:

    30 go into recycling immediately.
    5 more are recycled as the person pricing them notices flaws that will disqualify them from the shelves.
    65 are priced.
    30 of those are put into the clearance section by the section-worker.
    of the 35 that get to the shelves, 15 sell, and – after 4-6 months – the other 20 go to the clearance section for 1-2 dollars each.
    of those 20, 6 or 7 will sell and the rest are recycled.

    if you were paid 30 cents each for those hundred, that’s 30 dollars.

    used bookstore economics 101: if you turn the store three times a year, you’re losing money. if you turn it four times a year, you’re making just a little.

    if you turn a store’s inventory five times a year, you can earn a living, and afford to expand – to provide your service (selling books cheap and paying at least *something*) to more people.

    i’ve got 50 years in this business, and a lot of friends.

    you’re welcome.

    • Jefferson Says:

      Hi Jaime,

      Alas, I do understand. Your response just confirms to me that there is no reason to bother selling my books to HPB or any other used bookstore, because the economics of the market guarantees that I’ll make almost nothing for it. It makes far more sense to save the gas, cut out the middle man, and throw my unwanted books straight into the recycling bin.

      • Jaime Frontero Says:

        Hmmm… thanks for the response. Let me make a point here.

        Like all services, by all companies – no matter what business they’re in – HPB’s buy-back policies are designed for regular customers.

        You’re quite correct that it makes little sense to burn a few hours of your day and seven or eight bucks worth of gas, just to sell 15 bucks worth of books.

        But if you’re a regular customer? Well, you’re going there anyway, aren’t you?

        I’ll point out a couple other things as well.

        Firstly, when HPB says they’re going to recycle unsellable books, they actually *do* that – they send them to a paper recycler who pulps them and turns them into toilet paper or cardboard boxes. The corporate purpose in this is to save trees – they’re actually a pretty environmentally conscious company. In some states where HPB operates, they actually get paid a few cents a ton for their recycling – and that money generally goes into a fund for employee fun. ;-) In other states, HPB actually has to pay by the ton for a real recycler – and they do.

        Secondly, a lot (several tons a year – not much point in counting numbers of books in an operation the size of HPB) of the unsellable or unsold books are donated to various charitable organizations, both on- and off-shore. Children’s cancer centers are a particular effort on the part of the company.

        So the upshot of this – just so you’re a fully-informed consumer – is that yes; in *some* cases it’s cheaper to throw your books into a recycling bin. But be aware that a.) those books will do no more good in the world, b.) you are essentially chopping down trees that we could really use to create the oxygen we breathe, and c.) it is about 80% likely that you will be adding to a landfill somewhere rather than helping to reduce the blasted things.

        Just sayin’.

  3. m.reid Says:

    I SHOULD HAVE DONATED MY BOOKS TO A SCHOOL OF DESIGN LIKE KENT STATE OR URSULINE COLLEGE. I WAS OFFER PENNIES FOR WHAT I THOUGHT WAS A FINE COLLECTON OF BOOKS. I VISIT HALF PRICE OFTEN AND THE BOOKS I BUY USUALLY COST 15.00 OR MORE. ONE OF MY RECENT PURCHASES COST 15.98 A FEW DAYS LATER IT WAS WORTH A QUARTER. I DON’T TRUST SELLING TO HALF PRICE YOU LOOSE MONEY. MY BOOK COLLECTION ON QUILTS WILL BE DONATED.


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