Online Book Arbitrage: 18 Tips for Increasing Profits in 2019

Online book arbitrage seems pretty easy on the surface… just sign up for some arbitrage software, find cheap books with good sales ranks, and buy them… right?

Well, it is that simple. But like all things that seem easy on the surface, there are a bunch of nuanced variables you have to account for if you want to take your book arbitrage game to the next level.

For starters, many books that seem like easy profits are actually profit traps. Despite looking like good buys on the surface, these misleading books might decrease in value, take too long to sell, or be straight up unsellable.

Then there’s the matter of getting the most out of your limited funds. When sourcing on a tight budget, you need to make sure your purchase decisions are going to bring you a sustainable profit in a amount reasonable amount of time.

Typically, you would have to figure this stuff out with hard-earned experience… but fortunately, I’ve already made those mistakes and learned those lessons.

This article will and pass that knowledge on to you in the form of 18 actionable tips that will make your online book arbitrage efforts more effective and profitable.

Tip #1: Buy books with a recent sharp decrease in price.
Tip #2: Source from multiple websites.
Tip #3: Stock up on textbooks in the months leading up to textbook season.
Tip #4: Keep an ear out for newsworthy celebrity deaths.
Tip #5: Use the Keepa charts.
Tip #6: Use Keepa and Zen Arbitrage alerts.
Tip #7: Be wary of sellers who specifically mention “used stickers.”
Tip #8: Buy Good or better copies if possible.
Tip #9: Don’t be afraid of Acceptable copies.
Tip #10: Be careful when buying multiple copies of a book.
Tip #11: Look for seasonal books.
Tip #12: Be wary of mega sellers with enormous amounts of inventory.
Tip #13: Take it slow and be picky.
Tip #14: Only get expedited shipping on expensive books.
Tip #15: Use an FBA book prep service.
Tip #16: Be wary of law textbooks.
Tip #17: Take prep, shipping, and FBA costs into account.
Tip #18: Use the Amazon Prime Rewards credit card (5% cash back).

The best books to buy are the books with a significant and recent plummet in the Keepa price graph. These artificial drops are almost always the result of a repricer error or repricer battle between two sellers with aggressive repricers and low minimum prices. The following screenshots show what the Keepa graph of one of these books looks like.

I should note that the book may have been purchased almost instantly after the drop (some savvy arbitrageurs likely have automated tools that buy books immediately after a significant price drop). It may have taken Keepa a couple of hours to notice the drop though.

Also, as the screenshot mentions, the best way to find these books is to use Keepa Alerts. We’ll get to that in a bit.

While Amazon is going to be where you source the majority of your inventory, it’s not the only place to find profitable flips.

Be careful when sourcing from websites other than Amazon ‒ the penalties for selling counterfeit items are less severe than they are on Amazon, so there’s a higher chance you’ll end up with an unsellable book.

Although I recommend using Zen Arbitrage as your primary book arbitrage software, you can use of Tactical Arbitrage to passively search through non-Amazon websites in the background while you spend the bulk of your time manually searching through Zen.

If you’re willing to pay for two book arbitrage services at once, I recommend using Tactical Arbitrage to scan through non-Amazon book websites while you manually search through the Zen Arbitrage catalog.

Textbook season is every bookseller’s most profitable time of year. When you’re sourcing locally, most books cost $2 or less, so you’re free to grab every textbook you can find.

Books don’t cost $2 on Amazon though. The bare minimum you can pay for a book is $4 ($0.01 + $3.99 shipping), and most of your purchases will be at least $10. Unless you’ve got a large stockpile of cash, you’re probably hesitant to invest a large portion of your money into textbooks when the next textbook season is 5 months away.

That’s why I included this tip. If you don’t have a lot of money to spend on inventory, avoid sourcing textbooks until a couple of months before the next textbook season. That way you can still take advantage of ridiculous textbook profits, but you don’t tie up your money in inventory that isn’t going to move for half a year.

This isn’t to say you shouldn’t be on the lookout for textbooks online year round. Some flip opportunities are too good to pass up, even if you wont be selling the book until six months from now.

As with many of the tips in this list, it’s relevance to you adherence depends on how much money you can spend.

This tip definitely lies in a moral grey zone, but in the interest of thoroughness I’ve decided to include it.

The autobiographies and personal memoirs of recently deceased celebrities are a literal gold mine if you can buy up the cheap copies before other people hear about the death.

Check out these examples of the insane price hikes a celebrity death can cause:

Chuck Berry's Keepa Graph

Aretha Franklin's Keepa Chart

I don’t just have chart proof of this tactic. I managed to flip a copy of Aretha Franklin’s autobiography for a $60 profit.

 

Aretha SoldI should note that buying these autobiographies is always a risk, as there’s a chance the price might not go up.

To increase your chances of making a profitable purchase, make sure the book meets a few criteria:

  • It’s out of print.
  • It was written by the celebrity themselves.
  • The celebrity is an A-list superstar — in my experience, only the really famous celebrities get any kind of significant price spike.

Now that you know how to identify potential celebrity flip targets, you need to ensure you’re the first to know of any major celebrity deaths so you can lock in your profits. There are a couple of ways to do this:

  • Set a Google Alert for celebrities you think might die soon.
  • Subscribe to the TMZ RSS feed. TMZ is almost always one of the first news outlets to report on celebrity deaths, so subscribing to their feed can make you aware of noteworthy deaths before others are.

I prefer using the Google alert method because I don’t care about celebrity news enough to check TMZ on the regular. To learn how to set up Google Alerts, visit their website.

Using the Keepa charts to gauge book demand and price history is a downright necessity.

You cannot perform online book arbitrage without this tool. To do so would be like groping your way through a pitch-black maze without a flashlight. Another suitable analogy would be throwing your money into a pit and setting it on fire. It’s that important.

Unfortunately, Keepa recently locked their sales rank data behind a $17/month subscription. It’s a necessary expense if you want to source books online though. So if you want to do online arbitrage of any kind (not just books) on a professional level, you need to bite the bullet and subscribe.

While you’re sourcing, you should be setting price alerts for every promising book that crosses your path. Even if the book isn’t at a low price right now, it might drop to a better price in the future.

The only way to be instantly notified about future price drops is by setting an alert. There are two software programs that let you set price alerts that I’m aware of: Keepa and Zen Arbitrage.

I prefer using Keepa to set alerts. You can go to the Keepa website to see an easy-to-peruse feed of every price alert.

Keepa Alerts

You can also get alerts via Facebook Messenger, which I find to be fantastically convenient.

Unfortunately, Keepa maxes out at 5,000 alerts per account. When you inevitably hit this mark, you’ll need another way to set alerts ‒ this is where Zen Arbitrage comes in handy. You can tell Zen Arbitrage to email you when a book’s price drops below a certain threshold.

Zen Arbitrage Price Drop Alert

Receiving instant notifications of price drops is essential. These alerts are usually where I find my juiciest profits, because they are often the result of repricer battles or repricer errors that temporarily send the price much lower than the book’s actual value.

Unfortunately, there are other people using alerts to source books. To beat them, you need to enable your Keepa notifications and check your email on a semi-regular basis.

Some merchant-fulfilled sellers will mention in their descriptions that a textbook has “used book stickers” or “multiple stickers” or some similar phrase that makes it clear there are lots of stickers on the book.

These copies are likely unsellable international or teacher’s editions. Don’t buy them.

Used stickers

Here’s my theory: the sellers of these copies know that book arbitrageurs are buying from them, so they place this into the description to subtly warn buyers that they’re buying a copy that isn’t technically allowed for sale on Amazon.

I could be wrong. Some sellers might just be very thorough in how they describe their books.

Whatever their reasons, definitely avoid books that have a description specifically mentioning stickers.

The better condition your book is in, the easier it will be to sell.

If you have the choice between an Acceptable offer and a Good+ offer at the same price, go with the Good+ offer.

That being said, don’t go up significantly in price just to snag a better copy. My maximum jump is $1 for a copy in better condition. Acceptable copies are still quite easy to sell if you’re on top of your repricing game, so don’t pay too much of a premium for a book in better condition.

Most sales come through the Buy Box. If your Acceptable offer is even one cent lower than the next offer, you’re going to get the Buy Box.

If you’re on top of your repricing, you have a pretty good chance of snagging the next sale even if you’re competing against Good+ offers. All it takes to win the Buy Box with an Acceptable offer is being a penny lower than any competing Good+ offers.

In addition, Acceptable copies are often actually in Good+ condition. Sellers will just list them as Acceptable because they don’t want to take the time to actually inspect their inventory.

You’ll often encounter books with multiple copies for sale at a very low price.

It can be tempting to buy every single copy within your target price range… but I urge you to he cautious about this.

There’s no way around it: Online book arbitrage is risky. You don’t know what a book’s value will be in the future ‒ you can only make an educated guess based on sales rank and price history. It’s not at all unheard of for a book to defy expectations and drop in value and demand.

Because of this inherent unpredictability in the book market, I don’t suggest putting too much money into a single book. I think employing a risk-averse strategy is the best way to approach the arbitrage game.

Of course, like all rules, there are exceptions. Some of my best profits come from buying up multiple copies of a particularly good deal. If you find one of these situations, rolling the dice on multiple copies might let you score big-time:

  • If you’re nearing textbook season
  • If there are multiple copies on sale for a ridiculously low price

Textbook season isn’t the only profitable season to look out for.

Holiday-themed books often spike in price during the holiday they’re related to. When Easter, Christmas, Hannukah, Thanksgiving, and many other holidays roll around, some books about them consistently rise in price. Stock up on these books before their associated holidays to make some easy money.

You should also take Christmas gifts into account. Many non-Christmas-related books are given as Christmas gifts, and demand for these books can spike in the early weeks of December.

Buyers typically buy New copies of these books, as nobody wants to receive a used book under the tree.

This is one of those profit traps I mentioned earlier. If a mega seller has dozens or hundreds of copies of a book in stock, it can completely ruin any chance of you selling your copy within a reasonable timeframe.

In particular, be on the lookout for Amazon Warehouse and Apex Media.

These sellers often have dozens or even hundreds of copies in their inventory.

To make matters worse, they often use incredibly aggressive repricers to ensure they can sell their sizable stock quickly… which means they’ll all but eliminate any chance of you selling your copy in a reasonable timeframe.

If you see one of these sellers on a listing, always check their inventory count before buying a book. If it’s low, go ahead and make the purchase. But if they’ve got quite a few copies, you might want to reconsider.

Don’t jump on every single opportunity that presents itself.

When I first started, I always had more profitable flips than I had money to spend on them.

(Un)fortunately, there are a nearly endless amount of flip opportunities to choose from. Simple “double your money” flips are a dime a dozen in the Zen Arbitrage search results. You can literally spend thousands of dollars an hour on all of the opportunities you find ‒ which is why you need to be picky about what you buy.

If you have a limited stack of cash, I suggest waiting until you find profits that are at least triple your initial investment before pulling the trigger.

If you’re only encountering double-your-money flips, I still advise being picky by choosing offers with better conditions and sales ranks.

This is, of course, assuming you have limited funds. If you have thousands on thousands of dollars to flip with, go ahead and buy every profitable item you find.

About a year ago I experimented with getting expedited shipping on every single order.

My thought process was simple: faster shipping means faster turnaround time, which means I get my money quicker, which I can then use to buy more books.

And it worked ‒ sort of.

It worked for the more expensive books, because the extra investment in expedited shipping was only a small portion of the total cost. What’s $4 extra for faster shipping if the book costs $50?

But it didn’t work as well for the cheaper books ‒ the ones I was paying $8 for and selling for $30. That extra $4 was a significant portion of my overall profit, Because many of these books took a good while to sell anyway. I found it wasn’t worth paying extra for faster shipping.

I should also add that books with standard shipping often arrive much sooner than expected. Much of it is dependent on how close the seller is to you or your prep service.

A lot of it is dependent on sales rank and proximity to textbook season too. If you know a book is going to sell as soon as it hits the FBA shelves, it makes sense to pay a little more to get your money back sooner.

But if the book is probably going to take a few months to sell, you’re better off saving the money and waiting a little longer for the book to get to you.

If you’d like to use an FBA book prep service, contact one of the services on this list of 12 FBA book prep services.

Time is money, as the adage goes. And unless you have severely limited funds, it’s not worth your time to process your online book purchases when you can pay someone else to do it for you.

The tradeoff is that you have to be willing to trust a third party with grading your books, which means you’re putting your Amazon feedback rating in the hands of someone you don’t know. That can definitely be off-putting, and if you’re the kind of person who needs absolute control over what gets sent into Amazon, you’d be better off processing the books yourself.

That being said, I’ve sent hundreds of books through a variety of different prep services, and I’ve never had a single negative feedback result from it. The people running these prep centers understand that any negative feedback resulting from their inadequate checking of your books will likely mean they lose a customer. As a result, they can be more meticulous and thorough than you are when you process books.

In addition, you also have to take into account that you’re not sending them random books ‒ you’re sending them books that another seller has already graded and written a description for. If you wanted to, you could just copy the grade and description the person you bought the book from gave it. I don’t recommend this, but the point is that your prep service will have that information to go on when they grade and enter descriptions for your books.

16. Be wary of law textbooks.

Usually, a history of a price rise and sales rank decrease in previous textbook seasons is a good indicator that the same will happen in the next textbook season. This is not always the case with some textbooks ‒ and I’ve found that law textbooks are a particularly hazardous subject. Because laws change so often, textbooks can suddenly become out-of-date and unusable within a year.

I found this out the hard way when I bought 20 copies of a seemingly slam-dunk law textbook. The past 6 textbook seasons all showed a dramatic increase in price and demand… but when I tried to sell these books in the next textbook season, they didn’t sell. No one was buying them, and the price plummeted to far below what I had originally paid for them. I ended up having to dispose of more than half of them to avoid eating the storage fees.

This can happen in other subjects too, but law is the only subject in which I’ve seen such a dramatic and sudden drop-off in demand.

That being said, law textbooks have also given me some of my best flips. I bought six copies of one law textbook for $6 each, and sold them for $80 each a mere three weeks later. So don’t count them out ‒ just be careful, and don’t buy too many copies of any particular book.

There are many hidden costs associated with online book arbitrage:

  • Getting the book shipped to you
  • Prep service fees
  • FBA shipment fees
  • Buying boxes to send your books to Amazon in
  • Poly-bags to put loose-leaf books in
  • Tape to secure loose bindings with
  • FBA referral fees
  • FBA storage fees

You need to account for all of these when calculating profit if you want to get a true sense of how much you’re making.

This is one of the reasons I like using Zen Arbitrage to source books online. It has a calculator specifically designed to take in your book cost and return your expected net profit on any given flip.

zen arbitrage profit calculator

It knows the lowest offer price, book weight, and book size, which lets it calculate all of the relevant FBA fees and shipping costs ahead of time. All you have to do is plug in your typical per-book prep cost and your expected sale price, and you’ll get your expected net profit right in the search results page.

I rarely tell people to go add another credit card to their monthly set of bills, but I have to make an exception in this instance.

If you have Amazon Prime, you can get a credit card that gives you 5% cash back on every purchase you make on Amazon. This cash back takes the form of Amazon credit, which is perfectly fine for your needs ‒ you can use that credit to buy more inventory.

This 5% adds up quickly with all of the Amazon book purchases you’re going to be making.

Just make sure you pay off the balance each month… you don’t want the interest on any accrued balance offsetting the gains made with the 5% cashback feature.

I don’t recommend buyers new to online book arbitrage go straight for this option. Arbitrage is a skill, and you’re going to make mistakes in the beginning. You’re going to buy books that break even or even sell at a loss, and it isn’t wise to go into credit card debt while you’re still learning the ropes. Take it slow, and take advantage of the 5% cash back when you’ve got a better handle on things.

 

 

Steve Rajeckas

Hi! I'm Steve. I've been selling books using Amazon's fulfillment service for more than two years. I love learning new things about the online bookselling world, and I hope my tips help you build and expand your own bookselling business.

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