Can You Sell Books at the Flea Market?

Maybe YOU can, but I sure couldn’t.

I’ve found a few different ways of doing collateral advertising for my books. For example, since I also sell used books on eBay on the side (mostly from my library-sale acquisitions), I send out a flyer about my memoir with each of my packages. It’s an inexpensive gimmick and has the added benefit of targeting people who are known readers. Well, since I’ve reached a point at which my accumulation of used books has exceeded the rate at which I can sell them, I had the idea of taking them down to the flea market and trying to unload some there.

I didn’t really expect to sell a lot of books. I think there’s a reason why you don’t see a ton of booksellers at flea markets, and it’s because used books are a very heavy, very bulky item with – I hate to say it – low dollar value. I knew it was going to be a pain and likely not very profitable, but I also thought it would make for a worthwhile experiment. What if I brought down some of my own books and tried to sell them there, too?

I didn’t get my hopes up, of course. I don’t know that the flea market is the best venue for book sales, but on the other hand, you do get book-hunters showing up there, and there was, I figured, a certain logic in it. If I was selling mostly used books, I’d be more likely to draw buyers who were looking for books – just like with eBay.

So I spent the week boxing books and organizing books and sorting through other household goods that I wanted to take with me. I spent maybe two hours packing and loading the truck – no mean feat with my frozen shoulder – and then finally, yesterday, it was time.

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Now I have done flea markets before. In fact, back in the days when I moved all the time, I pretty much did one every time I was planning on heading out of town for a while, so I had what I thought were realistic expectations based on actual experience. And in my experience, I have never walked out of a flea market without at least three hundred dollars for my trouble, even when I was just selling my household garbage. So even if I didn’t sell any of my own books, the worst-case scenario didn’t look bad at all.

But, like every other business venture I’ve tried in the past two years, even my lowest expectations somehow managed to be ridiculously high. Twenty hours of work and I made exactly forty-two dollars. Sheesh – for that amount of work I can make that much selling my books online. And without all the heavy lifting!

It still might have been worthwhile if I had sold even a single copy of one of my own books, but alas, even that was evidently too lofty a goal. It was an interesting experiment, though, with plenty to show about the behavior of shoppers. Probably the smartest thing I did was buying this display stand and placing it prominently at the edge of my stall:

Flea Market Display

And I have to say, it was a fabulous attention-getter. I very quickly lost track of the number of people who stopped specifically to examine my memoir, but I’d hazard a guess that it was several dozen, which sounds great until you realize that not one of them bought it, even at the discounted price of six dollars. One lady came close – a fellow seller at the market who said she would buy it if she made enough money at the sale. She did not – according to the buzz around the booths, nobody was making money that day – but she did come back for my card at closing time so that she could contact me later. But another gentleman (and I use the term loosely) seemed almost offended by my display.

“Who’s this Lori S – Sc – Sca?” he asked loudly of no one in particular.

“That’s me!” I called from where I sat next to my truck.

“So why would anyone want to read YOUR memoir?” he snorted, as if only the life of J. Lo or President Obama is worth memorializing.

Hundreds of people HAVE read it, I wanted to say. Unfortunately I was too busy being dumbstruck to formulate a clever answer, so I came back with a dull one instead. “Uh….because it’s an interesting story?”

“Okay, well you gotta give me more to go on than that.”

As reading a blurb was clearly beyond the capacity of this particular customer, I explained the story to him as quickly and patiently as I could.

“Did you end up crazy, too?” he responded when I was done.

Well, if I did, then maybe you ought to be more careful how you speak to me.

“No, I actually turned out fairly normal,” I answered.

“What about drugs? Did you end up on drugs?”

By this point, I was really curious as to the point of this line of questioning. Was he trying to learn the end of the story, figure out whether it’s even worth reading, or evaluate the stranger sitting ten feet away?

“No, no drugs,” I said, wondering whether there was indeed a magical substance that would take the edge off of this conversation.

Fortunately I didn’t have to resort to chemical therapy, because at that point the man just grunted again and walked away.

Mr. Who-the-Hell-Are-You aside, all in all, it was pretty disheartening. While I realize that the flea market doesn’t necessarily cater to readers – or to people who want to pay close to full price for things – being there and seeing how people responded to my book was eye-opening in a less-than-comforting way. The interest was there. The audience was there. Heck, even the author was there. But the bottom line was, I still couldn’t sell any books.

And this makes me wonder – how much better is it, really, selling in bookstores? Granted, then you’re dealing directly with your target market, but there’s also a lot more competition nearby that also appeals directly to your target market. How many people have to pick up my book before one of them buys it? Based on my flea market experience, I’d guess, what, a hundred? Two? That is an awful lot of exposure I have to obtain in order to make my measly two dollars or less on a sale. Indeed, it sounds almost as tough as selling online, if not even tougher.

So today I’m trying another experiment. I didn’t want all of those hours I spent preparing for the flea market to be wasted, so I put in a few more and moved my boxes of books up to my porch along with my tables and my displays. And I put an ad up on Craigslist advertising a used book sale, and then I put up four other ads, too, one for each of my paperback books, describing the books and also describing my sale, hoping against hope that the combination would drag in some customers.

It’s after four and not one person has even come by yet.

And somehow I don’t think these problems are entirely unrelated. You hear all the time about the “golden age” of independent publishing, way back in the late oughts, when it was still possible to become a bestseller by listing a book for free on Amazon.com. I remember back to the nineties, when I was able to make a living selling on eBay. But that was before digital was ubiquitous, before anybody could look up their own special piece of junk and see what it was worth and list it online for the world to find and to buy, before anyone who wanted something could just go online and find it without having to go to places like flea markets hoping to spot a rare gem. I hardly make anything on eBay anymore, and it’s for exactly the same reason that it’s so hard to sell books on Amazon now – because everyone else is doing it, too. Unless I have an item that is VERY unique or VERY rare, I may have only a day or an hour in which my listing has a chance to be seen in the midst of all the others that look just like it and maybe cost less than mine does.

I’m going to keep experimenting, and I’m going to keep trying. But I can’t help but wonder – if electronic sales aren’t the answer, and in-person sales aren’t the answer, then what is the answer? If there is one at all.

38 thoughts on “Can You Sell Books at the Flea Market?

  1. Curt

    My wife and I sell art for a living, the key is finding the market that wants your product or book in your case. Flea markets don’t work for us, try somathing more high end. Books are art and you need byers with more mentality and money to care about your art.

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  2. Ellen Hawley

    A friend used to run a massive used book sale as a fundraiser. I ran into her one year at the end of one, when they still had to move all the leftover books to a small fleet of cars and cart them off to I have no idea where.

    “Next year,” she said, “I’m doing a used feather sale.”

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  3. rixlibris

    Great post. There was that CW song, “Hank Williams, you wrote my life.” Your blog brought back a lot of memories of past marketing efforts. I currently have a bookstore on Amazon, same name as my blog, where I sell used books. In addition to my regular inventory I have all my own books listed. I undercut the lowest advertised price by a couple bucks and offer them as “signed by the author.” Not yet on par with The Donald but it has had some positive results.

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  4. Opinionated Man

    Reblogged this on HarsH ReaLiTy and commented:
    I think this is the struggle many people are dealing with! I do admire your courage in trying the in-person sales though! That takes a lot of drive and provided at the very least an interesting post! :) -OM
    Check out Lori’s book through her blog!
    Note: Comments disabled here, please visit their blog.

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  5. Amalie Cantor

    My partner and I had a similar experience about a year ago. We weren’t peddling books then (just some handmade scarves and art prints) and didn’t sell a damn thing all day. Some days you just lose, although I admit a flee market is NOT somewhere I would think to buy used books!

    In any case, thanks so much for sharing the story! I’ll keep that in mind moving forward. :-)

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  6. mandy smith

    Lori, I feel your frustration! I have to say I LOVE your book holder that you used at the market–your books look awesome in it! I’ve had a few friends who took their books to book fairs and never sold a book all day. Hit or miss with the luck I think. I think that will be a difficult way for me to sell my book just because of the topic. People like the travel books and more generic topics. Mental illness, abuse…they have their own audience. I’m going to be send flyers to therapists and those that deal with my audience. Maybe that avenue?
    I’m sorry the grief you’re having over that shoulder!! My husbands frozen has just returned and its awful!

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      I’m doing the same thing with sending stuff out to psychiatrists! Great minds, eh? :)

      Sorry about your husband. I’ve got a friend at hockey who has suffered from it off and on for ten years, so I am afraid of it becoming an ongoing thing. How did he hurt it, if you don’t mind sharing? Does it come back often?

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      1. mandy smith

        No idea how my husband’s started. Well, I guess it started when he noticed the arm really hurt because he (has always!) put his arm up under his head when he sleeps. It got so painful he went to PT and they said it was rotator cuff. Nothing helped and eventually, after a year, he had no range of motion. He was sent to a specialist who immediately told him he had frozen shoulder. He gave him all these painful (keep it moving) exercises that were so painful, but they worked and pretty soon it was gone. Now, after about a year, it’s back. Again, noticed because he couldn’t lift his arm when sleeping. He just made another PT appt today. I actually told him about your story and he’s mortified at the thought of breaking up the cartilage!

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      2. lorilschafer Post author

        Weird! At least I know exactly how mine happened (dislocated my shoulder). Oddly, mine doesn’t hurt that much; it just doesn’t work well. Hope your husband gets better soon!

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      3. mandy smith

        Yes, I’ve heard people often get frozen shoulder after an injury or surgery when they have to wear a sling for an extended time. I’m glad you don’t have much pain!

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  7. Sarah Brentyn

    I agree with the comments here that flea markets attract shoppers who (generally speaking) want rock-bottom prices, deals, and knick-knacks. I have seen books for sale but they are usually used paperbacks the owner has read and is selling for 50 cents or something. I like Charli’s ideas.

    Aside: I’m laughing at the exchange between you and that jackass. It wasn’t a funny conversation, and I’m sorry, but this had me giggling: “‘Did you end up crazy, too?’ he responded when I was done.”

    Well, if I did, then maybe you ought to be more careful how you speak to me. :-D

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Honestly, I never thought the flea market was an ideal venue, and I certainly didn’t have high expectations for selling my books. My reasoning was that if I had a bunch of used books for sale (I brought 300!), and I had my books for sale, between the two I at least wouldn’t waste my time. Clearly I still did. At least now I know.

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  8. Charli Mills

    Lori, you are good at thinking up ways to sell and measure your market. I’m commenting from LA where I attended a women’s writers conference. The book table here was a hot commodity. I got some good tips on building a book platform, too which I plan to share. Your ideas for finding readers thru ebay and even the flea market are good, but those readers are you’re bargain basement type. What about higher end open markets like the farmers market (although some are open only to food, but others allow local artists, crafters and writers) ? Or holiday bazaars? Typically those shoppers have more expendable dollars. There is an answer and it will be found in keep trying, record your findings and adjust and try again!

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      The farmer’s market was my very first thought – there’s actually one weekly right here in my town – but the ones I’ve looked at are very specific about what type of artists and craftspeople they allow. “We want to see a video of you working in your workshop.” Is my roof a workshop? I did decide to apply for a permit anyway, so who knows? The worst that can happen is that I waste my time, and I’ve done plenty of that already!

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  9. Gail Gautier

    Years ago I saw a guy selling his self-published books at a craft fair. He said he went around to craft fairs, maybe flea markets, and he was satisfied with how he was doing. So I don’t think it was unreasonable for you to try this. I believe he was selling only his own books, though. The used books you were selling might have been competing with your new book.

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Interesting perspective, Gail. There are certainly a lot of vendors who specialize in only one commodity, and my thought was that if I did okay, I could invite some other authors to participate in order to have a better variety of product. Maybe another experiment is in order :)

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  10. Linda K Sienkiewicz

    You just never know. Next week, you might sell out! I put a few of my poetry books with a signed-by-author sticker out at my garage sale, and I had a few people who got all giddy when I told them I was the author: “I never met an author before!” I’ve also seen authors with a tent at art and craft shows.

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      See, now that’s exactly what I was hoping for – just a little of that “Omigosh, you’re an author!” response. Somehow I thought that being a local and being there in person might give me an edge – but if it did, it was a very small one! But you’re right, you never know – sometimes it’s just a matter of having the right people come along. Someone else mentioned art and craft shows as a possibility, too, and I will definitely be looking into that, too. Thanks for the encouragement! :)

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  11. jmlevinton

    You are not alone. I remember reading a blog where six authors got together to sell at a flea market and had pretty much the same experience (sans hecklers). But I try not to look at the Internet or bookstores as “there’s so many books, how/why would they buy mine?” We put ourselves out there and plug away at spreading the word. And in the meantime, we’re doing something we love: writing.

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Interesting about the six authors – in a weird way I’m glad to have someone else confirm the results of my little experiment. Because of course, you never know if it was just an off day or the wrong market or what have you. This for me was actually part of a greater plan to “spread the word” in my local area. It’s heavily populated where I live (San Francisco Bay Area) and I’d really like to be able to connect with people by virtue of being a local author. If I’d like to be able to do speaking engagements, for example, I figure getting out there and dealing with the public is a good idea. So who knows? Maybe I got something out of it after all :)

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      1. jmlevinton

        Absolutely. Everything we do creates ripples in the water and we never know how many ways it touches people. Are there any independent bookstores in your area that allow readings?

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      Depressing is the word for it all right! I mean, I guess I’m glad I at least got the attention, since the alternative is definitely worse, but still! Not one buyer? I’m beginning to be amazed that anyone sells books, ever!

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      I figure book festivals are the most obvious venues, but the ones I’ve looked at are so expensive I’m not convinced I could make back my money – at least not until I have more books. I hadn’t thought of art fairs, though – maybe I’ll have to check out a few in my area. The flea markets around here are often less about collectibles than about bargains – it’s actually very common for businesses to set up “second stores” at the markets. One of my neighbors, for example, was a sweet potato pie vendor, while the other was selling mostly handmade jewelry with a smattering of other products (like DVDs). It’s very bizarre, because back in New England, flea markets were exactly the way you describe – little treasure troves for collectors. So maybe the right venue is out there, and it’s just a matter of finding it. Thanks for your input :)

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  12. Norah

    Oh Lori, How positively depressing. I wonder what can be done. You mentioned contacting schools and mental health practitioners re using your book. Have you had any response to that? It’s interesting that finding the target audience, not dissimilar to what I wrote about in my recent post, is the problem. Your book is interesting. I enjoyed it. Many others would enjoy it too. How do you connect with them. To send your advice back to you, is there a hashtag you could use? Maybe someone with a blog about mental health who you could have an affiliate arrangement with?
    I’m sorry your shoulder is still causing you pain. How much longer do they say before you will have the use back? (You’ve probably told me before but I’ve forgotten the details, sorry.)
    I look forward to results of your ongoing research and hope some good sales start coming your way. :)

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    1. lorilschafer Post author

      My “second edition” is on its way – once I receive it, I can start sending out copies. Curious to see how that will go, but of course, I’m keeping my hopes low. I LOVE your idea of an affiliate arrangement, though – I had not even come close to thinking of that. It’s actually quite brilliant. Here I am, talking to writers when I could be consulting people in the field. I guess writers are just easier to talk to ;)

      I have “frozen” shoulder – a condition in which you get calcium deposits building up in the joint from lack of use, such as being in a sling for six weeks following a dislocation :( That’s why I was so stiff following the injury – I’ve basically got extra junk in the joint that now has to be broken before I can get back my range of motion. Six months to a year to recover, and I had an MRI today to see whether I also tore my rotator cuff, which would mean surgery, too. Yikes. Still way better, though. I can get my arm up to about ninety degrees to the front and the side, and I’m driving again – I can even reach fifth gear. And, miraculously, I can move hundreds of pounds of books without injuring myself. Yet I can’t comfortably sweep or scrub a toilet – it’s a very strange way to be.

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      1. Norah

        Driving’s good. Sweeping and scrubbing a toilet? Well, I suppose the reality is that it has to be done. So another six to twelve months. I know we have swapped stories about this injury before. I had a similar one eleven years ago. It was very painful and restricting. I had a lot of physio to get my shoulder back into use again, but one of my bicep muscles was torn and I have lost a lot of strength; otherwise okay. I can’t remember how long it took to get back to okay. I remember dressing, and things like that, was particularly difficult. Have you had any cortisone treatment? I didn’t but I know lots of people who did and thought it was wonderful. I hope your recovery is quicker than “they” estimate.
        I’m pleased you liked my off-the-cuff (rotator cuff, that is) suggestion of affiliate links. Pleased to be of assistance! :)

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      2. lorilschafer Post author

        Yes, I do remember your torn-muscle story – actually, you were the first person I thought of when they told me! – and I was greatly encouraged by your eventual recovery. I hope, too, that eleven years from now I will have forgotten how long it took me to recover ;) I have not had a cortisone shot, although my doctor says it is an option if needed, but since you’re not supposed to get them often and I have other, more pressing joint issues, I figure I’ll save those for the worst-case scenarios. It’s more uncomfortable than painful, really, and I’m really quite happy to be nearly functional again :)

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      3. Norah

        Yay! Nearly functional! Now that’s an improvement! I’ve always been impressed by the way you have continued on, pushing through the pain. I could be really corny here and say “shouldered on”, but I won’t! :)
        I hope your improvement continues, and rapidly.

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