Tag Archives: Alameda Outdoor Market

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.


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.