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How to sell books online with an ecommerce store

The largest ecommerce platform to date got its start with just one product category. Back in 1994, Amazon began selling books, and only books, as its founding team established the basic formula for what would become the giant we know today.

While the premise behind Amazon’s first steps hinged on finding a large product category, there’s an even deeper idea to draw inspiration from. Books – new and used, print or digital – are popular across virtually all demographics and locations across the globe. And selling books through an online bookstore is the ideal way to get started faster and for lower costs than the traditional high street route. But where should you start?

Find your niche first

Rather than trying to compete with the big players from day one, focusing on a niche is a better time investment as you set up your store. This helps you hone in on a unique book selection and specific customer segment that's interested in it. You could do this by offering a selection in particular genres or hard-to-find titles.

Differentiating yourself will make you stand out in a crowded marketplace and among bigger players who were once where you are now – and gradually worked their way up.

While we're on the topic of differentiation, this is a good time to think about your brand story, mission and the values behind your business and what they say about you. If customers care about what you stand for, they'll be more likely to choose you over a similar competitor.

Finding books to sell

How you decide to source products is connected to the type of business model you use. If you want to sell second hand or antique books, you can get them from libraries, flea markets or garage sales. Selling new books entails sourcing from distributors or establishing relationships directly with publishers.

Types of books to sell:

  • Books in a niche genre (court intrigue fantasy, scifi-horror)

  • Write your own book and sell it directly to readers

  • Sell ebooks and audiobooks

  • Second hand books

  • Rare or hard-to-find books

  • Books that focus on specific topics (gardening, travelling)

  • Books of a certain type (hardcover, comics)

Set up an online bookstore

After setting up, you'll need somewhere to start selling your books. Creating an online store is a fast and affordable way to create a web presence and market yourself. Once you’ve done that, it's a good time to write a marketing plan for how you’ll communicate with customers and convince them to shop at your bookstore. More on that later.

So you’ve figured out your store branding, how you’ll source books and set up an online store. Now's a good time to create social media profiles before launching. This gives you time for the setup process and also to start building a community around your business. Lastly, setting up an email list will help you communicate with customers who sign up – this will include regular shoppers as well as those who've just found you.

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How much does it cost to open a bookstore?

Starting a fully online store is going to be significantly cheaper than one that’s bricks-and-mortar. The primary capital investment you'll need to make up front is in your inventory – the books you'll sell. If it’s new books, the costs can be relatively affordable for publishers that don’t have a minimum order amount. This means you can order a small number of books to start with.

There are multiple options to consider when sourcing funds to pay for inventory. If you’re not working off your own savings, it may be a bank loan. There’s also crowdfunding or venture capital funding. Whatever you decide, it’s worth investing time in creating a business plan. This not only helps you map out your goals, challenges and marketing strategy, but also shows potential investors how (and when) you plan on paying them back.

How to price a book

How much you charge for books depends on several factors. For new books sourced from publishers, your profit margin depends on how much the publisher charges you. Don’t worry about competing on price with large retailers – they will be able to get discounts small retailers won’t – meaning that you’ll be at a price disadvantage on new titles and bestsellers.

To get around this, focus on offering a book selection that’s different from what large retailers sell. For used books, prices can vary much more. What you charge will come down to factors surrounding the state of the book – condition, rarity, popularity and so on.

How to market your online bookstore

Marketing will help raise awareness of your brand, your online presence and the selection of books you sell. And since you’ve chosen a niche to serve, knowing how to target the right customers should be a cornerstone of your marketing strategy.

Where to begin? Firstly, search for where your customers spend their time. Are they casual Facebook browsers, Instagram devotees or heavy Twitter users? What age groups would be interested in your books? Are your potential customers parents? Do they work in a city office? Narrowing this down can help you decide where to place ads and who they should target.

Organic marketing should also be part of both your launch and long-term plan. There are several options here, including:

  • Blogging: Posting blog content that's optimised for search engines can be an effective way to bring in customers. Book reviews, author features and trending topics in your niche can help generate interest.

  • Social channels: Building an audience on social media is not only a good way to build a community, it can be a way to sell directly to followers.

  • Email newsletter: As you build an email subscriber list, your ability to promote titles, store news and events will grow. Be sure to ask blog readers, fans on social media and new customers to join the list.

  • Loyalty program: Offer customers discounts and rewards for shopping with you and referring friends and family. You can promote your program through your organic channels such as email marketing.

Now you've decided on the business model to use, the types of books you'll sell and in which niche, along with setting up an online store and marketing plan, you're ready to go. Be sure to read more articles in the SumUp Business Guide as you grow your store.

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Omar Hamwi