Learn to buy and sell antiques and collectibles

You A Collectible Expert?

This week I have a question from a reader about writing a newsletter about a specific type of collectible. Connie wants to know if her idea is sound - Yes! - and went on to ask for some advice about how to turn her collectible knowledge into an online business.

Here's her question:

Hello Terry. I recently came across your newsletter and have started subscribing to it. I find you are an absolute wealth of knowledge!

I'd like to ask you about writing a newsletter. You know a lot about a lot. I know a lot about one specific collectible. I want to write a newsletter, probably 4 to 6 pages and sell one issue at a time on eBay. I don't want to offer a subscription as perhaps there won't be enough interest to continue and I also don't want to be obligated to stay with this to the end of my days.

So my idea is to write one newsletter and offer 150 copies for sale on eBay. If I get much of a response, I could offer a second, and so on, issue several months later. I don't see anyone else doing this and wonder about a big red flag I'm not seeing.

You obviously have a very successful newsletter. For me, since I would have a much more limited audience, something similar to what you do will not work for me and I couldn't make any money at it.

Do you have any suggestions or comments for me? I'd appreciate any advice as this is a very new adventure I'm considering.

Connie C.

Here's my initial reply where I provided some suggestions and asked for a bit more information about Connie's project:

Interesting idea. Most newsletters make money by selling ads or better selling their own products, or by promoting products as an affiliate. Some do sell newsletter subscriptions, but it's difficult.

One factor I strongly suggest thinking about is doing anything that requires effort going forward. If you don't have a history of writing articles on a deadline, doing a subscription is dangerous.

I just read your question again, and it looks like rather than subscriptions, you're thinking of selling issues. I did a consultation with someone a few years ago who did this. His biggest problem was finding repeat buyers.

One suggestion is to do a series of articles for a blog, and then compile them into an ebook. You could try selling the articles on eBay, first to see what happens. If that fails do the blog, and work toward an ebook.

I'll write a long look at this question for my readers. You don't mention the collectible you're an expert with. What is it? If you don't want me to share that information publicly, I'll keep it out of the article I write.

It's important that you do some audience research. I'll write about this in my longer answer.


Here's Connie's reply:

Terry, I somehow knew after I read all your eBay info you'd be a good guy for me to contact. You are doing something right to still be at this after 10 years.

I have always liked to collect. I caught this from my Dad. It lay dormant for some years, but never went away. Also, money was a factor to consider for a number of years. I have always ended up with items I liked. Not necessarily expensive or gorgeous things. Just what I liked.

My only field of some expertise in collectibles is _________ (and, as I think this through more, guess I would appreciate you not mentioning this until I can get a newsletter into eBay).

Here's why I think a newsletter might work for me. I've been collecting _______ pieces for 20-some years. eBay has a category for _________, so they have provided me with potential buyers for my newsletter.

Also, not a lot is known about these pieces. The company went out of business in the 1960s and no records of sales or items has ever surfaced except for sales catalogs of which I have several. Someone else wrote 3 books which contain mostly photos, but not much text.

I like the idea of not selling a subscription so there's no pressure on me. I do think, though, that I should be able to put together enough information to put out at least a few newsletters and I hope many more. I've written up a list of potential articles and different ideas to add some interest.

I'm not sure how I'll provide the newsletter. I could mail a hard copy, but incur printing and mailing costs. I could provide a link of some sort if eBay will let me, but don't know if this would discourage buyers.

I'll need to decide if I want to provide color photos (great for colorful figurines) or black & whites as I'll need to pass this cost on to buyers, and I don't really want to make this an expensive production for me or for buyers.

Part of doing this is to make myself some money, but I have always liked passing along to others some of what I know. Over the years, I've learned so much from so many; and I've also found eBay buyers are so appreciative of anything I tell them.

So, I'm far from figuring all this out. Just trying to get it all written down and sorted. I like to be organized and don't need unthought-of glitches.

I'll really look forward to your response.

Thanks so very much,

I've removed the name of the collectible at Connie's request. I also reformatted her questions so the paragraphs are shorter. The reformatting was done only to make this easier for you to read online.

So you understand what she's talking about, the collectibles are bisque or porcelain items sold as gifts in the 1950s.

Lets Do Some Research. . .

A search on eBay found 4545 completed listings for the period ending May 15, 2012. Without actually doing any math, 40% of the listings sold with the average price appearing to be in the $20-40 range. A few of the listings sold for prices between $80 and 140. These higher prices appear to be related mostly to condition, but could possibly due to rarity.

One piece of information I'd like to have is how many different buyers are actively buying these items on eBay. I don't know of a way to get that number so we'll do more research to see if there is a market.

I went over to Google and used the keyword suggestion tool to find out how many searches were done last month for this collectible. I found 2400 searches a month for just the brand name, and 4400 searches a month for the brand name included in a longer phrase.

This number of searches is much too low to instill confidence of finding enough buyers to make this worth doing. (Note: The number of searches done for a phrase isn't necessarily a good indicator of interest because we don't know why the search was done. For example, someone with one item looking for a value isn't likely to buy an article about collecting them.)

Connie mentions books written by someone else about this collectibles. So I went to see how these books are selling. A search on Amazon shows 5 books by the authors she mentions. All seem to be trade paperbacks. Four were written in the 1990s, one is from 2008. Looking closer the newer issues are the same as the earlier books, but contain inserted price guides.

The fact that new copies of the books from the 1990s are available on Amazon isn't good. These books were probably printed in runs of about 5000 copies. So having unsold books 12 years or longer after the publication date means there is low demand. The idea of selling 150 copies of each issue might be realist, but might be optimistic.

One interesting note about the Amazon listings. The comments from readers all mention enjoying looking at the pictures. A few complain there aren't more examples of some subsets of the collectible. This is an area Connie can exploit.

By doing longer articles on each specific subset of the collectibles she'll be addressing an unmet demand.

Then I went back and looked at Google to see what sites come up for a search by brand name. At first glance, just for the brand name, there is little chance Connie could put together a simple blog and get on the first page of Google easily.

Looking deeper, a blog with at least 6 pages of different content, and some links from other blogs would probably end up on the first page of Google. This is because most of the pages Google shows for the brand name are pages on sites that aren't specifically about the collectible. They are sites about collecting in general, or just pages on blogs by people who have one or two of these items and otherwise write about their lives.

For longer searches like "brand name" and the words "value" or "price guide," Connie could easily get good results on Google.

But remember, there aren't a lot of searches on Google for these collectibles. Building a blog means Connie can become one of 3 people who are seen as experts on this collectible that only a small number of people collect.

This isn't a bad thing as there are many similar collectibles with larger followings. There is probably a cross-over market. The cross-over market is where you'll look for links to your website.

I do think even if the market is small there is a value in Connie doing this.

Look at me, I started with a small website with pictures of my trains. I got many questions about buying and selling the trains and about eBay. Now, almost 15 years later I don't do much with the train website.

(I just added a new article for the first time in a year because I want an instruction sheet for a rare train that needs repair and decided putting it online might get me a scan or photocopy.)

Mostly today I work on my other sites. I've learned a lot over the years based on that one beginning. If I hadn't started, I wouldn't be where I am.

A note here. I'm not telling Connie to spend a lot of time writing articles or money building a website with the expectation of future riches. I'm suggesting that by sharing her knowledge of this collectible, she might be able to make some money, and more importantly, she'll learn skills that will be valuable in other areas.

Today websites are even cheaper than when I started. Domains run about $10 a year, and hosting is available for $5-10 a month. I talked about this in a recent article so instead of repeating myself here, I'll just provide a link.

Connie also asks about delivering her articles. You cannot send eBay buyers an email directing them to the article online.

You can group the photos so there are only a few color pages within a longer issue. If you have a cheap color printer that will do acceptable quality images, start there. Just print the articles as you sell them so you don't have inventory or end up printing issues you cannot sell.

If you cannot group the photos logically, you can write the article in Word or Open Office and then convert it to a PDF and put it on a CD.

I know two people who built toy train websites who took the sites down, put them on CD, and now sell the CDs on eBay. They charge $20-30 dollars. One of them is a nearly complete look at one company's production with pictures of almost everything they made. The other CD just contains photos of different trains by a single maker with an index so you can find the pictures.

I wrote a few weeks ago about CDs and testing ability your to sell before putting out a lot of money. (Same article linked to above about building a website.)

While I'm giving Connie some ideas about her business, here's another suggestion.

I recently bought a stack of early train club newsletters on eBay. They contained articles about why specific people started collecting trains, their favorite trains, how they display their collection, and stories about interesting acquisitions. (I really liked the story with pictures of a train set found in a dumpster behind an apartment building. Today that train is worth over $100,000!)

These would be interesting and valuable articles for any type of collectible. I'd try putting these articles on the blog, and selling in depth looks at specific subsets of the collectible on CD.

If people buy the CDs, I'd do more articles and add them to the CD.

I'll give you an example using my train collection. I'd do an article about the large Lionel freight cars made between 1926 and 1942. I'd sell that on eBay for $10-15 on CD. Then I'd write an article about the Lionel passenger cars introduced between 1924 and 1932 and add it to the CD and sell both articles for $15-20. Keep adding articles and raising the price until you're selling the CDs for $30-40 each. Then start on a second CD.

While doing that, I'd be building the website (I use website and blog as synonyms because a blog is an easy way to build a website.)

Don't get caught up in the delivery method of the information.

Here's an example of how you can get caught up in expectations and fail.

Years ago, I was sent a review draft of a wonderful book about Lionel trains made between 1915 and 1924. The author had spent years working on the book, and had included photos of most everything Lionel made during this period along with commentary on the evolution of these trains.

He wrote the book thinking he'd get a publisher to print it. That didn't work out as no publisher would take on the project.

I suggested reformatting the book to put all the pictures into groups to lower the printing costs, but he rightly said this would lower the usability of the book.

I suggested he put it on CD, or work a deal with me to put the book on a CD, and he replied that he wanted to do a book because he'd always visualized a book, and wasn't willing to do a CD.

I also offered him cash for the book with the intention of putting it on my website. That didn't fly either.

Today, about 8 years later, the book full of valuable and interesting knowledge has yet to be published. The few of us collectors who were asked to read and comment on the draft are still the only people to read the book.

That's sad.

One last point before I move on. In the example above, I was asked to read the draft because I am considered an expert on those specific trains. While I became an expert by associating with other collectors and learning from them, I was recognized as an expert because of the articles on my website.

This is another benefit Connie will realize by claiming her expert status.

Do I need to mention that a few years after reading the draft, I bought some wonderful and rare items for my collection from the author because he knew I'd appreciate them enough to pay absurdly high prices for them?

I want to be clear here. To write an article, try to sell it on eBay and get few or no sales isn't a failure. It's a first step.

Let's get back to Connie's question.

While I know there are hundreds, if not thousands, of websites about collectibles where the owners aren't trying to make money, making money from a site is OK.

These sites just seem to be places where collectors share their knowledge and collections with others. Some people rebel against the idea of monetizing their hobby websites, but I think it's important to try to make money while sharing knowledge. Connie seems to think so too.

If we're going to spend the time building a website, we might as well at least try to get paid for our efforts.

So let's look at some other ways for Connie to make money with her knowledge.

A good suggestion is to build a website with lots of articles about subgroups of the collectible and then place affiliate links to eBay so visitors can see recent selling prices. I have sites that do this. Since eBay revised their affiliate program to pay per click, my revenue has declined, but it's virtually free income because I built the sites to share my trains and toys with others.

My sites with approximately 200 pages containing affiliate links to eBay in areas with much greater interest rarely bring in more than $60 a month between them.

So based on my results in the larger toy and toy train niches, I doubt Connie would see more than $15-20 a month in eBay commissions. This doesn't mean she shouldn't do it, it just means realistic expectation is to cover website hosting costs and maybe get a cup a coffee each month.

Another way to get some revenue from a site about collectibles is to link to relevant price guides on Amazon. I do this on my toy train site but rarely get commissions. This is something to test, but won't result in large commissions. I don't think I've ever made more than $20 in a single year from this.

Better than linking to price guides on Amazon is offering to do appraisals. I charge $20 for appraisals, but do it more to keep people from asking me questions and wasting my time than a revenue source. If I lowered the price to $5 per appraisal I'd certainly do more than 2 or 3 estimates a year.

The appraisals usually take me less than ten minutes to do because I can do them off the top of my head. When doing appraisals I write a little history, a range of values and provide some listing suggestions for selling them on eBay.

In the few cases when I get requests for items I'm not familiar with, I research completed auctions on eBay and check some of my reference books.

One note here. . . if you use the word appraisal and charge for your service, you must give a valid estimate of the value. Doing appraisals is not a good way to find and buy items for resale.

Moving on, there are other items with affiliate programs that can be promoted on a website about collectibles. Display, care and cleaning products are available on Amazon and other sites with affiliate programs. Additionally, these are easy topics to write articles about that your readers will benefit from reading.

This might sound a little self serving, but my materials about eBay and antiques are a good fit for any collectibles website and most of them pay a 50% affiliate commission.

One important point I need to make here is while I suggest adding a few affiliate links to your sites, I don't think of affiliate income as a PRIMARY way to make money.

Building a website with the intention of making commissions is a bad practice for two reasons:

First, it leaves you open to changes in affiliate program payouts that can ruin your income. For example, I saw a huge drop in my commissions from eBay a few years ago. (Just before I started formatting this newsletter article to put it on the website, I got an email from eBay saying they're making changes to the way they serve affiliate feeds. This might require me to do dozens of hours of work to continue getting the $60 a month in commissions.)

The second reason affiliate income shouldn't be your primary focus is it changes your attitude from providing information to getting more commissions. Taken to it's extreme your readers and the search engines like Google will see this emphasis and you'll lose search rankings and readers.

I suggest thinking of affiliate income as free money that you get for pointing your audience at sites and products that will benefit them. Rather than a way to make money, affiliate links are a way of providing additional value for your readers.

One last way to make money on a collectibles website is with a forum. I've tried this a few times and abandoned it because I couldn't get enough people involved. I do participate in a few forums that seem to be profitable so there must be a way to do this.

You can charge money for memberships or sell ads and post affiliate links. Simple Machines is a free script that many web hosting companies include in their service that can be set up as a paid membership through PayPal easily, and is even easier to place advertisements into.

To summarize, I doubt any, or even all, of these ways to make money on a collectibles website will result in enough income to live on. This is especially true in a small niche like the one Connie is exploring.

I still think it's worth the time and effort though. Spending 15-20 hours a month sharing your knowledge with others and trying to get some income from it is a more valuable use of your time than watching the latest reality show on TV.

I have a package that is only $9.97 that contains a transcript of a consultation I did with a student about going from an eBay seller to an online marketer. The package also contains a step-by-step action plan and a longer ebook explaining ways to make money online.

If you've gotten some ideas from reading this article, you certainly find $9.97 worth of good advice in the package.

Find out more about Moving Beyond eBay.


PS I just updated the Moving Beyond eBay book last year. If you've been selling on eBay and are interested in doing more this package will help you understand the possibilities.

Here's another Link

PS I also have a cheap report that explains how I write and manage my newsletters. The report also has advice for finding new subscribers, and figuring out what offers they'll respond to. It's called Newsletter Profits.

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