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Selling used cookbooks on Amazon


Fat Guy
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A few months ago, for various reasons not least of which is an impending move, we needed to cut our book collection in half. We put about 2,000 books -- the ones we're keeping -- in storage, which left us with about 2,000 books to unload. Our collection is not 100% food-related but food books are a substantial chunk and happen to be the ones with the most value as used books for sale. So we started looking at ways to sell them.

The most convenient thing would have been to sell the whole collection to a used bookseller like the Strand, but we couldn't get anybody to take the collection at a decent price. We heard things like "I'll give you a dollar a book for nonfiction" and "Nice collection but I just don't have room for it." (The realization of how little most used books are worth can be jarring.) Selling the books from a table on the street felt too hardcore for us, and from a pure-finance perspective charitable deductions are only helpful for people with income, so we researched the online mechanisms. Although there are many outlets for used books online, all roads led to Amazon. I had been hoping to do it on eBay so as to be able to participate in the tie-in charitable-donations program with the eGullet Society, and I'm researching how something like that might be possible with Amazon, but the logistics of selling on Amazon just seemed so much better. The mechanisms for listing books on Amazon and managing inventory and orders are superior, and on Amazon you capture the eyes of people who go to Amazon looking for a given book and, when they search, the used options pop up.

In short, if you have the opportunity to pick up some extra hours as an assistant manager at McDonald's you can probably make more money per hour than you can make selling books on Amazon. At the same time you do better on Amazon than you can do selling books to a used

bookstore for 50 cents each.

The first step in the process is setting up a merchant account, which is mostly a matter of filling out lots of online forms -- if you were able to join the eGullet Society you can handle the Amazon merchant registration process.

Then you have to list your books. The only reliable way to list a book is to key in its ISBN number, which is kind of a pain. You can search by title but then you're never sure which edition you're dealing with (some books have a dozen or more editions with subtle differences that are hard to identify except by ISBN number).

Once you've pulled up the book's information from its ISBN number, you have to assess and describe its condition. There are guidelines for this, and if you stretch the truth then people may return the books, so you have to take the time to do this right.

Then you have to figure out a price. You look at what everybody else is charging for the same title in various conditions, and you set a competitive price in the hopes that people will choose yours. This is a process that seems to be without rhyme or reason, but over time you start to see the patterns. It all turns out, not surprisingly, to be a question of supply and demand. Books that have zillions of copies in print being sold used on Amazon tend to list for a low as 1 cent. (It's still possible for aggressive sellers to make a profit this way, because there's also a $3.99 shipping credit -- so if it's a light book and you can ship it for cheap you can still make a few cents.) Meanwhile, books with fewer outstanding copies tend to sell for more. Therefore, ironically and counterintuitively, the books that sold poorly when new often do better than the bestsellers simply because of the smaller number of copies available on the used market.

It's fascinating to see what comes up when you price a book. Sometimes we have a big, beautiful hardcover cookbook full of photographs that looks like it will be worth a lot for sure, and it turns out there are 300 different sellers offering it on Amazon for 50 cents. Other times I key in the ISBN number on some small, crummy-seeming book and it turns out people are getting $10 or more for it.

So far I've listed about 100 books. It's slow going and I don't list every book we have. I type in the ISBN number and look at how the market has priced the book. I don't sell a book unless we can potentially make a few dollars on the sale, so the ones that are selling for 1 cent or 99 cents go back on the shelf -- those we'll probably donate or something. For every book I've listed I've probably keyed in the ISBN numbers of 4 or 5 books I haven't listed. So it's slow going.

We've sold 26 books in our first week of business. The first few times I got an email from Amazon alerting me of a purchase, it was a real thrill. Now it's like, "Oh no, I have to ship five more damn books."

Order fulfillment is fairly arduous. It's not as hard as a real job but it's a pain. Especially for books that you've listed in Like New or Very Good condition, you really have to make sure you ship them in such a way that they won't get damaged. The corners and edges, most importantly, need to be well-protected.

I did a lot of reading on the Amazon seller forums and around the web to figure out the best way to pack and ship books. The easiest ways are 1- to use fancy padded book mailers, or 2- to use the Amazon fulfillment service. But in both of these cases you incur substantial costs. If you buy book mailers that cost $3 each, and your profit on a book was $4, that's a big sacrifice. Amazon fulfillment can also be quite costly when you add up all the fees.

I settled on something called the "book burrito" as the best combination of good packaging and low cost. A book burrito is a corrugated cardboard sleeve folded/wrapped around a book that extends past the ends of the book to protect the corners. You can make them out of pieces of recycled cardboard boxes. Here's an example:

bookburrito.jpg

What I've been doing is first wrapping the book in brown paper, then making a burrito, then attaching the packing slip to the burrito, then putting all that in a clear plastic mailer. We may acquire some "b-flute" cardboard on rolls if we keep this up, because making burritos out of recycled boxes is time-consuming. It's no big deal to do it once. But if you get a day when you have to ship seven books it's more difficult.

When you get the notification to send a book to a buyer, you go into your Amazon seller control panel and the system generates a packing slip for you. You have to print that and include it with the shipment.

Once you have a book all packed up, you need to weigh it and put postage on it. The research shows that customers much prefer merchants who ship with tracking, so we've been paying the extra 19 cents for tracking. We do it all with Stamps.com, which is a very good solution for this sort of thing: it allows you to print the postage on your computer printer, which in turn means you can drop the packages in a mailbox instead of needing to make a trip to the post office. It's a small-scale equivalent of an office mailroom's postage metering system.

Once you've shipped the book you go back into your control panel to confirm the shipment. You tell it what means of shipping you used (e.g., USPS Media Mail) and you enter the tracking number. Then Amazon's system generates a confirmation email to the purchaser.

There is also some follow-up service that you need to be prepared for. So far out of 26 books we've had one complaint, and it was a valid one (my mistake on the listing, which is why I now only do it by ISBN number), so we basically wound up giving that book away for free. Even with invalid complaints, sometimes it's not worth fighting them I hear. We'll see how much of a challenge customer service becomes. You have to handle that part of it well, though, in order to get good buyer feedback.

So how much money can you make from this?

Let's break it down with an $8 book as an example. That's how much we sold our excellent-condition copy of Jessica Seinfeld's "Deceptively Delicious" for.

Buyer's Price: $8.00.

Amazon Commission: $-3.54. Yikes, that's a lot of money. Amazon gets 15% plus 99 cents plus $1.35 per book. You can get out of the 99 cent charge if you become a pro seller, which costs $40 a month and is therefore worth it if you're going to sell more than 40 books a month. After I sold my first few books I upgraded to pro seller. So the commission on this book would have been $2.55 for a pro seller, but you have to factor in the share of that $40-a-month charge attributable to one book.

Shipping Credit: $3.99. The buyer pays $3.99 for shipping and handling, regardless of the size and weight of the book. This is passed through to the seller. Most cookbooks weigh in at 2, 3 or 4 pounds once you include the packing material. If you use USPS Media Mail with tracking it costs $2.96 to mail a 2-pound book, $3.35 to mail a 3-pound book, and $3.74 to mail a 4-pound book -- a 3-pound book for example being defined as a book that weighs between 2.1 and 3 pounds; if you go up to 3.1 pounds you're talking about a 4-pound book.

Then you have to consider the cost of your packing materials, which is why it pays to use recycled cardboard and such. Although, you have to be careful with recycled stuff because you don't want your shipments to look like they come from a terrorist or kidnapper. That's not likely to be good for customer feedback. Also, if you're using a service like Stamps.com there are some monthly fees as well as the cost of labels. All that has to be factored in.

Earnings Before Shipping: $8.45. That's the after-commission amount plus the shipping credit.

Shipping Cost: $3.35. That's the postage cost. I'm actually not sure what the materials and other costs come to. A few cents for tape, the bag, the label -- I haven't done the spreadsheet that thoroughly but you can be sure that the real cost to me is more than just the $3.35 postage. Let's call all those costs 50 cents.

Total Earnings: $4.60. If all my other computations are correct, that's what we take away on this $8 book sale. This assumes no value to the 20 minutes it took to deal with the listing, packing, shipping, confirmation, etc. But if you assume my time has no value -- which it probably doesn't -- then we made $4.60 on the transaction.

It's also not like they just magically send you the $4.60. There's a whole process to get the money into your bank account, and they won't give you all your money -- there's a reserve amount they hold on to to cover customer disputes and such.

We've sold books for as little as $4 and as much as $34 (the professional cooking and foodservice-management titles tend to get the most) -- mostly at the lower end of that range. Needless to say, you have to sell a lot of books before selling used books on Amazon becomes a financially useful venture. But if you have a big collection like mine and a lot of spare time (as most freelance writers do these days) then it's probably worth it. Either way, I'd rather have $4.60 than "Deceptively Delicious."

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I looked into selling on Amazon for my Chocolate Doctor DVDs. Totally not possible on Amazon.ca in Canada - they simply didn't have a mechanism to sell that class of product (perhaps it's changed - but I suspect not) and the logistics of doing it through Amazon.com were daunting.

I went as far as obtaining ISBNs (or something similar for DVDs vs books) for each of my 3 volumes which cost me a pretty penny - but then got bogged down trying to figure out how I could fulfill the orders to Amazon's requirements from Canada. It involved a lot of phone calls, a lot of confusion and no clear answers. Kind of like they were talking another language that sounded like english, but I simply couldn't understand them.

The one thing that seemed clear was that Amazon itself was going to make more out of each DVD than I was!

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What's "Amazon fulfillment"?

That's how fulfilled that Amazon feels when they make more than you do from the product you've developed! Actually - just means servicing the orders. They also have a center where you can ship quantities of your product and they ship things out from there - those are the things that get free shipping over $25 or whatever the minimum order is.

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Right, with Amazon fulfillment you ship all your inventory to Amazon's warehouse. You pay a monthly storage charge and a per-order fulfillment charge on top of all the commissions and fees so it's quite difficult to make much money that way. But someone from Amazon takes care of picking, packing and shipping, and your books get favorable search-results placement.

I should add that everything I discussed above assumes a US seller selling to US buyers. If you want to ship from or to other countries, there's a whole additional layer of process to deal with. Also, if you want to sell collectibles (signed first editions and such), there's a whole approval process for that. I actually got denied. I wanted to sell a signed first edition of something as a collectible and Amazon told me to get lost because I don't have enough feedback etc.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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P.S. My tentative plan is to use Amazon fulfillment for any books that have a decent selling price that haven't been sold by the time we move. That, or store them in big piles in my mother's living room and turn her dining room into an Amazon fulfillment center.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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About a year and a half ago, I had the same problem. I gave the local library about 150 books but the ones that I knew would bring a little money I listed on Half.com which is a part of Ebay. I think their system is easy to use and they don't take as much money from a sale. I was able to sell most of the books that I wanted to sell. I only have about 20 left. Since the economy tanked the sales are few and far between. I just leave them listed, since they don't charge anything and maybe someone will buy one.

check out my baking and pastry books at the Pastrymama1 shop on www.Half.ebay.com

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Getting rid of used books in New York is indeed a major and generally unrewarding hassle. A friend of mine is the used book manager at a bookstore in Cambridge; when I lived in Brooklyn and needed to unload, it was easier for me to ship boxes to him rather than sell locally. This Amazon deal sounds pretty marginal for the effort involved. I've done small-press publishing, so I'm familiar with the mailing difficulties you speak of. My friend might be willing to take some stuff off your hands--if you want, pm me and I'll give you his contact info.

"I think it's a matter of principle that one should always try to avoid eating one's friends."--Doctor Dolittle

blog: The Institute for Impure Science

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Several of my friends have had success using eBid - the fees are less than eBay and they have short term seller+ specials up to 3 months flat fee if selling many items. No additional fees.

You can check it out here:

http://us.ebid.net/help_main.php

I've been considering joining myself as I have a ton of books to unload, early Sci-Fi books, etc., as well as a "few" cookbooks.

"There are, it has been said, two types of people in the world. There are those who say: this glass is half full. And then there are those who say: this glass is half empty. The world belongs, however, to those who can look at the glass and say: What's up with this glass? Excuse me? Excuse me? This is my glass? I don't think so. My glass was full! And it was a bigger glass!" Terry Pratchett

 

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If you have another few minutes to waste, you might want to look into how half.com would compare. I only say this because the purchasing experience (and the odds of finding obscure cooking/food-related books) is greater there, in my experience.

Overheard at the Zabar’s prepared food counter in the 1970’s:

Woman (noticing a large bowl of cut fruit): “How much is the fruit salad?”

Counterman: “Three-ninety-eight a pound.”

Woman (incredulous, and loud): “THREE-NINETY EIGHT A POUND ????”

Counterman: “Who’s going to sit and cut fruit all day, lady… YOU?”

Newly updated: my online food photo extravaganza; cook-in/eat-out and photos from the 70's

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I've purchased many, many used cookbooks on half.com and ebay. A few on Amazon. I tend to use Amazon for new release cookbooks and one of the others for older books.

Now, I've found myself in need of divesting myself of a number of them, and like Fat Guy, unsure of what to do with them, and dreading the process of listing and shpping.

Edited by rosejoy (log)
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I've had the same experience as Steven. I didn't have quite as many books to unload, but needed to clean house. As he mentioned, cookbooks that I felt would go for a high price were selling for $.01 on Amazon. Yet there were books that I dug out of storage that, to my surprise, were going for as high as $80!! I have sold several high price books. In those cases, I shipped priority, vs. media mail, since I had already made quite a lot of money off of the sale.

Since I am still relatively new to the seller process (about 100 sales) I am still paying for dly confirmation on all my books. I have only run into one problem, and that was a book that was damaged in transit.

I have found selling on Amazon to be an easy way to sell books, and much more preferable than to have a yard sale and sell for perhaps $.50 each. Since I do have many, many books left that are still only going for a penny on Amazon, I will most likely sell this summer for cheap, just to get them out of the house.

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I've never sold any products on Amazon, but I'm amazed at the level of web traffic on that site. Many people who buy used books know of Amazon, but not of other big online vendors like Abebooks or Alibris. So even though Amazon gets a big bite of your profits, realize that you're selling on some prime web real estate.

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I believe that if you list on Abebooks you can set it up so that it is also lists on amazon. Abebooks software may be easier to use than listing on amazon, but I have not looked at the current process for both of them. At any rate, one entry and two listings, with amazon getting an additional bite above what abe would take. The buyer pays less if they buy it on abe. Told to me by a book dealer friend a few years ago. You would have to check it out to make sure this is still the case.

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I need to learn more about Abebooks. I know Amazon bought them a year or so ago, but that it still operates as its own company. I know Abebooks uses software called HomeBase that is favored by real professional booksellers. But so far, for an amateur seller and particularly in the cookbook arena, what I've been gathering is that Amazon is the way to go. While it's possible to cross-list I think you wind up paying monthly subscription fees to multiple operations, which I think is only worth it if you're in a long-term, high-volume business.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I would be extremely wary of doing business with Half.com. They have dreadful customer service. My daughter lost some substantial dollars when the textbook she bought got lost in the ozone and they made themselves completely unavailable, never answered her queries, and ultimately we gave up trying to get any money back from them.

Another operation worth checking out is Bookfinder.com. I'm not sure how it works, but it's an amazing service and always prompt, no errors. The descriptions of book condition seem very reliable. But I've only bought through them, not sold.

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Yes, I have a storefront and everything. So does every seller almost automatically. I haven't provided that information here, though, because I don't intend to use this topic for commercial purposes.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I used to sell through Amazon, mostly technical books that we didn't need anymore. The prices for used tech books were high, since they were still in print for even more, and they were generally seldom-used reference books.

However, one dispute with Amazon soured the relationship for quite awhile. I sold a high-priced item, so I sent it signature required via fedex. It was delivered and signed for - heard nothing. Until 3 months later when the buyer filed a chargeback dispute with their credit card.

Amazon sent me a form mail requesting information which was completely inappropriate to the situation. The buyer claimed it had been returned and no refund was issued. Amazon wanted delivery confirmation and nothing else. So I sent delivery information. And I sent the "I never got it back, there was never a request for refund, buyer didn't meet Amazon's refund requirements. I think this is fraudulant." bit in with it too. And I called.... three or four times to check on status and to see if they needed anything, and to see if I was in the right.

I emailed the buyer directly and said "If you sent it back, please send me the tracking information, since I haven't received it. I'm happy to process a refund when I receive the item or I can help you with an insurance claim against your shipper." No response at all.

Another 3 months pass. And the credit card finds in the buyer's favor because Amazon failed to provide them any reason not to. I emailed Amazon and said "This is fraud, I'm supposed to be protected against fraud. And since I can't communicate directly with the credit card processor, you're supposed to represent me." Amazon's position was "You didn't say it was fraud." "Well, maybe you did, but see here, our new terms and conditions say you're liable for fraud." "No, we're not going to uphold the terms and conditions that were in effect at the time of the sale that say we'll eat the charges in the case of buyer fraud."

So I was out about $100. Plus all the time it took to manage the dispute, answer emails, try to talk to someone on the phone, etc. And I was out $100 6 months later, which annoyed me more than all the rest put together.

I like selling books via Amazon. When everything goes well, it's easy, and it gets things out of my house. But most books don't sell for much. And you have to sell a lot of $8 books to make up for one expensive sale gone bad. I think that if Amazon could have said "In the future, you can protect yourself by...." I would have continued to sell with them. But instead they said "Not our problem, we're taking the money. That's the way we handle credit card disputes, you'll always lose."

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A few years ago, selling on Amazon was much more profitable--but there truly is a glut of used books, and as FatGuy said, many dealers selling books for 1 cent. Cookbooks & textbooks, any technical kind of book, these are the only books worth selling these days.

I tend to only list if i can make five bucks--if course that is not including my time--worthless, naturally.

I'll share a few things i learned--I only list books as "good". I found that when i described as "like new" or "giftable" I had many more complaints--there was always a nit someone could pick-- listing as good doesn't seem to cut down on sales, but almost completely cuts complaints.

I think if you use the online USPS shipping site you get your tracking number for free, also a little bit off the cost--but it's a big pain in the butt. PayPal shipping is the most convenient, but only works from ebay, unfortunately.

There are always the lost or "lost" items--I think this will increase as the economy stays bad--i just had an ebay sale (for shoes)where the buyer claimed the box arrived, but with a book in it, not the shoes she bought.I'm 99% sure that she was scamming me--nothing I could do but refund the total amount of money.

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I once shipped a bunch of books [to Calipoutine, I think] because there was going to be a book sale at one of the gatherings. If something like that is coming up, perhaps that would also be something worth considering for books that aren't worth the effort of putting up for sale on Amazon.

This was a couple of years ago but I think it might have been the Heartland Gathering.

jayne

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Thanks for the details - I'd never thought of selling through Amazon! Did you happen to compare it to selling books to Powells? I'm local so I take my books in, but you can also get a price quote on line at http://www.powells.com/sellonline. If you like it, you ship them the books. No affiliation,don't know anyone who has used it, just a frequent customer.

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There are many, many schools of thought on this and the people using a given service will all tell you it's the best one -- otherwise they wouldn't be using it. I spoke to a lot of folks, though, and especially ones selling cookbook-heavy collections. The consensus seemed to be that for someone in my position -- small, temporary, amateur bookseller -- you do the best on Amazon in terms of the number of eyeballs on your listings. Everything else flows from that. I will say that so far I've been selling about 1/4 of the books I've listed within just a few days of listing them. Today I set my personal record with a $65 sale.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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I'm endlessly fascinated by which books are worth money and which aren't. I realize it's largely a supply-and-demand equation with the critical variable being the number of copies out there for sale, and that there's no way to tell by looking at a book how many copies are out there, but still I love to speculate and I'm usually wrong.

For example, the most expensive cookbook I've sold has been a paperback. I almost didn't even bother to key in the ISBN number because paperbacks are overwhelmingly worthless. But The Victory Garden Cookbook had what seemed like amazingly high prices from competing sellers, so I listed my copy for $35 -- a dollar cheaper than the next cheapest seller. It sold almost immediately.

I got $29 for The Talisman Italian Cookbook, $28 for Regional Foods of Southern Italy, $20 for Naples at Table, and $19 for Soffritto: Tradition and Innovation in Tuscan Cooking. Interesting that those are all Italian-food titles and among my top-grossing items.

The cheapest book I've sold has been $5: Betty Crocker 30-Minute Meals for Diabetes. I had two copies and figured it was better to get $10 for them than to cast them aside. Once I've taken the time to key in the ISBN number of a title it's hard to say no to $5 for a title, even though by the time I deal with the packing, shipping and customer-service issues it no longer seems worth it.

That's not to say $5 is the low end. For every $5+ book in my collection there turned out to be several not-worth-selling titles.

For example, I thought for sure that Sauces, by Peterson, would be worth something. This is a big, beautiful book and I'm getting rid of my earlier edition. Turns out there are numerous copies for sale under $5. And with a huge book like that it's just not worth selling for less -- my guess is that the only people selling it are high-volume sellers who don't mind netting $1 per book.

Time has not been kind to Lee Bailey's books. The man (who died in 2003) wrote many large-format, heavily-photographed books in the '80s and '90s. They're enjoyable books and I thought they'd be worth something because of their high production values -- they're borderline art books. Almost every one in my collection, however, can be had on Amazon for between 22 cents and $1.30.

I can't even count how many cookbooks I have that are valued at 1 cent. Well, I guess I could count. It has to be at least 200. I don't even know what I'm going to do with them.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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