Saturday, July 28

Making A Good Living Off Of eBay

For Terry Meade, eBay isn’t just a business, it’s a lifestyle. She calls it eBay World, and she spends about 18 hours a day immersed in it, selling and buying through the online auction site. Meade, a Princeton Junction resident, is one of about a dozen eBay trading assistants in Mercer County who are listed on eBay’s website.

Trading assistants not only sell items on eBay for themselves, they also assist other people less familiar with eBay selling. For those unfamiliar with the basics, but who want to give it a try on their own, Mercer County Community College is offering “How to Start a Successful eBay Business” on Saturday, July 28, at 9 a.m. The class will be taught by Martin Mosho, a longtime eBay seller. Cost: $59. To register call 609-570-3311.

Trading assistants are independent business owners, rather than eBay employees. To be listed as a trading assistant on eBay’s website, sellers must agree to follow all eBay policies. Meade, who can be found at TBM5201@aol.com, is a power seller with 100 percent positive feedback on about 5,000 sales. Since not everyone who purchases something on eBay fills out the satisfaction survey, she estimates that number is only about 60 percent of the sales she has actually completed since starting her eBay business about seven years ago.

Meade, 61, never planned to have an eBay career, but her background did prepare her to excel at sales of any kind — including virtual sales. She grew up in Brooklyn, where her mother was model and her father was an investor. The couple, first generation Americans, met in Brighton Beach. Meade’s grandmother and grandfather, immigrants from Italy and from Poland respectively, had a French dry cleaning business.

“That’s what you did when you immigrated to this country,” says Meade. Meade’s grandparents enjoyed their work, and she recalls spending happy hours throughout her childhood “sitting on tailors’ laps.”

Meade and her husband, Mark, were products of “a wonderful New York City school system,” she says. But when the couple, who have been married for 42 years, had children, they decided that the city’s schools had deteriorated, and they headed for the suburbs to give their children a better education.

They first lived in East Windsor, where Meade and a friend, realizing that there were no handicraft stores with anything like the variety and quality they were used to in New York, opened their own store, In Stitches, on Route 130. At the same time, her husband was operating a promotional products business, iPROMOTEu (www.vpcideas.com). In Stitches closed its doors when Meade’s partner moved to the West Coast. She then took a job with Lenox, but iPROMOTEu, now operated from the couple’s home, is still going strong.

After Meade retired from Lenox, where she had enjoyed buying the company’s products at a good discount, she and her husband cleaned out their home in East Windsor to move to a smaller home in Princeton Junction. Looking through the things she had collected through the years, she realized that she had “a lot of more china than I needed.” She’d heard about eBay, and decided it would be a great way to sell those extra pieces. “I didn’t even own a computer,” she says. “I just drove over to the computer store and said, here’s what I want to do, give me everything I need.”

She came home with a computer and an inexpensive digital camera and called on her son to set it up. “I took some photos, and listed them on eBay and a couple of days later they sold and I packed them up and shipped them off and listed some more.” She hasn’t stopped selling since.

Can you really make a living on eBay? “Oh, my goodness! Yes you can,” says Meade. “There are good years and bad, and every item you sell is not a winner.” But overall, she says, she does pretty well.

For others who would like to try an eBay business she has a few tips.

Sell what you love. You are going to be spending hours searching for items to sell, researching the items, talking with others about the items. You had better be interested in those items, says Meade. She does not handle basic household goods or baby clothes, for example. “It’s not worth it to me,” she says. She prefers to sell vintage goods as well as specialty china and glass items. She also sells high-end art, handbags, and cosmetics.

Know what you sell. The more information you have about an item, the easier it is to sell, and the easier it is to evaluate, says Meade.

“When a customer calls me and wants to sell something I take my loupe and my books and go take a look at it.” Obviously, “you can’t be an expert on everything,” she adds. If she can’t easily identify the value of an item, she will do online research to learn more about it and give it a market value.

Sometimes, being an eBay seller means handing out bad news, too. “Everyone has family treasures that they think are wonderful, but they really only have sentimental value,” she says. “Grandma’s chipped china is not going to sell.”

Move out of your comfort zone. Yes, it’s easier to sell what you know, but it can be a good idea to jump on an opportunity to move into another category of goods, too. And that is how Meade, who didn’t know the difference between a Harley from a Honda, developed quite a following in the motorcycle community a few years back. She had a friend who dealt in motorcycle parts, and she was soon selling the items to eager buyers across the country.

Likewise, all Meade knows about cars, she says, is that “you turn the key and they start.” But she has a good friend who is in the repo business. “He looks like a gangster, but he has a heart of gold,” is how she describes him. The fellow knows everything there is to know about cars. He can easily separate the clunkers from the cream puffs, but he has neither the time nor the inclination to sell them.

“eBay motors is the largest car dealer in the world,” Meade reveals. Using her expertise, she moves cars — “and trucks and motorcycles” — for her friend. She trusts his judgment, and none of her buyers, all of whom buy the wheels sight unseen, have ever asked for an inspection. These car buyers, many of whom fly in to claim their vehicles, use Meade’s 100 percent positive feedback from her auction buyers to give themselves peace of mind in their purchases.

Know how to sell Sometimes you do hit a bonanza, says Meade. She mentions one client who had a large collection of military magazines still in their original envelopes. If sold as a group, they would have brought a fairly modest amount of money. But sold individually, the client realized a much bigger profit.

“It took a lot more time to sell them that way, but there were a lot of collectors out there who only wanted one or two magazines to fill in their own collections,” she says.

Meade receives a commission on what she sells, usually 35 percent. “The percent goes down as the price goes up,” she says. Some items, such as cars, she sells for a flat fee.

Sell what you can buy cheaply. Meade watches auctions and estate sales and keeps up-to-date on prices for the items she is most interested in selling. It’s time consuming, but knowing a bargain when you see it is how you make a profit, she says.

Be aware of the competition. “In the early days, I ran around like crazy to thrift shops — in Brooklyn, in Queens, everywhere,” says Meade. She did well, bringing home bargains that sold for a good profit on eBay. Way back then, in the first year or two of the new millennium, she was pretty much alone as she prowled the aisles on the look-out for under-priced designer outfits. Now, it’s a totally different story.

“You pull up to the Goodwill or the Salvation Army and there are Caddies and Jags parked outside,” she says. Not only are eBay sellers mining the thrift stores, but the stores themselves are now maintaining their own eBay stores.

“The competition is vicious,” says Meade.

It’s who you know. A key to eBay success now is finding contacts that others can easily access — people like Meade’s auto repo guy. Another insider source she uses is Lenox, where her former employee status can net her discounts from time to time.

Meade doesn’t want to say too much about the wholesale sources from whom she buys, for example, cosmetics and handbags. But, in general, the wholesaler secret is out. In fact, eBay power sellers like Meade don’t even have to look for good bulk deals. The wholesalers contact them — from everywhere, and at all hours.

“One night my husband’s cellphone rang at 2 a.m.,” she recounts. “It was someone calling from China trying to sell us stuff.”

You never really know what will sell. An experienced seller like Meade nearly always knows what an item will fetch, but even she has been surprised. “There are always ‘sleeper’ items,” she says.

One such item was a pin, a piece of 1940s costume jewelry in the shape of a bird that had belonged to her mother. “It’s sort of pretty,” she recalls thinking. And that despite the fact that, upon close examination, she noticed that some of its rhinestones were missing.

She listed the pin for $9.99, and was shocked when it shot up to $86. Before long she was getting questions about the pin “from all around the world.” The pin had been made by a Trafari, a jewelry company that has apparently attracted avid collectors.

By chance, on the night the auction was to end, Meade got a call from a friend in the jewelry business who wanted to see the pin. The friend was not eBay literate, so Meade led her step-by-step through the website, and to the auction. There she noticed, with moments to go, that the price for the pin had risen to $400.

“Good-bye, Elaine. I have to go!” Meade exclaimed. She watched her computer screen as the auction closed, and the pin sold for $411. The winning bidder was a woman who had long sought just exactly the pin that Meade’s mother had bought some six decades ago. You never know.

Learn to market your items. On eBay, a good photograph can be worth a thousand dollars. Invest in a good digital camera with a zoom lens and learn how to use it, says Meade. She started with a simple camera, but has continued to upgrade over the years. For a simple, inexpensive item, she will post six pictures. For a car, she will generally post 24, showing it from all angles.

Items displayed without photos always bring less money than those with photos, she finds.

Be smart about postage. When she was new to eBay selling, Meade went to the Princeton Junction post office — “The people there are the best,” she says, weighed out each package, and charged each customer exact postage.

Before long, however, a helpful postal clerk informed her that she was selling herself short. “‘Everyone tacks on a dollar or two,’” he told her. The post office even offers “stealth” postmarks that do not contain the price paid to ship a package.

“I’m upfront about it,” says Meade. On each of her auctions she informs bidders of just what the shipping charges will be. She calculates the amount by weighing the item, and then by checking a chart to find out how much it would cost to send it to California. If the winning bidder is on the East Coast, she generally makes a few dollars on postage, if the winning bidder is on the West Coast, she makes only $1 or so.

Meade no longer makes trips to the post office, which now picks up packages at home at 1 p.m. each day, and which also supplies free boxes for priority shipments. She likes the speed with which USPS priority shipments arrive, but still, she is seriously considering switching to UPS.

Recent hikes in USPS rates, combined with new regulations that require that exact dimensions be given for each package, is making the post office too expensive. UPS tends to be slower, but costs less. And at a recent eBay convention, UPS offered eBay sellers a 30 percent discount.

Think twice about shipping internationally. “I sold a handbag on May 29, and the customer on July 10 to say it had not yet arrived,” says Meade. She immediately tracked the package, and found that it was being held up in customs. This sort of thing is happening all the time now, she says. Shipping out of the country is no longer worth the hassle, in her opinion. She will only do it “if a customer begs.”

Do not complain about eBay fees. eBay charges sellers more than it did in its early days. Meade figures that, all totaled, the fees on a $1,000 sale would be about $70 to $80. She is fine with that, and given her experience in retail, she has no patience with those who complain.

“Let them try retail!” she exclaims. “The overhead, the paperwork, the employees…” Yes, she works long hours, but she is able to do so at home. She can even take vacations. For a fee of 10 cents per item, she can list items and have eBay post them for her so that they don’t close until she arrives home.

Despite the long hours, and often lonely work, Meade enjoys every minute she spends in “eBay World.”

“I’ve met some incredibly wonderful people,” she says. “It is amazing what people will buy sight unseen!” She has sold everything from timeshare condominiums to art, jewelry, furs, World War II memorabilia, and Playboy magazines.

“A few years ago a couple who worked at the Pentagon came up from D.C. to pick up a car,” she says. “I made them lunch, they stayed the afternoon, and we’ve become lifelong friends.” They continue to e-mail regularly. Just last spring she received a photo of the couple in the rose garden reception at the White House for Queen Elizabeth.

Making new friends, in fact, is one of the reasons Meade loves eBay. It allows her to meet people from all over the country, both through E-mail and in person. eBay holds yearly conventions, called eBay Live! where sellers meet to network, learn better selling techniques, and hear the latest eBay news.

The 2005 convention illustrates why Meade is so attached to eBay, and how she really came to know that a cyber friend is a friend indeed.

She and her husband had flown to San Jose for the convention, but while still in the airport, Mark had a massive heart attack and was hospitalized. Once he was stabilized, she called the convention to let some of her friends among the eBay employees know what had happened.

“From that moment on I was never left alone,” she says. “Someone from eBay was always with me.” Meg Whitman, eBay CEO (and benefactor of the new Whitman College at Princeton University), even called her to offer support and help if she needed it.

Mark’s heart condition was very critical. After several days in the hospital in San Jose he was transferred to San Francisco. “eBay helped arrange everything,” Meade says. Following bypass surgery, the couple needed to stay in California for several weeks. “I’d come for a couple of days to a convention in southern California and I ended up for several weeks in northern California. They brought me clothes, everything I needed.” When they were ready to return to New Jersey, eBay upgraded their tickets to first class.

Meade calls the eBay staff her angels. “In the overall scheme of eBay, I’m nothing,” she says. “There are a lot of people who make a lot more money for eBay that I do, but it didn’t matter to them. One of their people was in trouble, and they came.”

Meade and her husband recently returned from this year’s eBay Live! in Boston. It was the first time he had been able to attend a convention since his heart attack. Meade rented a motorized chair so that he would not become too tired walking through the convention hall. But any trouble was worth it to them. Says Meade: “He really wanted to be there because we have such wonderful eBay friends and he wanted to see them.”

— Karen Hodges Miller

Find Passion In Romance Writing

Did you know that a Gothic novel is a subgenre of romance novels, but that a love story falls into an entirely different fictional category? According to Lori Wilde, who teaches a six-week, romance-writing class online for Mercer County Community College, a romance must have a central love story between one man and one woman — and a happy ending. “Take ‘Jane Eyre’ and ‘Wuthering Heights,’ says Wilde. “‘Wuthering Heights’ is not a romance, and ‘Jane Eyre’ is not, but eventually is.”

The formula can be stretched a little bit. The lovers might be a vampire and a werewolf, says Wilde, but the romance must be within a couple, with no adultery.

Wilde believes the romance genre better suits women, whereas men tend to write love stories: “Men want to make everyone adulterous and dead,” she observes. While women want love to win out.

The online class, “Romance Writing Secrets,” starts monthly and goes for six weeks. Cost: $84. For more information or to enroll, go to www.ed2go.com/mccc.edu.

Wilde, who lives in Weatherford, Texas, near Fort Worth, wanted to be writer since she was little. She says “daddy was a journalist, and I was daddy’s girl” — he wrote for the Fort Worth Star Telegram and was a cameraman for a local television channel. Her mother was a special education teacher.

Wilde was told that it was too difficult to be a writer and was encouraged to pursue nursing instead, and that’s what she did. She put herself through school, first becoming a licensed practical nurse and then graduating in 1982 from Texas Christian University as a registered nurse. She worked in the profession for 20 years.

Wilde also wrote fiction on the side. “I wrote 60 short stories and got 60 rejected,” she says. Then one day she got some great advice: your writing is good, but your problem is that you need to be writing a novel, not short stories.

Wilde had grown up reading Gothics that her father used to get from his newspaper’s book reviewer. (Gothics are in first person, more atmospheric, usually with a lonely girl in an isolated place with a man she doesn’t know, says Wilde.) As she pondered the suggestion that she write a novel, she thought about Harlequin romances, because they were really short, about 50,000 words, when she started writing. (They are longer today.) “I started because I was too intimidated by a long book,” she says. Although she didn’t sell her first one, she did sell her second, and is now up to 21 books on the market.

In a Harlequin romance, the limits are pretty tight, and there’s not room for much more than the romance. “It’s like performing Swan Lake in a phone booth,” says Wilde. Time-Warner generally publishes longer books, with more subplots, which, she says, are “a little more fun after you are an experienced author.”

Many people start with a category romance, which focuses narrowly on the primary romantic relationship, with little else going on. A category romance comes out every month, is numbered in a series, and has a specified theme or character type. “It’s more restrictive and in a way requires more talent,” says Wilde, “because you’re not free to write what you want. To continue to do it and keep fresh is very difficult.” Although many publishers used to have a category line, Harlequin has bought them all up. But there’s a plus — at Harlequin Silhouette, the publisher’s category line, the editors read every submission.

For romance writers in the making, Wilde has a few suggestions:

Create your story with its marketing potential in mind. As a novice writer, Wilde always began by creating her characters, but now, she says, “I start with a marketing idea that appeals to me.” It’s a business, and she is always asking herself: How can I twist a theme and give it a unique spin? How can I bring in supporting characters that underlie the theme and reflect it?

Wilde gets a lot of her ideas from reading nonfiction. “See what is going on now, and you will see same thing in fiction 18 months from now,” she says.

Sometimes it’s an ever-popular topic with a new perspective that sells, for example, a series on runaway brides she is currently writing. “Brides are always interesting,” she says. “When a bride is on the cover, books hop off the shelf.”

Since editors are always looking for an angle they know will sell, says Wilde, “you have to merge commerce and art if you want to make a living.”

Wilde does make a living from her writing. Although for her first book, published in 1994, took 18 months to write, and paid about $5,000, she now writes four or five books a year and receives about $20,000 for each one.

Wilde recently sold her third and forth books for the bride series. In one her heroine has just been jilted at the altar. She is a starry-eyed romantic turned cynic by her experience. “She decides romance is hooey,” says Wilde. The jilted bride blames her previously romantic fantasies on how she was raised and where. Not only was she born on Valentine’s Day, but the only industry in her hometown was one that produces romance novelties, catering especially to Valentine’s Day.

After the failed wedding, she returns home and starts Romanceaholics Anonymous, with a goal of stopping people from being overly romantic. The upshot, of course, is an emotional civil war between the cynics and the romantics, as represented by our heroine, “a romantic who has become a cynic,” and her love interest, “a cynic who has become a romantic.”

Develop your characters. “Because it is a romance, you have two protagonists and two antagonists,” says Wilde, explaining that each person in the couple plays both roles. As in most fiction, she says, “the antagonist is the person who causes the protagonist to grow.”

Both hero and heroine must have a character arc where they grow as people. “They have a clash of values and beliefs,” which causes conflict between them. “It’s all about the internal, the emotional — their fears and their secrets. They love each other, are attracted, but can’t be together because of the clash,” says Wilde. To successfully complete the book, the author must be able to bring the couple together so that readers believe they will stay together.

To get to know her characters, Wilde first has them write their biographies in first person. As the characters speak about themselves, they tell her things she would otherwise not have known. The writer can also take a more active role, interviewing her characters like a psychologist.

When you understand your characters and what they want to happen in their lives, she says, “then you can put in obstacles to keep them from getting it.”

You also have to know what motivates each character, and you can’t have them do things that don’t make any sense, for example, “a big tough lawyer guy who cries when a kitten gets run over.”

Wilde usually writes for two-and-a-half to three hours each morning, spends the afternoon on the business side of her writing and on things she wants to do apart from her work, and then edits the morning’s work in the evening.

But if she’s up against a tight deadline, she will put in 15 to 20 hours a day to get a book done on time. “I have had to write a book in three weeks,” she says, “and I just have time to do the basic typing. At the end, I collapse. But it’s a strange thing, there’s some kind of fire, a creative spark that takes over. You’re almost consumed by it — a sparkling continuity that’s not there when I’m doing it nice and easy over a long period of time.” — Michele Alperin

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