BookMooch: Where old books get new owners
This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on December 8, 2006
Outside of porn (which, by the by, the federal government now reports constitutes only about 1 percent of the Internet), books were probably the first niche to create a viable market online.
Amazon.com was one of the first online-only merchants to show that online-sales could provide a workable business model. At first selling only books, Amazon.com took a few years to become profitable but its success in selling books over the Web forced brick-and-mortar merchants like Barnes & Noble and Borders to also invest in their own presence online.
Used book stores, too, found the advent of the World Wide Web a decade and a half ago to be a tremendous tool for expanding their available user base.
Rather than waiting for potential customers to walk through the door, a used book dealer could put their entire inventory or perhaps only the collectible editions in a searchable database online.
Extending their reach even further to the point they can have a potential customer base comparable to that of the national chains used book dealers have created massive co-ops like ABEBooks.com, Alibris.com and BookSense.com, where customers can search for a particular edition among the stacks of thousands or even tens of thousands of used book stores.
Why it worked
It's not really that surprising that book sellers were among the first to find a ready audience online in the early '90s.
Let's be honest: The early adopters of the Internet and, later, the World Wide Web were geeks. (Don't give me that look if you were online away from work before, say, 1995, you were a geek. Deal with it.) And geeks tend to read. A lot.
And so Amazon.com proved you could survive without a storefront, ABEBooks, et al, proved that independent dealers could combine resources to compete, BarnesandNoble.com showed that the old dinosaurs weren't going away just yet, and Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) was an early exhibition on how the 'Net could be used to preserve and make available the world's greatest literature.
An online sharing library
When I had jury duty last year, the jurors' lounge had a neat feature: A huge shelf with books you could read during your jury service. In fact, if you hadn't finished the book before your duty was up, you were encouraged to take it with you. But you were also encouraged to donate another in its place.
And that's where all of the hundreds of books on that shelf had come from: previous jurors.
My mom does something similar with books she's finished reading: She donates them to the local Navy hospital, which keeps the rehab center stocked. When there are extra books, they are donated to Navy ships about to depart on a tour of duty.
A lot of places have these kinds of sharing libraries: barber shops, neighborhood bars and pubs, even a local cyber café in Escondido, where I live, had a sharing library.
So taking the concept global in other words, taking it online was only a matter of time, a little programming, and someone to do it.
How it works
To use BookMooch, you have to register. It's free.
Then you have to add in the books you are willing to share. The more books you add, the more points you accumulate. You need points to get books sent to you.
You can earn more points by sending someone else one of the books on your list. You pay the postage (but media rate is only a couple bucks per book). And when you request a book (and have enough points to get it), the person sending it to you pays the postage.
So the postage issue would seem to all work out in the wash.
If you don't want to pay postage for overseas shipments, you can choose to only send books to others in your own country. But if you do ship a book overseas, you earn more points than for a domestic shipment.
Browsing the database brought up numerous copies of most books I typed in not as many as on Amazon.com or Alibris.com, but this isn't a book store, after all.
It's a trading library.
You're not likely to come here looking for a first edition Hemingway, but if you're looking for a Grisham novel, a Hillerman mystery, or any other reasonably popular author currently in print, you are likely to have success.
As far as a business model, there doesn't seem to be one.
Okay, not much of one.
If your search comes up empty (and even if it doesn't), BookMooch gives you the option of doing the same search on Amazon.com. A quick look at the URL of the Amazon.com search results page shows that BookMooch is registered as an Amazon.com affiliate (as is my Web site, for that matter). So if you end up buying the book from Amazon.com, BookMooch gets a small referral fee.
But with enough traffic, that can add up.
The owner of BookMooch, John Buckman, seems to have other business interests going besides BookMooch (at least according to the BookMooch "About Us" page), so he's probably not depending on BookMooch to provide his living.
It's a useful service, and pretty clever at that.
© Copyright Jim Trageser
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