BookMooch is like BitTorrent for books. Not eBooks, but real physical dead-tree books. The website, which formally opened this week, offers you a limitless supply of books, for free. All you have to pay are postage costs of a dollar or two - and you have to be willing to send your own unwanted books to other BookMooch members.
BookMooch members list the books on their shelves that they want to give away. Other members can then request these books.
The cashless site runs on a simple points system. Members receive one point for sending a book, and pay a point when they receive a book. Books sent internationally and books on members' favourite books lists are worth two points, which provides extra incentive to supply these. Members also earn a point for every ten books they list on BookMooch. Membership is free.
The only slight catch is that the owner of a book pays the postage costs, generally a dollar or two, to send it directly to another BookMooch member who requests it. So a degree of trust is necessary. A reputation system, and a maximum 5:1 ratio of books received to books supplied, will prevent excessive abuse, BookMooch creator, John Buckman believes.
The site seems to be off to a good start, gaining more than 1500 registered members in less than two days. Although many of these members have not yet listed their book collections, there are well over 10,000 books on offer so far.
Simon Burns talked to BookMooch founder John Buckman, who also runs artist-friendly music site, Magnatune.
Q. To your knowledge has anyone tried something like BookMooch before? If so was it successful? How are you different from them?
A. Yes, it's like Lala (CDs) and Peerflix (DVDs), except that with both those examples, the company gets involved in each transaction, both charging a fee ($1 in each case plus about $1 in postage) and making you use their mailers.
I don't think the Lala/Peerflix approach works for books because: 1) Books don't all weigh the same, so standardized mailers don't work 2) A per-transaction feel doesn't feel like a community, it feels like a store. Books create a natural community of interests (hence the fun, funky illustration for BookMooch).
The idea for BookMooch came came when I was in Norwich, UK, at a local community center, and they had a "leave a book, take a book" area with bookshelves and couches. The shelves were filled and people were chatting about the books, asking for advice, as well as reading. It was a healthy and natural thing. Reading books can be a very social act, but someone has to provide the meeting place.
I saw this great book-share spot in the UK, and thought "this could be done on the Internet", and it shocked me that no-one had done it yet, at least not in the way I thought it should.
BookCrossing was the closest thing to the BookMooch idea, because it creates a warm community of book lovers, and it's fun.
Q. I guess people could use the BookMooch system (even as it exists now) to exchange anything. Will you block attempts to use BookMooch to exchange items like DVDs, CDs, software, etc? Any plans to broaden the system in future? I ask because it seems that the usefulness and attractiveness of BookMooch will scale with the variety of items available for exchange.
A. BookMooch taps into the Amazon database of goods, which give us photos, topical categories and descriptions. That makes it very quick to type things in, with helpful data. Since Amazon also sells DVDs, games and CDs, those are things a MoochSite could do. If the user community wants it, I can do CDMooch, VideoMooch and GameMooch. I don't want to combine them, though, because each has its own special needs.
Q. This sounds somewhat like a peer-to-peer network (though without any copying). Do you think P2P is a useful analogy? Do you see any benefit to creating BookMooch-funded 'supernodes' in different countries which provide a large repository of books?
A. Yes! That's exactly right, it was inspired by Bittorrent. Instead of funded SuperNodes, I was thinking of "MoochFests" where a group of people meet physically, say at a cafe, to exchange a pile of books they've all decided to mooch from each other. That would be a way to avoid postage, but more importantly, meet people with similar book tastes and possibly make friends.
Q. Do you see the community side of BookMooch as being as important as the practical book exchanging side?
A. Absolutely, and once there is lots of usage data in there, the community side will provide recommendations of what to read, and we can do things like book clubs, group readings of a featured book, etc...
Q. You mention Amazon commissions as the site's sole source of income. Do you think that will be enough to finance it, or do you have any other plans, like advertising, for example? Can you say approximately how much you expect BookMooch to cost to run? Will you be happy to cover the costs, or do you see BookMooch as something that should make a profit?
A. Last year I sold a company (Lyris) that I founded and ran for 11 years, so I'm not in any immediate need of income from BookMooch to run it.
In our first day, 11 people bought books from Amazon just by finding them through BookMooch, and deciding to go to Amazon rather than mooch them. So, it can work.
I don't want to ever charge BookMooch users for using the site, so sure, advertising may someday arrive, but that'll be in the far future.
Q. How long have you been testing the BookMooch idea? Did the tests go as you expected? Did you uncover any problems with the concept?
A. BookMooch was in heavy development for a year, with two weeks of intense beta testing.
Lots of great ideas came out during the beta, which were added as features, such as the MoochBar (a web browser toolbar shortcut) being able to import books from any page on the web that uses ISBNs, support for bar code scanners, translations of BookMooch into 5 other languages, and more. Also, I initially was going to limit people to a 2:1 ratio of books mooched vs received, but it turns out the points system works well enough, so that was relaxed to 5:1. There aren't any hard rules here, as I'm trying to create a use book exchange "economy" and we'll see what needs to be prodded and tweaked to make it all work.
Q. Do you have any information on the typical costs of mailing books nationally and internationally, and how much time it takes?
A. BookMooch currently taps into web-based postal calculators in the USA (USPS), UK and France. In the USA, we have media mail, which is a special book rate, and it costs about $2 for a heavy, large paperback, and $1.10 for a small, light paperback.
Q. It looks like you devised the points system to be as simple and easy to understand as possible, rather than, for example, a more complex system that calculated and assigned lots of different values to books based on popularity and so on - why is that?
A. Many people wanted a variable pricing strategy, where they could assign an arbitrary point cost to a book. However, I thought that would make the system quite complex to use, might lead to point-inflation, and would be less fun.
A book you don't want doesn't have much value to you, and if you can get a book you do want with it, that seems like a great deal. Why mess with that? µ
It's an onomatopoeic week for Google
Hope that free lunch was delicious
It's like Bixby being terrible never happened
Notch to be outdone