Clear the Bookshelf and Fill It Up Again, All Online
Wendy Scholl, a student at the University of Washington, is looking for a book that will instruct her in Lakota, an American Indian language.
Tim Broekhuizen, a banker in Grand Rapids, Mich., would like a copy of Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and several books in the Rama series by Arthur C. Clarke.
Both are members of BookMooch, a book-swapping Web site created a year and a half ago by John Buckman, a bibliophile who describes himself as a “wealthy ex-dot-com person.” He and Jan Hanford, now his wife, co-founded Lyris Technologies, an e-mail marketing software company, in 1994, and sold it two years ago for $29.5 million.
Mr. Buckman got the idea for BookMooch on a visit to Norwich, England, in late 2005. A local community center had a book-sharing corner, he recalled, “with a sign that said ‘Leave a book. Take a book.’”
“People were bringing in boxes of books and looking at other people’s books to see what they might want to read and talking to one another about books,” he said. “I wanted to see if I could capture that same sense of community online.”
BookMooch now has 40,000 members around the world, according to Mr. Buckman, and people are joining at a rate of 300 a day. Participants create an inventory (the books they want to give away) and a wish list (the books they want to own). The “library” has some 750,000 titles, and Mr. Buckman estimates it will hit one million by the end of December.
Members are notified by e-mail when a book they would like becomes available. Some get recommendations from fellow moochers, who happily talk up their inventory on the members’ forum, while others browse the site by category, hoping to stumble across a treasure.
That’s how Mr. Broekhuizen found a set of Isaac Asimov in a special collector’s edition, leather-bound and gilt-trimmed. But the search can be confusing. “Find Your Way to Muppet Island” and a calorie-counting guide are listed in the literature section, for example, while “Iowa’s Natural Heritage” shows up under fiction.
What moves well on BookMooch is what sells well at a bookstore, like fiction and self-help books, said Mr. Buckman, who estimates that 2,500 titles are swapped daily.
“Classics and children’s books are very popular. Generally, computer manuals are not the kind of thing that are traded on the site,” he said.
“There are people in the system who’ve gotten over 1,000 books,” he added. “It’s their life.”
Posting your inventory earns you a tenth of a point per book. Sending out a book gets you a point. Mooching a book costs you a point, so you need to offer at least 10 books or send out one before requesting one. Being slow to send out a book to a fellow member or failing to describe a book’s condition accurately (like not mentioning the torn cover and missing dust jacket, or calling a paperback a hardcover) can earn you a low feedback score.
“It’s like the system on eBay,” said Mr. Buckman. “If you’re a jerk, others will see that you’re a jerk and not send you books.”
Apparently, some moochers are willing to risk opprobrium. A recent hot topic of conversation on the members’ forum was someone’s refusal to fulfill a request for a book, apparently for political reasons.
“She had checked out the person’s wish list and noticed that an Ann Coulter title was on it,” said Ms. Scholl, the University of Washington student, referring to the author of the current “If Democrats Had Any Brains, They’d Be Republicans.” “And she e-mailed her, ‘You want to read something by Coulter so I’m not sending you anything.’”
Those who do not find what they are looking for and do not want to wait until it shows up in a fellow member’s inventory can click on a link to Amazonand buy the book immediately. “We sell about $30,000 worth of books for Amazon every month,” said Mr. Buckman, who gets 8 percent of the take.
BookMooch is hardly the first or the only book-swapping site. The list includes SwapTree.com and TitleTrader.com, which also trade CDs and DVDs; SF-Books.com, which specializes in science fiction; and the Book Exchange Network (tbxn.com), which helps college students exchange textbooks.
What differentiates BookMooch, Mr. Buckman said, is its neighborly feel. “If someone has been especially nice, very explicit about the condition of the books they’ve sent out, you can give them a ‘smooch,’ which is an anonymous thank-you gift of one of your points,” he said. Members can also donate their points to selected charities — New Orleans libraries, for example, which are restocking their shelves in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. Buckman, who is a dedicated member of his own site, has sent out 500 books to date, including lots of science fiction, and is hoping to receive several “Doonesbury” collections by the political cartoonist Garry Trudeau, among other volumes.
“One of the reasons I started BookMooch was I had this book I re-read every few years — ‘Lessons Learned From Sesame Street,’” he said. “It was long out of print and I lent it to someone — I don’t know who — and it was gone.”
“Two weeks ago,” he added, his voice rising in excitement, “I found it on BookMooch.”