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[Comments] (6) Bookmooch optimization: Dude by the name of Ledbetter had a bad experience with Bookmooch and wrote an article for Fortune about it. At first I skipped over the article because I've seen this time and time again, someone writes an article about an online community and all the users of the community pile on. I don't want to get involved. But eventually I read the article and came up with a couple weblog entry ideas. I decided the world needs some tips born of experience on achieving good Bookmooch inventory turnover.

  1. Don't put out-of-date books on Bookmooch. I had a bunch of old O'Reilly books; I gave them to the thrift store. Sometimes people want old stuff (Rachel just asked me to mooch some 1989 Eastern Bloc travel guides for her), but those books are way down the long tail. If you put one of those books on Bookmooch you're buying a raffle ticket the size and shape of a book, and you don't know how long you'll have to hang on to it. It's not worth it.

    Ledbetter had a problem that he put a book on his list, not knowing there was a newer edition. Honest mistake. People were jerks about it. Lots of people are jerks. Sorry. (I've never encountered a jerk on Bookmooch, though.) As a practical suggestion, most of the book pages on BookMooch have cover photos, so you can usually avoid problems by matching up the photo with your cover.

    Contra Ledbetter, I don't think wanting the most recent revision of a book "smacks of a professional interest in reselling." Why wouldn't you be able to resell the old revision? Because people don't generally want the old revision. Ergo, they generally don't want it on Bookmooch. You're effectively reselling the book for a currency other than money, and the social mores of reselling apply.

  2. Don't put a book on Bookmooch if there are over 500 copies already on Bookmooch. In general, don't put classics or best-sellers on Bookmooch. No one will mooch the suckers. More precisely, no one will mooch your copy. Again, you're buying a raffle ticket.
  3. Don't put a book on Bookmooch if you should be selling it to the used bookstore or on eBay or whatever. Sumana bought an expensive multi-volume hardbound graphic novel (I name no names) and hated it. She sold it to Strand for like $15, which is much less than what she paid but significantly more than the estimated cash value of a Bookmooch point, especially given the cost of mailing that big boy out.
  4. If you've got a book in bad shape, say the cover is torn or a previous owner wrote "CARTER" on the edge, don't just say it in the condition notes. Ask the recipient to confirm that they read the condition notes. This avoids hassles later. I don't mind getting a book that's not keeper quality, and everyone I've asked did indeed see my condition notes and didn't mind either. It's a little extra lubrication of a transaction that lets you find homes for books that are perfectly useful, but that the used bookstore won't take.
  5. Give it time. Long tail. Yesterday I got a request for a book that'd been in my inventory for about 8 months.
  6. Have a big wishlist. Long tail. Ledbetter has four books on his wishlist. My steady state is about 250. At any given time, maybe 3% of the books on my wishlist have copies available. A lot of this is probably because of rule 3, actually; most of the books remaining on my wishlist are either rare, or still command a high price at the used bookstore, or are new enough that they haven't gotten into the used book ecosystem.

Ledbetter is suspicious of the point system because "booksellers would have no problem giving away hundreds of books they can't sell in order to acquire books they can." On the face of it this doesn't make sense: if you can give away a book you could have sold it, unless someone's mooching for Books by the Foot. But I think he might mean that booksellers can give away cheap books and use the points to get expensive books.

This is possible; I've gotten one book from Bookmooch that, if I was a used bookstore, I could sell for twenty bucks. I've given away books that a used bookstore could sell for eight because it was easier to mail them than to deal with the jerks at Strand and get three. But look at my first two tips. You can give away cheap books, and you can even give away books that are in unsellable shape, but you can't give away out-of-date books (no takers) or common books (too many givers). The only way to amass points is to give away books people want but that aren't overstocked; ie. to match supply to demand. You can try to arbitrage this, but it's a sucker's game--in fact, I suspect it's the same sucker's game as selling books for one cent on Amazon and trying to pay for your labor from the Amazon shipping charge. (Thank you, myriad suckers!)

The books I successfully give away tend to be those that are difficult to find used. Same with the books other people give to me. Sometimes I get lucky and get an expensive book. It works out the same either way; rarity becomes fungible with sale value.

But, Ledbetter's article got me thinking about my huge point surplus. I've got 79.6 Bookmooch points right now. If I mooched every available book on my wishlist I'd still have over seventy. People want my books a lot more than I want other peoples' books. The intuition is that this evens out, but Bookmooch isn't a zero-sum point system based on a gold standard of book swaps. The system includes inflation; you get extra points for mailing a book to another country, for completing a swap, and for listing books in your inventory. But the costs of the only two things you can buy don't go up as inflation is added to the system. So it's possible that everyone will eventually end up with a bunch of points they can't use.

This would certainly be a problem, but it has nothing to do with what people might do with your books after receiving them (like maybe selling them). I may do some screen-scraping and math and up-mashing to explore this possibility space in more detail.

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Posted by John Buckman of BookMooch at Sun Feb 17 2008 03:18

re: But, Ledbetter's article got me thinking about my huge point surplus. ... I may do some screen-scraping and math and up-mashing to explore this possibility space in more detail.

The economics of BookMooch are complicated, and while there are inflationary forces (such as the extra point for sending internationally) there are deflationary ones as well, such as the point created when 10 books are entered into the system. That counters inflation, because now 10 more books are available, which would "cost" 10 points to mooch, but only one point was created.

re: screen scraping -- you don't need to do that, the entire BookMooch database (anonymized) is available for download at : http://bookmooch.com/api/feeds - one reason I had for making it available was so people like you could crunch the numbers and see if things are going well or badly.

re: points surplus. In the "real world" many people don't keep their bank account at zero. Some do, but most keep a "cushion" that they can spend later. Sometimes, you have a period of earning more at your job than you spend, and you keep earning and banking it in case you come up with something you want to spend it on. At BookMooch, for example, a large number of points are given to the charities http://bookmooch.com/charity

In your case, I assume you came to BM with a book-shelf of books you wanted to get rid of, that you had built up over time. It's natural that in your case, you'd be giving away more books than you are mooching, because of the stored-up-books-over-time.

What I've found that's interesting, is that there are many different psychological reasons for using BM. You actually sound a lot like me for your reasons, namely that selling to a used bookstore is unpleasant. I agree with you re: ebay/strand, that if you want to derive maximum cash value for a book, you should use a commercial venue, such as ebay or a used book store.

I'm not sure I agree with you about the ultra-long-tail. Definitely, there doesn't seem to be a BookMooch demand for old editions of technical books, but there does seem to be a a demand for just about everything else. I've give about 550 books http://bookmooch.com/history/buckman_ca and found that the demand continues well after the original listing time. Usually, about 1/3rd of the books I list are mooched right away, but then it can take a year for another 1/3rd to 1/2 the books to be requested.

The BookMooch audience is still somewhat small: a bit over 20,000 active users. It grows daily, so I hope that there is ever more long-tail interest as the member base grows.

Wow, long response here from me (sorry!), thanks for the very thought-provoking article.


Posted by alice at Sun Feb 17 2008 10:17

I agree with John. I think BookMooch is a great idea that is basically based on the good faith of people involved. I am in it for the books, not for the potential profit and I am willing to risk the occasional rip-off.

So far my experience has been good. I am trying to get more Spanish readers into it so we can expand the trading base of Spanish books.

I love BookMooch, I became a member looking for a book I just couldn't find either in Mexico nor vía Amazon. I will bet on good faith and literature lovers over any ill-behaving or profit-seeking members.

Posted by Darien Fisher-Duke at Mon Feb 18 2008 22:39

If I just want to read a book, I get it from the library; if I want to own a book, and it is a fairly popular title, I am lucky to have several excellent used bookstores nearby. I use BookMooch in order to acquire harder to find books: since BM has such a large number of members, sooner or later the books on my wishlist will show up. I like to recycle: I take popular or worn books to the used bookstore, and I list on BM titles for which no copies, or just a few, are available. I feel a bit of a connection to the people I have mailed books to, and received books from, from 15 states and 4 foreign countries. And, as far as matching the book in hand with what the moocher is looking for, the ISBN does a great job, almost all the time, of identifying the exact edition. Lastly, I think BookMooch would be an especially wonderful service for anyone living in a remote area, far from used bookstores, or in a foreign country wanting to acquire books in their native language. Kudos to a service that is well designed, user friendly, and makes me feel all warm and fuzzy.

Posted by thekoolaidmom at Wed Feb 20 2008 12:07

I love BookMooch because I live in a small town with no used bookstore. I've picked up a lot of books through rummage sales, book sales at the public library, and thrift stores. A few years back I was fortunate enough to pack and carry whatever books I wanted for free from a closed school that was being repurposed as a homeless shelter. I have only read 1% of my library, and need to do something with them because I continue buying books.

When I saw the piece about BookMooch on NBC's Today Show, I was excited. My first day on BookMooch I sent out seven books. I have a hard time keeping twenty books on my inventory. Also, I've only had one person not take a book because it wasn't in mint condition (he really did want mint condition, the only thing wrong with the book was a bent cover corner.)

The only thing I don't like with BookMooch is inactive accounts. Waiting in limbo for a book, mooching it from another person, and spending 2 points for the book, is a pain. But, that's like the rest of life. Some people take care and attend to their community, others only look to them when they want something. In that, BookMooch, Ebay, MySpace, and any other online community have their suckers and their contributors.

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