Saturday, December 15, 2007

Greening of books again

I recently thought I'd try out an online bookswapping site, Bookmooch. You sign up; you list some books you'd like to get rid of, for each of which you get 1/10th of a point; if someone asks for one and you send it you get 1 or 3 points, depending on whether they're in your country or another; if you mooch a book you pay 1 or 2 points, depending on whether it's a national or international mooch.

Bookmooch has been fretting over the free rider problem: some people sign up, mooch lots of books and are never heard of again. Quite why this came as a surprise is anybody's guess. On listing my books and getting requests for them, I found that the postage was on my nickel - in other words, having paid for the books once, I must then pay again to give them away. It's true that if I sent them internationally I get 3 points - in other words, I can get 3 books locally for every book I give away - but the last thing I want is to end up with three times as many books as I started with. I'm trying to FREE UP shelfspace.

In other words, other things being equal I would happily be adding more books to the system than I took out of it. On my last trip to London I hauled a whole suitcaseful of books to the Idea Store formally known as the local library. I don't really want to replace them with competitors for restricted shelfspace; at the risk of stating the obvious, releasing them into the Bookmooch pool, when postage for 50+ books had to be paid by me, was not in the realm of the possible. So Bookmooch, bless it, is selecting for free riders and selecting against altruists because they're not altruistic enough. In rewarding people for sending books internationally it's also doing its bit to promote global warming.

Having said all that, it would be possible to use the system to encourage local exchange of books. It's possible to browse books by location - in the US not just by city but even by ZIP code, in the UK by city, in France by department, in Rest of World by country. It would be perfectly possible to encourage people locally to sign up, and to make a point in 2008 of looking first for the books one wanted locally. It wouldn't help authors pay the rent, no, but it would help to reduce one's carbon footprint. From that point of view it's A Good Thing.


Anonymous said...

nsiqueiros said...

The system seems to be based on the honor system of sharing:give as much as you take. The idealism of it is admirable though. Perhaps if there was a system in place to let anyone calculate at any moment how much basic postage would be from Point A to Point B, such as the "calculate postage" feature that eBay has, combined with a PayPal payment system, people could pay for the basic cost of shipping to have the book sent to them that way it would discourage freeloaders. I dunno. Just an idea.

Ithaca said...

anon, Bookcrossing offers you the chance to leave your book in a randomly chosen public place for other people to find and (I think) track on Bookcrossing. Maybe that is the way to go. I could take 500 books out of storage, pile them on a park bench and leave them for strangers to find. It would certainly save on postage all round. What it doesn't do is connect someone who wants a particular book with someone who owns it and is willing to part with it.

nathaniel, my initial assumption was that the person requesting the book would pay its postage. One wouldn't need a system in place to calculate the postage; the person sending the book could simply inform the requester of the cost. A give-as-much-as-you-take system, anyway, doesn't help much when someone is willing to give substantially more than she wants to take. The main benefit to me of giving books away is that I no longer have to pay either for their storage or for their transportation to Germany; for the price of paying postage to send them to people in the US I could just post them all to myself in Germany. Or I could buy five people tickets to Berlin on Easyjet on condition they brought along 20 kilos of my books in their checked luggage and another 10 in their hand luggage.

Anyway, I still think it would be better as a mechanism for local exchanges. There must be a vast pool of books in Berlin that people would be willing to swap; if enough people joined one could pick up a book with no more than a bike trip.

Mark said...

i use and love Does cds dvds and video games, not just books.