Book Service Review: BookMooch.com

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As a freelance book critic, former employee of publishing houses and domovoi of Powell’s Books, I tend to frequently find myself in possession of more books than I can handle. A packrat nature means I like to keep as many of them as I can, but considering I live in a one-room apartment that stores only two major shelves, some titles and I are always going to have to part ways – especially if some of said titles are rejected for review or were so bad they have no place on my shelf.

Now when clearing out your library there are a few options. Certainly, stores like Powell’s and Half-Price Books are willing to pay for titles, but you have to haul rather heavy boxes to do so and run the risk of the books being undervalued or turned away. You can also give the books to a thrift store or to friends, but if you’re getting rid of titles you paid more than a little for (i.e. any books you didn’t buy used) you may feel a need to recoup your investment.

Selling and gifting books may seem the only alternative to letting them take up shelf space, but thanks to BookMooch.com a third option exists: barter. Founded in 2006, BookMooch.com is built on the principle of “give books away, give books you want” and successfully implements this concept through an accessible interface and a surprisingly broad range of titles on display.

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To use BookMooch, simply register for a free account and use the homepage to add titles to your inventory, which the site identifies through a connection to the Amazon site of your country. Your books are then placed into the database where other users can find them in a search, and you receive an e-mail notice the same way you would for any eBay bid if it is requested. When requested you are provided the address and note from the moocher, and you may accept or reject. Accepting a mooch awards you a point, which can then be used to request books from other user inventories

How soon your books will be scooped up varies depending on titles posted, and what people have on their wish lists. I posted about half a dozen economic or political books I’d collected when my office was throwing out surplus, and most of those were mooched within 24 hours – though with one or two exceptions all were mooched by the same person, a site administrator who runs a book trading group between several university campuses. To experiment I posted a few duplicates of favorites I own, and while “Hooking Up” (Tom Wolfe, not Tila Tequila) is still up two weeks later, “Naked Lunch” is on 75 wish lists and was claimed in five minutes.

Once you accept a mooch, you can contact the seller directly for any clarification and keep them apprised through the site, which lets you mark when books are shipped out or if there are any delays. Shipping is simple, particularly as you’re only sending books – thanks to media mail you pay a flat weight rate much cheaper than normal shipping costs. International shipping will of course be more expensive, but BookMooch actually compensates you with two additional points for sending to another country. Once shipped, users give you feedback in the same way as eBay bids.

Giving away books proved easier than expected, but cashing in points proved a bit trickier. I searched for the authors whose canon I’m striving to complete, as well as some possible review titles, and found nothing in the way of what I was looking for. Some of those titles did pop up in a broader search, but a language barrier came up quickly: do I really have any use for “Anansi Boys” in Spanish, a Swedish version of “Fight Club” or a dozen German Terry Pratchett novels?

Yes, if you go into BookMooch looking for specific titles the odds are good you may not find what you’re looking for right away, unless it’s a title usually found at airport kiosks. At its core BookMooch is a bazaar of used titles, and like any used bookstore there are books being given away for a reason. The “Most Available Books” section is topped by “The Da Vinci Code,” followed by the works of Michael Crichton and John Grisham – barely a Vonnegut or HST to be found.

If you want to cash in your points, I recommend following proper used bookstore protocol and simply browse until you find something interesting. I randomly searched through author names and topics and found a book on literary quarrels, a collection of Montaigne’s essays and a Neil Gaiman short story collection. They’re not the sort of titles I’d go to the store looking for, but ones which I saw and knew I’d enjoy.

If there’s a particular title you’re looking for you can create a wish list and be notified by e-mail, but you’ll have to respond quickly if many users have it listed. Also, be sure to note that mooching from another country costs two points.

Overall, I endorse BookMooch – after only a few weeks of using the service, I’ve added four new titles to my shelf and cut my surplus down by a dozen with no problems in receipt or communication. It’s certainly not the site if you’re looking for something in particular or instant turnaround on your extra books, but if you want an informal exchange and used bookstore feeling without leaving the house it’s certainly worth registering an account.

For more background on BookMooch.com, I recommend:
Clear the Bookshelf and Fill It Up Again, All Online, by Joanne Kaufman, The New York Times, October 15, 2007

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