February 8 2008: 5:10 PM EST
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When free books aren't really free

Sites like Bookmooch.com appeal through the power of the 'gift economy.' But sometimes they have hidden costs and flaws.


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On close inspection, Web sites that promise free books may have hidden costs.

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- In January I came across a Web site that engaged me for several days. It's called BookMooch, and the concept behind it is enticing and simple: you can get, theoretically, any books you want for free. All you need to do in return is offer up a minimum of ten books you own that you are willing to send to others without getting paid. Sending a book gives you points you can then use to request one, thus ensuring that it's hard to receive a lot more books than you give.

As a Manhattanite with more books than shelf space, I was intrigued and encouraged - and more so when, within minutes of my posting a few white elephant volumes online, I began receiving e-mails from Moochers who seemed to want my books as urgently as I wanted to get rid of them. It felt - briefly - like a community of like-minded bibliophiles.

BookMooch is one of many Web-based services that shift the typical relationship between people and property; they are experiments in what some theorists call the "gift economy." Peer-to-peer music sites were an early, classic example; Zipcar, which allows customers to rent cars for a very short period of time, has a bit of this quality, as do some categories on Craig's List.

The site was launched in August 2006 by a Web entrepreneur named John Buckman, who says that one of his goals was "to build the world's largest library of books - what could be bigger than everyone's home bookshelves, all combined?" He adds that about 60,000 people have signed up, and about 23,000 have sent a book.

BookMooch reminds me of Abbie Hoffman (admittedly, lots of things remind me of Abbie Hoffman): not only the title and content of his bestseller "Steal This Book", but also the ambitious Free Store that he and colleagues opened in New York in the late '60s, copying an idea from the Diggers in San Francisco. The Free Store was just that: a place where you could go and get free stuff - food, clothes, whatever they had. The idea was simultaneously a send-up of consumer capitalism, and also a way to help people who couldn't afford necessities.

But the Free Store did not last very long. The cause of its demise - abuse - was so obvious that only extensive acid intake can explain the Yippies' failure to anticipate it. If you're allowed to take a pair of jeans for free, what's to prevent you from taking all the jeans on the shelf, and then reselling them for profit?

I fear Internet entrpreneurs may be taking advantage of Bookmooch in a similar way. After all, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people these days using the Internet to sell used books for cash. And once the idea of resale outside the system is introduced, Bookmooch's point scheme becomes close to irrelevant; booksellers would have no problem giving away hundreds of books they can't sell in order to acquire books they can.

So far, I've sent out four books, and no one has sent me any on my wish list (which supposedly automatically sends an e-mail to anyone who's offered up that book). And one of the books on my giveaway list - "Religion and Popular Culture in America" - aroused the interest of three moochers within my first 24 hours on the site. But they reneged when they learned that mine was not the updated edition. That smacks of a professional interest in reselling, which stung even more when the moochers posted not-entirely-helpful feedback almost implying that I misled them (I didn't even know there was a subsequent edition).

There are other explanations, of course. Maybe the books on my wish list are too obscure for my fellow moochers to own, or too dear for them to part with; maybe BookMooch is too small for "network effects" to kick in. Or maybe I just got ripped off.

Buckman says he deliberately allows booksellers to use the site, arguing: "Used book stores are a good thing, and are currently in a financially precarious state, so I'm happy to try and help them out."

Perhaps, but they distort the system - and here's how. In principle, I don't mind if I'm "uploading" to the BookMooch system more than I'm "downloading"; I still get the benefit of increased shelf space. The problem - and it's a big one if BookMooch is to thrive - is that the transaction is not free. I have to pay the postage, and while there is a discount rate for mailing books, I've already shelled out enough to buy at least two used books somewhere else, and have received nothing in return. (A similar site called Bookins suffers from a similar problem; users pay a flat fee of $4.49 for every book received.) A thrifty, intelligent person - the presumed BookMooch demographic - is unlikely to let that situation go on very long.

Is there a way to fix it? One method would be to have the moochers pay postage, as they do on Bookins, but that raises a number of logistical issues that BookMooch seems ill-equipped to address (what method of payment; how do you insure that the moochee, having received payment, sends the book; what constitutes timely delivery; etc.). Yes, eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500) and others have self-policing feedback systems that seem to regulate this kind of behavior pretty well, but that's exactly the problem here; to build and maintain all that, you have to be a big outfit like eBay, and BookMooch is obviously a one-man labor of love with limited revenue potential.

I'd like to see BookMooch succeed, partly because I'm still trying to find those books. But as distribution models go, a much older one - the public library - is still looking pretty strong.  To top of page

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