There’s an article in the Guardian today about internet bookswapping and the websites that enable people to give away their spare books to strangers, while receiving other books in exchange. The piece was published in the ethical living section, and therefore focuses on the environmental benefits of book swaps. These are all well and good, but I suspect that most people using the sites, like me, merely appreciate the (nearly) free books. I’ve been a keen book swapper for over a year, after discovering the sites through LibraryThing, and I’ve found it be a wholly positive experience if you don’t count the time spent waiting in post office queues.
The Guardian mentions the two main websites for British users—BookMooch, which is international, and UK-only ReadItSwapIt—there are others, but none have yet built up the critical mass needed for effective swapping. (Also not included are eco-friendly GreenMetropolis, which some people use as a swapping site, and the more whimsical BookCrossing.) The writer doesn’t go into the respective merits of the two sites (I belong to both), possibly because it’s not a very equal contest. BookMooch’s founder, John Buckman, may have a lot more time to improve his site than ReadItSwapIt’s creators do. But that doesn’t account for the key drawback of ReadItSwapIt, which is the fact that you can only directly exchange books with other users. Instead of having a choice of all 175,757 books on the site, you are limited to the number the other user has. This can lead to some truly depressing encounters, where the person looking to swap with you has 30 books, but 27 of them are written by Stephen King (luckily, you are allowed to turn swaps down). It is, of course, an inefficient system, as bartering generally is, and a reminder of why we invented money in the first place.
BookMooch, on the other hand, runs on a points system. Entering your books into the database gives you points, as does other users requesting books from you. These points can be used to ask for, potentially, any of the 470,000-odd books on the site—with the caveat that not all users are willing to post internationally (although there is a way around that too). BookMooch’s user interface is also exemplary: it’s one of the most simple, transparent, logical and attractive sites that I visit.
BookMooch is not without flaws. It can seem impossible to get popular and recently published books, the site is down rather a lot, and I find the artwork on the homepage distractingly weird. But these are really quibbles. I could go on about the website’s other interesting features all day, but I’ll spare you and merely advise that you join, and find them out for yourself.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to post a book to Chile.