BookMooch: A Gift Economy of Book Lovers

One of the great blessings of digital networks is their capacity to incubate and nourish gift economies of people. I’m excited to learn about a new experiment, BookMooch, which functions as a global gift economy of book lovers. We all have plenty of books that we don’t really want any more — and we all covet other books that may be a bit too expensive or difficult for us to acquire. Why not work out an exchange pool?

That’s what BookMooch is — a vast international book exchange made possible by a software system that tracks its own BookMooch “currency” of points. (In this sense, it resembles the Time Dollars barter-exchange program — another innovative and worthy project.) With the tagline “New life for old books,” BookMooch keeps a list of all the books you want to give away, and compiles thousands of individual lists into a huge master inventory. You can then search and browse the inventory, and request a book. Or you can browse individual “wish lists” and offer to send a book that someone wants.

None of the books cost money, but on the other hand, they aren’t entirely free either. They cost “points” that you earn by participating in the gift economy. For every book you offer to give away, you get one-tenth of a point. For every book you actually send to a requestor, you get 1 point — or 3 points if it is sent to another country. (A requestor who acknowledges receipt of the book gets one-tenth of a point, too.)

BookMooch keeps track of this vast economy of points, and lets you “spend” them on books listed by members. One point, one book. What’s really impressive is that there is no cost to join BookMooch, and no expenses for participants except the postage for sending books to requestors. BookMooch pays its overhead by linking to If a book is not available on BookMooch and you instead click on a link to Amazon and buy it there, BookMooch gets a commission.

As a student of the commons, I am fascinated by the some of the rules that BookMooch uses to keep the book exchange fair and functional. For example, you have to send out at least one book for every five you receive, so that you can’t just take from the commons without also giving. Also, if you don’t fulfill requests promptly or don’t package them properly, you may get a bad feedback store, which will allow people to refuse your mooch requests. To prevent fraud, participants are allowed only so many “lost in the mail” episodes.

The ingenious mind behind BookMooch is John Buckman, the entrepreneur who started the online music label Magnatune, which itself is worth a look. Magnatune has assembled a roster of 488 complete MP3 albums from independent musicians. You can listen to the entire album — not just brief snippets — before you buy. If you like the music, you decide how much you want to pay — as little as $5, or more if you really like them.

Why might you wish to pay more than you have to? Because Magnatune wants to nurture the sense of appreciation and relationship between artist and fans, beyond the market transaction. Revenues from Magnatune sales are split 50-50 with the artists, a huge improvement over the standard royalty arrangement dictated by the major record labels. The “choose your own price” gives fans a low baseline price, but also an ability to show their appreciation to artists, especially struggling indies.

I met John Buckman at a copyright conference at the University of North Carolina a year ago, and was mightily impressed by Magnatune and intrigued by his still-germinating idea for BookMooch. I’m so glad it has come to fruition, and wish it the best of luck.