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Got Books? Then Trade Them!

High Country News (Newspaper) - 1/12/2006 by Sally Treadwell
High Country News : Got Books? Then Trade Them! Come on, 'fess up. You've got tons of the things. Potboilers, Oprah books, bodice rippers, juicy beach novels, gripping bestsellers—all those impulse paperback purchases that are now gathering dust on your shelf. They're not like the old friends, books that you will love forever and revisit often. You'll read these books once and be done with them, and at about $7 apiece, that's quite a bit of cash tied up and occupying valuable real estate on your bookshelf or in your basement.

That situation is exactly what led businessman Richard Pickering to team up with a computer repairman, Robert Swarthout, to create PaperBackSwap.com. Pickering, an avid reader, had amassed a large collection of books bought at airports during tedious business trips, and was fed up with paying airport prices. He tried eBay, but the $3.50 mailing cost added to the price of a book made it almost as expensive as buying new. Swarthout, meanwhile, had designed an online book swap for the Student Government Association at Berry College in Georgia. When Pickering came to the college for a speaking engagement and the two of them met up, they hatched a bestseller of their own.

The premise is simple. You set up an account and then register your books. After you’ve entered a minimum of nine titles, you get three free credits. You'll receive notification if someone wants one of your books and can then print out a preaddressed label that also serves as a book wrapper. Add $1.59 in postage to send out up to 1 pound by way of the Media Mail rate, and drop it in the mailbox. As soon as the addressee notifies the site—with the mere click of a button—that s/he has received the book, you receive one credit, or two for an audio book, that you can spend to receive a book on someone else's dime. There’s no spam and no advertising, and, at present, there's no cost for using the site. Charter members will get a free year, although the founders are contemplating charging a membership fee of $20 in the future to cover their costs.

So how does it actually perform? Well, I'm hooked! It took me less than five minutes to set up a membership and another ten to register 31 book titles. All I had to do was to choose the multiple book option and enter each book's ISBN, usually located on the back cover. The site retrieved the title, author and even a picture of the book. Within an hour of setting up I had been notified that five of my books were on other members’ wish lists and had printed out the preaddressed labels. After experimenting with using the page as a wrapper, I decided that surgical precision was not for me and that it would be a lot quicker to simply throw the books in 9 x 6 manila envelopes and tape on the address labels. After adding two 80 cent stamps to each package (hey, I'll blow a penny to avoid a trip to the post office) my books were off to Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Syracuse.

Spending my free credits was fun. With more than 287,500 books to choose from (as of Monday night: the total increases hourly at a staggering speed) I found several out-of-print titles I'd been looking for, and within an hour I was notified that they were on their way—at no cost to me. There are books posted in every category: science, romance, parenting, children's, travel, home and garden, mystery & thriller, art, computers, comic & graphic. You name it, PaperBackSwap has it. Subcategories make browsing easy. One caveat—Media Mail isn't fast, going out only when there is space, and the post office estimated delivery of my books by February 4. Don't plan on "buying" books for your vacation next week.

PaperbackSwap isn't unique. TitleTrader.com and frugalreader.com operate on the same principle, although not as elegantly. Bookins.com uses a more complicated point system—even giving credit for the all-important "Oprah Factor"—and charges $3.99 for mailing. Some sites also accept DVDs and CDs.

But if one of your New Year's resolutions is to clear some clutter and cut down on your spending, try some Internet swap sites. You might just get hooked. And by Valentine's Day you could be swamped with love stories…