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Swap Meets Thrive By Going Postal

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Newspaper) - 1/6/2009 by Rodney Ho
Books, CDs, DVDs available from thousands of thrifty fans

Sandra Jewell is the type of person who can’t throw away books. Too precious. So once her bookshelves were exhausted, used mysteries, bios and thrillers she was unlikely ever to read again piled up in closets.

Goodwill was an option. But she wanted to give the books good homes. That’s where paperbackswap.com came in. Post a list of books you want to get rid of. Mail them to folks who want them. Get credits to buy other people’s books.

Jewell, a 61-year-old Sandy Springs business consultant who reads 300 books a year, swaps out 15 to 20 books a month, costing herself only $25 to $30 a month in postage. Her closets are a bit emptier and she’s happy that “the books have gone to a better place.”

The Suwanee-based company that created paperbackswap.com developed similar sites for CDs (www.swapacd.com) in 2006 and DVDs (www.swapadvd.com) a year ago.

In these economically strapped times, swapping is a great way to get cheap entertainment while culling out collections of stuff you no longer have any use for, said Richard Pickering, the sites’ 47-year-old co-founder.

“And don’t think we don’t get new titles,” he said. “When the latest Harry Potter book came out, within three weeks, we had more than 30 copies available on the site.”

The book site now offers nearly 2.8 million books with 100,000 active members. (“No Barnes & Noble has the inventory we do,” Pickering boasts.) There are 169,000 CDs and 75,000 DVDs available on the other sites. He said users make swaps 50,000 times a week.

Wish lists and waiting

Another key feature of the swapping sites is the wish list. You list what you want in priority order. If it becomes available and you listed it first, you get it next.

Amy Motrin, a 36-year-old Buckhead music teacher, said she usually gets best-selling books within a month. Given that the DVD inventory is smaller, she said turnaround there is slower, especially with kids’ movies, which people tend to keep around longer than grown-up titles.

In other words, if you want “Wall-E” now, swapadvd.com is not the place to go. Motrin said she’s had “The Rescuers” on her wish list for more than a year, to no avail.

Pickering faces several rivals, such as www.switchplanet.com, www.swaptree.com and www.titletrader.com. While Pickering has chosen to keep the three mediums separate on his sites, most others combine CDs, DVDs, books and sometimes video games in one place. (Credits on Pickering’s three sites can be transferred from site to site.)

“People who are into CDs should have their own forums for CDs, and the same with books and DVDs,” he said. “They appreciate there are different clubs for different subjects.”

He has also kept the sites deliberately simple. Each book or CD or DVD is worth one credit, no matter how popular it is. (Some sites will make hotter titles more expensive.) And if you post 10 books, you get two free credits —- or one free credit for 10 DVDs or 10 CDs.

Problems, profits small

Pickering said the whole swapping system is based on an honor system among members. And so far, he says, he’s amazed at how few problems he’s encountered. He’s had to boot members off his sites only about five times a year for not sending items or sending a shoddy product.

He’s been able to grow the sites by not charging subscription fees. But that has also made it a challenge for him to make money. His income is derived from some ancillary fee-based features such as the ability to bundle multiple books and delivery confirmation for postal services.

“We run a break-even operation,” he said. After costs, he funnels extra cash back to pay programmers to improve the functionality of the sites. In other words, Pickering doesn’t pay himself. (His full-time job is in real estate.)

He’s tempted to sell ads on the sites. But for now, “we want to keep the site pure and simple to use,” he said.

SWAPPING SITES

Richard Pickering runs three separate swap sites:

www.paperbackswap.com (for books)

www.swapacd.com (for CDs)

www.swapadvd.com (for DVDs)

Other sites online also offer trades for CDs, DVDs and books. All operate on the same basic concept: Post items you want to get rid of. Once you start sending them to people who want them, you get credits to buy stuff yourself. All are free. Among the other sites:

www.titletrader.com

www.switchplanet.com

www.swaptree.com