Books, DVD Bartering Sites Aim to Beat Amazon, Recession

Amazon and other online purveyors continue to offer virtually anything a person needs online. But with the recession tightening the country's collective belt, a growing number of people have turned to online bartering sites for (relatively) cost-free texts and movies.

As the recession forces people and businesses to take increased measures to slow their spending, sites that traffic in books, DVDs and other staples have arisen to challenge Amazon and other sellers in the online commerce sphere.

Craigslist and other online bulletin-board-style sites have existed for years, but a new crop of bartering sites has introduced added functionality more befitting an online retailer.

Bookins, for example, allows users to send books or DVDs they no longer want in exchange for ones they desire. A points system regulates trade-by offering up a book worth 10 points, for example, you can receive two books worth 5 points each. Sending items is free, with the site supplying print-at-home postage, although users pay a $4.49 shipping rate to receive items.

With the global downturn, the rate of bartering through the site has increased.

"Our user base has been growing since we launched in August 2005," Mitch Silverman, founder of Bookins, said in an e-mail. "That growth began accelerating in the September 2008 time frame, and has continued at an accelerated pace since. In addition, transaction volume per trader, which had been relatively stable, also began to increase around September 2008, and remains at higher levels than ever before."

The increase in volume allowed Silverman to expand the site and add functionality.

"The system coordinates shipments from one member to the next in a style similar to Netflix," he said. "We average around 1,000 shipments per day and have processed as many as 5,000 in a day on a few different occasions."

Click here for a slideshow of Bookins' most-traded books and DVDs.

A number of other sites have also explored book, DVD and other media trading, including Titletrader, Swaptree and Paperbackswap. Swaptree allows users to list the items they want to trade, and then utilizes a formula to calculate just how much they could receive in return; after the user sends off their items, they can browse the site to select what they want in trade.

"Back around the time of the dot-com bust, there was a similar rise in online bartering," Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, said in an interview. "I think it does create an interesting alternative economic channel when money is tight.

"Depending on the length of the recession, I would expect it to grow and be healthy, and as it returns to normal, I would expect traditional retail channels to return to business," King added.

In addition to being able to swap titles for the cost of postage, Web 2.0 has offered users a variety of other ways to receive their media for free, including Hulu and YouTube, both of which have been offering streamed studio content.

More digital libraries are offering free content, as well.

Google has been moving forward with plans to digitize hundreds of thousands of volumes, making its public-domain volumes available for download in either PDF or ePub format. On March 19, the search-engine giant revealed a deal to make those public-domain books available on the Sony Reader, increasing the size of Sony's eLibrary by 600,000 books, more than twice the size of the library available on Amazon's Kindle 2 device.

Google recently attracted controversy from watchdog groups after it announced plans to scan the world's "orphan books," or out-of-print volumes that remain under copyright but with no rights-holders to claim them, as part of its continually growing digital-text database.

The nonprofit consumer advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog wrote a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder saying that Google's deal with The Author's Guild and the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which would shield Google from litigation should a rights-holder for a book later emerge, did not "represent the interests of consumers."

Google continues to run relatively unopposed in the digital library space. In May 2008, Microsoft shut down its Live Search Books and Live Search Academic projects, despite having digitized 750,000 books and indexed 80 million journal articles, perhaps due to the costs involved in constructing and maintaining such a massive library.

Editor's Note: The price of shipping through Bookins has been adjusted from a previous version.