A Global Book Club's Traveling Titles

Ethan Gilsdorf
From the November/December 2002 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

After finishing About a Boy by Nick Hornby, a reader in New York City left it on a Starbucks magazine rack with hopes that someone would pick up the novel and read it. Two days later a reader from Delta, British Columbia, found the book, took it back to Canada, read it, and left it in the waiting room of a dentist's office, where it found its way into the hands of another local reader.

The tracking of such a literary journey is made possible by a unique online book club called BookCrossing.com.

"It's like a reading group that knows no geographical boundaries," says cofounder Ron Hornbaker, the president and CTO of Humankind Systems, Inc., a software and Internet development company with offices in Kansas City, Missouri, and Sandpoint, Idaho. "The books our members leave in the wild are free, but it's the act of freeing books that points to the heart of BookCrossing."

To participate in the program, members register a book (or e-book) at BookCrossing.com and it is assigned a tracking number. Members label the book with the number and instructions (either handwritten or with a printable label available from the site) to visit BookCrossing.com, then pass along the book to a friend or simply leave it in a public place: a park, a café, a train station. New readers can go to the Web site to make a journal entry specifying when and where the book was found. The person who originally registered the book is notified by e-mail each time someone records journal entries about it on BookCrossing.com.

Locations for book releases include some 70 countries—from Canada to Croatia to Qatar. Books have even been set free during ferry voyages between countries and on transatlantic flights.

Hornbaker says the idea for Book-Crossing came to him in March 2001 while he and his wife, Kaori, were visiting PhotoTag.org, a Web site that tracks disposable cameras, and WheresGeorge.com, which tracks U.S. currency by serial number. Hornbaker wondered what other objects people might enjoy tracking, and four "mostly sleepless weeks" later, on April 17, 2001, BookCrossing.com was launched.

Since the program is still relatively young, most books have been passed along only two or three times. Over time, Hornbaker expects the site to list more stories of well-traveled books, like a certain copy of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility (see bookcrossing.com/ journal/189993) that began its journey in El Sobrante, California, and was picked up two weeks later by a Baltimore resident visiting Florence, Italy, who left the novel in a phone booth in the Czech Republic.

Real-time statistics on the home page of the Web site testify to the program's success: Over 49,000 members have registered more than 116,000 books, and both figures grow by about 600 per day. Over 20,000 different Web sites link to BookCrossing.com, which receives over 2,000 new visitors each day. Hornbaker projects having 175,000 members a year from now, and 500,000 within three years.

"We're actively looking for ways to make the site stand on its own, financially speaking," he says. "But we're committed to keeping the memberships free, and keeping the site free from annoying banner or pop-up ads." Hornbaker believes that merchandise salesshirts, hats, coffee mugs—and unobtrusive author and publisher advertisements, both related to the mission of promoting reading, will keep the program free.

BookCrossing's core function is the registration of books, but the Web site also connects readers through forums, e-mail discussion lists, and an anonymous messaging feature allowing members to locate others in their area. The site also lists tens of thousands of book reviews, book ratings, and book recommendations, and posts a "leader board" that shows recently released books, recently found books, and the most-traveled books. "I've always loved books, but more so I love creating things," says Hornbaker. "BookCrossing is my software company's labor of love. It's by far the most fulfilling thing I've ever been involved in. I feel like I'm doing a good thing—promoting reading and sharing on a global basis. Our goal, simply, is to make the whole world a library."

Ethan Gilsdor is a poet, editor, and freelance writer currently residing in Paris.