The people running BookCrossing.com have a few things to celebrate. In June the Web site for the Sandpoint- and Kansas City-based operation won two Webby awards, something like Oscars for online businesses. Better yet, the 4-year-old operation is in the black for the first time. “We’re finally crawling out and making a small profit,” said BookCrossing’s Chief Financial Officer Heather Pedersen, who along with her husband, Bruce Pedersen, makes up the Sandpoint side of the company.
Their Kansas City partner, software developer Ron Hornbaker, is the code-writing brains behind the site. When the three started the site as an experiment, they had little notion the idea would reach its current level.
BookCrossing has a staff of four, plus assorted volunteers working around the country. It generates about 25 million online visits per month. It has more than 375,000 registered members in 120 countries.
The site is aimed at passionate book readers who are asked to track the travels of books they “release” into the world.
It works like this: readers download a tracking number and stick the sheet of paper inside a book they want to “release” in some location. The reader leaves the book and tracking slip in a public place.
Any person finding the book is invited to identify the location and then pass on any comments or reviews. The sheet also explains the “read and release” BookCrossing code. After reading the book, the finder is asked to release it for the next finder.
More than 2.25 million books have been set loose, according to www.bookcrossing.com, with some traveling to more than 30 different countries.
The Webby awards earned by BookCrossing this year were for best community site and best social networking Web site.
Pedersen said the founders haven’t tried hard to squeeze a large profit from BookCrossing.
“We live off our real estate business,” said Pedersen, who works part time at BookCrossing and helps her husband acquire and sell properties in North Idaho and Western Montana.
The site produces monthly expenses of around $26,000. The owners cover those costs mostly through donations and from items sold online. For instance, the operation sells “release kits” to help readers ensure books don’t get soggy or damaged by weather; kits run as high as $79.
BookCrossing also has experimented in for-profit, promotional deals with authors, but Pedersen admits those haven’t been huge successes.
Last year, for example, BookCrossing agreed to distribute 40,000 copies of a self-published novel called “Wild Animus” by Rich Shapero. Readers could get it for free through BookCrossing, which then charged Shapero shipping and handling fees.
More than any other book on the site, “Wild Animus” generated considerable negative response from readers. “We got quite a black eye from ‘Wild Animus,’ ” said Pedersen.
A more successful partnership this year involved a similar handling deal for the 2004 nonfiction book “Somebodies and Nobodies.”
“We made money on that agreement,” said Pedersen.
Despite the publicity from winning the Webby awards, she said there’s no intent to change the BookCrossing business plan. “We don’t accept ads. We plan to keep it a warm and friendly site,” she said.
“The site was set up to be free,” added Pedersen. “We intend to keep it that way.”
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