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Last November, Abebooks, the world’s largest online marketplace for new and used books based in Victoria, Canada, acquired BookFinder. Berkeley-based BookFinder and its staff joined Abebooks but continue to operate independently in California.
Chatterjee was an undergraduate at University of California, Berkeley, when he co-founded BookFinder with Charlie Hsu, then an undergraduate from the University of California, Davis.
India Currents had a brief chat with this young entrepreneur and booklover.
Why did you start Bookfinder.com? Was it an outcome of your personal frustration at not finding books you were looking for?
Bookfinder.com started out as a class project when I was an undergraduate student at U.C. Berkeley. I was taking a seminar class on network agent software around the fall of 1996.
When I came to Berkeley as a student I fell in love with the bookstores in Berkeley. I discovered that I could buy out-of-print books and used books in nearby bookstores. But the more I saw the more I wanted to buy these books and the more I found that I couldn’t really find everything I wanted nearby. As I went online I would find these little online bookshops that would sell the books that I couldn’t find at local bookstores. It took me a long time to find each book that I was looking for. So yes, there was a bit of personal frustration involved.
So when my professor assigned us a final project, that we had to build some kind of a network agent software, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to make my life easier (laughs) by building something that would help me find these books that I would otherwise spend so much time looking for.
I worked on a very simple book search engine and I thankfully got an A. It (the search engine) was really very helpful to me, and I realized that if it was helpful to me, other people might find it useful too. In January 1997 I got together with a friend and Bookfinder.com went online. It was just a personal project that I was sharing with friends … and the business grew out of that.
When and why does a book go out of print?
Books go out of print for all sorts of reasons. A book will go out of print when the publisher just doesn’t see as much demand for it. In the past, publishers would initially print a couple of hundred or thousand copies of the book, and sometimes print more as needed. But if the sales go down, often they just stop printing the book. The book is still in copyright, but you can’t buy any new copies. But at the same time there is a huge market for used copies of these out-of-print books. And there are people out there who have these used copies. They want to sell them. Before the Internet, it was very difficult for the layperson to find used and out-of-print books.
What kind of books does Bookfinder.com offer?
We offer any kind of book. We offer new books from the United States, new books from Canada, from the U.K., and a large number of countries. We offer used books from 30-40 different countries around the world, out-of-print books, rare books, … if you are looking for a very rare signed edition of a book by your favorite author, you can find it on Bookfinder.com. If you are looking for a new copy as a gift, you can find it, if you are looking for a cheap reading copy for a student, you can find it here too.
We started off looking at just used books because that was what I was looking at, but I realized over time, that I don’t only shop for one kind of book, I shop for every kind of book. And our users also shop for every kind of book. So we decided to focus on being a search engine, and instead of focusing on one type of thing, we decided to go vertical towards books and all kinds of books.
How do you compare yourself (in terms of cost and selection) with large booksellers like Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble, which also has an online presence?
When you come to Bookfinder.com and type in the name of the book you are looking for, we can tell you who has got the book and for what price. For example, we can tell you that you can buy the book new from Amazon.com for $25, or purchase it used from Joe’s Bookshop in Kansas for $15; or you can buy a signed first edition from some place in London for maybe $125 … we give you all the options, sorted by price.
Thus we not only work closely with Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com because they are some of the largest bookstores on our system, but also tiny mom-and-pop booksellers. There are 100,000 booksellers who have their books for sale on Bookfinder.com.
Do you have any criteria for being included in Bookfinder.com searches, or would you accept any small independent bookseller that came to you and expressed interest in being a part of your searches?
Generally, if you are a smaller bookseller and don’t have an IT department, the easiest way is to approach companies like Abebooks.com, Alibris.com, Tomfolio.com. These companies help small bookstores upload their books, and they will then host their databases online for them. If you were a potential small bookseller who wanted to sell books online, you could outsource your IT needs to these companies and we would work with those companies on your behalf. That is the easiest and cheapest way to do that, and in many cases the price is extremely low for the small bookseller. Hence, we generally recommend that very small booksellers use one of these outsourced companies and listing services to help get their books online. For larger companies, we will work with them directly.
Lately, independent booksellers have become a dying breed. Do you think you have helped revive some of those businesses?
Many brick-and-mortar booksellers have been affected by the economic downturn, growth of chain bookstores, etc., but they have been able to turn to online book search services like Bookfinder.com. By selling books within the community and online, it helps to ensure that they are continuing to be inside that community. For customers, what sells is that if they can’t find what they want at an independent bookstore nearby, they can shop online at an independent bookstore in somebody else’s community. Thus you can have people from all over the world supporting each other’s independent bookstores.
Also, because we are not pay-for-placement, our goal is always to show the best books at the best prices to the users, we don’t really care whether you are a giant online bookseller or a tiny independent bookseller—you get equal billing on our site and the customer gets to decide who to shop from.
Does Bookfinder.com cater mainly to an audience in the United States or can people from anywhere around the world order books through your site?
Anybody in the world can order books from Bookfinder.com. Just about all the bookstores that we work with will ship internationally.
Bookfinder.com was recently acquired by Abebooks.com. What does the acquisition mean for you?
It means a lot.
Since the time we went online in 1997, and launched as a startup in 1999, we have been very focused on really putting up very honest results that are not biased in any way. All of the other comparison-shopping sites have some sort of pay-for-placement in the results, where a company pays the shopping search engine more in order to be displayed more prominently. We don’t do that. We have never done that because as book shoppers ourselves, who shop for and buy dozens of books, and read a hundred books a year, it is not the kind of product we would like to see and use ourselves if it were biased.
So when Abebooks.com bought us, what it means for us is that it allows us to grow, it allows us to use more resources from our parent company more effectively, it actually allows us to get access to a set of very smart consultants who know a lot about the industry, and can help us with our site in terms of marketing, but at the same time, we do this in a way that the integrity of our product is not compromised.
What are some of the most popular books in Bookfinder.com searches?
We generally have very little insight on out-of-print books. Bookfinder.com brings out an annual report of the most sought-after out-of-print books in America. It is very interesting because there are a lot of books that you or I wouldn’t expect to see. One of them is a book called The New Soldier, which is an anti-war book by John Kerry, and Sisters, a lesbian romance by Lynn Cheney.
Another out-of-print book that people have been searching for as many years as we have been online is The Principles of Knitting by June Hemmon Hiatt.
What influenced you to read books?
We are a Bengali family. My father is an engineer and my mother studied English literature in college. Technology and books have always been around in my family.
My parents, like a lot of Indian Americans, took me to the library. There were always books around the house. We didn’t watch television. We read books, we talked about books, it was quite natural for us. And that love of books has always been there. Over a period of time I have come to appreciate that this passion for books has come from my family, my grandfather …
I love the fact that I read a lot and I have really been able to take that and combine my love of technology and my love of reading and do something with that. It really brings a lot of satisfaction to me.
I was going through your reading list. You get through one book every 2-3 days, sometimes one a day … how do you find the time?
You can always find time to read. Bookfinder.com is a fulltime job. Outside Bookfinder.com I do a lot things, I spend time with friends. I also work with South Asian organizations where we do work around hate crimes and other issues. It is all about making time.
What are some of the best compliments you have received about Bookfinder?
I think my favorites are from grandparents who are trying to buy books that they read as a child, for their own grandchildren. We hear from people who have been looking for a book for 10, 20, 30 years, sometimes even 50 years, and have come to the site and found it, given it to a family member, or read it themselves, and it has meant a lot to them.
Nitya Ramanan is a freelance writer who tries to catch up on her reading between writing assignments.