Free Books, but No Takers

I've been experimenting this year with a new book-sharing network called BookCrossing. So far, despite my best -- my family would say, "fanatical" -- efforts, the experiment has been a complete failure. recycle_bally.gif

BookCrossing bills itself as the world's largest book club, with 762,824 members in over 130 countries. (About 40 percent of them are in the United States.) The idea, conceived by Ron and Kaori Hornbaker in 2001, is seductive: You sign up for free on their (annoyingly busy) Web site and register as many books as you'd like. Each book is assigned a unique 10-digit ID. Then you leave your books around -- "on a park bench, a coffee shop, at a hotel on vacation" -- and track their travels from reader to reader across the globe. "What happens next," the Web site claims, "is up to fate." Let's hope not.

Members have registered more than 5 million books.

In the cute terminology of BookCrossers, I've "released" about two dozen books all over the DC area: in Starbucks, Cosi, Corner Bakery, Kinko's, Caribou, Panera, on the Metro and on park benches. I even sprinkled a few between here and St. Louis on our recent vacation. These have all been brand new, hardcover books: some sophisticated novels (Siri Hustvedt's "Sorrows of an American"), some light bestsellers (Adriana Trigiani's "Very Valentine"), and some pop nonfiction (Alyssa Milano's "Safe at Home), and everything in between.

Over the past four months, no one has ever registered picking up one of my "traveling" books. Their "fate," as it were, is a mystery to me.

And I've done my very best to make this relationship work. I've tagged my released books with official (and overpriced) BookCrossing registration book plates. I've tried to attract attention to my books with official BookCrossing "I'm Free!" Post-It Notes. I've even placed them in official BookCrossing "I'm Free" Ziploc Bags. In other words, I've spent a few bucks trying to make this "free" book exchange program work in one of America's most literate cities.

Would some of you 762,824 members please tell me what I'm doing wrong?

-- Ron Charles
Twitter: roncharles

By Ron Charles |  April 15, 2009; 5:29 AM ET Ron Charles
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Releasing books and not hearing back from them is the most frustrating part of the BookCrossing experience. My personal experience suggests that this is the norm. I'm not sure of the exact numbers, but I've released between 300 and 400 books so far in 2009 (the vast majority of them in and around Alexandria) and to date I've received journal entries on just slightly over 10% of them. This catch rate is tracking pretty close to what I've come to expect. However, every once in a while I book I released years earlier checks back in, proving that they are still around.

Most of the books I release are picked up within a few hours, so I know people take them...I hope they enjoy them and pass them along, even if they don't go to the BookCrossing site and make a journal entry. I've learned to enjoy the journal entries I get, and to not worry about the ones I don't get.

ResQgeek (

Posted by: ResQgeek | April 15, 2009 8:31 AM

Patience, young Skywalker.

I find that 10% is about the norm for catches. Often a lot of time will pass before a book gets picked up on the Bookcrossing radar. Sit back and relax; it's pretty titillating to have a book you released several years ago show up in an unexpected place. (I've had a book show up in Kobe, Japan after being "in the wild" for more than 3 years.)

Posted by: xanderer | April 15, 2009 9:26 AM

Boy, I'd be happy with 10% catch rate again! Mine's about 6.3% (170 caught out of 2680 wild released). I've released more than 80 books this month-- still no catches.
First tip: stop trying so hard. A large portion of BookCrossing is luck. Either the book's finder will be the sort of person to investigate BookCrossing and type in its BCID or he/she won't. All you can do is label the book and let it go. Once it's out of your hands, you can't do anything about it.
Second tip: you don't have to spend lots of money. It IS a free system if you want it to be. Money is NOT a guarantee for catches. One of my fastest releases was a book I got free at work & I wrote a handwritten note in the front cover with the BCID instead of using a label since I didn't have a label at home. Check out this forum for discussion & ideas if you haven't already:
Third tip: everyone likes different kinds of books (not necessarily sophisticated ones). You've released good quality books (no one likes battered, falling apart books). But large hardcovers are more conspicuous. It's easier for some skeptical person to see a small, free paperback and walk away with it.
Forth tip: get used to waiting, though the wait sometimes eventually pays off. A lot of people don't understand the wording in the labels and feel like they have to finish reading a book before "catching" it.

It's those few fantastic catches I get that give me hope and keep me going. My second book released (first caught) was taken to France. A Batman novelization I left in Blockbuster went to Mexico and then to Colorado. A book I slipped onto a local library sale shelf went to Afghanistan, then Texas, and back to Afghanistan again. A book I left in a coffee shop in Chicago was taken to Michigan and was "one the greater surprises I have had in my life" according to the finder. And here's a recent Washington DC catch of mine that was caught and taken to Canada though the book wasn't the finder's cup of tea:

Posted by: kmcdevit | April 15, 2009 10:21 AM

Please be assured your books are being enjoyed. I have no doubt there have been "takers". You just haven't heard about it yet.

You're doing nothing wrong. Although, as a previous poster has told you, you don't have to buy things to make it work. Slap on a post-it note saying "Free Book" and hand write the URL and BCID number on the inside cover (with an encouraging note if you're so inclined)and you're good to go!

I can tell you, by way of encouragement, that I released 20 books before I got my first "catch". I've now released more than 1,200 books. Four hundred and eighty of those have written home. Sometimes it seems that they have just been waiting for the right reader. Like this one:

Some have yet to write home, but I am confident they are in safe hands. I can say this because I have seen my own books in the hands of street people who are, get this - reading them! I have also seen a young teen mom calm herself by reading a tagged book (not one of mine) in the courthouse while she waiting for her own case to begin. Even if I never got an official "catch", having seen things like that keeps me releasing.

Of course it's thrilling to get the email alert that one of your books have been found. Although sometimes you'll find that your books are having more fun than you! Like this one that's crossed the Atlantic twice now:

Keep on releasing, you will be rewarded.

Posted by: pooker | April 15, 2009 12:20 PM

Yep, it's frustrating when your books aren't caught – but really fun when they are! We’re incorporating BookCrossing into The Lost Book, an animated web series that’s part of the UK’s largest ever reading campaign. We’ve been releasing books here in Edinburgh, around the UK and (with help from the BookCrossing community) worldwide – including one left at the Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial in Washington last week. It’s great when we hear about their travels. Even our fictional character, Aileen Adler, has released four books - and had two catches!

Posted by: TheLostBook | April 15, 2009 3:26 PM

I have had two books 'caught', out of about 20 releases. It does feel frustrating sometimes. But one of those two was released in 2002 (!) in DC and caught last year in Philadelphia. So that was a really fun surprise. Someone found it in a box of old books on their neighbor's porch. Who knows how it got there? That kept me on the hook to release a few more books...still holding out hope for another 'catch'.

Posted by: catymac | April 15, 2009 3:43 PM

Wouldn't a better idea be to hand give the book to someone. Just say, you just need to do the bookcrossing thing? If you don't read it, give to someone else.

Also, I think most people who like to read don't often do the internet. If someone finds a free book, I think a lot of them just scan it and file it away - forgetting about it.

Posted by: cmecyclist | April 15, 2009 4:09 PM

Why don't you try Its also a book sharing network, but for every book you give away you get a free book. When you send a book, you know someone is enjoying it because they requested it from you.
I've really enjoyed getting free books and giving them, there is something great about reading a book you know has already been enjoyed. But if I saw a book sitting on a bench I might not pick it up thinking the owner might come back.

Posted by: lisetted | April 16, 2009 8:19 PM

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