Book Business Extra! Q&A -- The President of LibraryThing.com Talks About the Web Site’s Growth
Tim Spalding first launched LibraryThing.com in August 2005 as a means for bibliophiles to catalog their book collections and network with other passionate readers on the Internet.
Now, 55,000 registered users later and countless visitors later, the site is a hit around the globe. In May, Abebooks.com, an online marketplace for books, based in Victoria, Canada, purchased a 40 percent stake in LibraryThing.com. Spalding, its 35-year-old founder and president, chatted recently with Book Business Extra! about the past, present and future of this unique site for book lovers.
Book Business Extra!: What do you see as the benefit for someone coming to LibraryThing.com to catalog their personal library of books?
Tim Spalding: It’s a two-part benefit. Some people just want to catalog their books. LibraryThing gives them an easy, high-quality library catalog, accessible anywhere -- even their cell phone. Many others are principally motivated by the social and recommendation features that listing books provides. These work even if you list only what you’re reading now, or just your favorites. Bloggers also love showing off their libraries on their blogs, another social feature. We don’t have to be the social hub. You can show your library off on MySpace.
Extra!: You obviously are a fan of print, with your love for books, but you’re also someone well-versed in technology. Will the printed page survive the onslaught of e-books, digital editions and the other technological innovations that publishers are rolling out?
TS: There are some real changes in store, most of which will come from new, Web-based models of writing and reading -- blogs and open source particularly -- rather than new “technology” per se. I can imagine the economics of publishing, or segments of publishing, could suffer real upheaval. But the physical book is not in any immediate danger.
Extra!: Why should publishers sit up and take notice of the interest shown in a Web site such as yours?
TS: I think publishers are well aware that books are social and that the Web can leverage that in remarkable ways. ... LibraryThing’s focus on people’s entire collections should also remind them that books persist -- that a library like mine is half things that fell off their backlist. LibraryThing book and author pages are already invaluable for publishers doing market research. In the near future, we hope to have publisher-specific data reports.
I hope publishers take note of the opportunity presented by having their authors put their libraries onto LibraryThing. Fans might enjoy a personal chat with a favorite author, but a publisher-supplied interview is a far cry from that. Checking out your favorite author’s library online is almost as good as doing it in person. Besides, author interviews almost always ask about what authors are reading or what influenced them. LibraryThing can answer that to the sort of depth that might satisfy the most devoted fans. Oh, and we’re not charging any kind of fee. That would be icky.
Extra!: Social networking sites on the Internet seem to be all the rage these days. Why do you feel book lovers have taken to the Web when there have traditionally been book clubs, libraries and book stores where people can congregate and discuss books?
TS: You can, perhaps, ask people at a cocktail party whether they’ve read “Harry Potter” or “Memoirs of a Geisha.” But you can’t sidle up to someone and inquire about “Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army.” There are eighteen people on LibraryThing I can talk to about that book. The best analogue to LibraryThing is when you go over to someone’s house and spend time browsing through their shelves. You can get a picture of the whole person and talk about where your connection is strongest.
Extra!: How do you see the new relationship with AbeBooks.com impacting the future of the site?
TS: They’re helping to make the site better. They bring resources--financial and non-financial--and a real sense of possibility and adventure. There’s also a lot of overlap between our bibliophile users. The site hasn’t and isn’t going to become a vehicle for pushing Abe to the exclusion of other booksellers, or libraries.
Extra!: With the new jolt of funds, are we going to see any changes to the overall look/design of LibraryThing.com in the coming months? I noticed the site is still in beta form. Will this be changing?
TS: I think you’ll see continuous, rapid development. Enhanced social features and other-media cataloging are among the first changes you’ll see. We haven’t decided about the look of the site. We want to keep it warm and quirky, staying away from looking either like a bookseller or a cookie-cutter “Web 2.0” site.
Beta puts the users on notice that the site is in continuous development. We don’t have releases. The site changes -- gets better, we hope -- under your very feet. Sometimes we’ll put something up and change it 10 times over the course of the week, as comments and suggestions bubble up from the discussion forum. We hope users catch the excitement, and since they really do guide development, take pride in the result.