Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

LibraryThing and Abebooks… The Deal

The short version
LibraryThing is getting a partner. The partner is Abebooks.com, the Canadian company that matches booksellers with booklovers. Abe has taken a minority (40%) share of the company; I retain 60% and majority control. With the financial security and resources Abe brings to the table, LibraryThing’s future looks very bright—increased membership, decent servers and two-three employees working on exciting new features.

There is no down side. LibraryThing’s stringent Privacy Policy remains intact and in effect. The contract forbids LibraryThing from giving Abe ANY user data—not one user name, real name or email. Reviews will not leave the site without explicit permission (ie., not some buried legal clause). LibraryThing will not suddenly sprout Abe ads all over the place or prevent you from buying from other booksellers. Rather, LibraryThing will provide Abe with certain anonymous and aggregate data, like book recommendations or tag clouds, to help Abe users find books they want. Abe and I think we’ll be able to make both our websites better.

I want to make it clear I did not just get rich. (I’m walking away with just enough to cover my legal fees and some new shirts for Book Expo America, where we’re announcing this.) I did this to grow the site, and to have some security that I could keep doing what I love for years to come. Before Abe a few bad weeks would have ended development and sent me scrambling for web design work for maple syrup companies. Now I’ll have a stable job and a smart, dedicated team helping me make great things.

LibraryThing remains a community of booklovers. I’m grateful for all the help people have given the site, but you’re not off the hook. You control the catalog data, not me, and I’m not going to stop asking for your thoughts and ideas—they drive the site forward in a way employees can’t. For starters, I want to know how you want LibraryThing to spend its new resources. And just because they’ll be three developers doesn’t mean there won’t be bugs to catch. (There will be three times as many!)

Post about it here. If you want to ask questions, come over to the Google Group.

The back story
Since LibraryThing took off I’ve been wooed by various entities and characters. Early on I made the decision not to look for venture capital money.* I didn’t want to end up owning 5% of an over-funded behemoth, with the 95% owned by people who don’t care about books and want to see profits next week or they’ll turn the servers off. I also rejected every offer to swallow, popularize and commercialize LibraryThing—the idea being that if LibraryThing were less about book lovers and what they wanted, and more about video games and “special deals,” it would somehow be more appealing to “regular” people. R-r-right.

Abe was the first potential acquirer to spot LibraryThing—way back in November. They invited me up to Victoria—Seattle-ish—gave me a tour of their offices—literary quotes painted on the walls—and initiated open-ended conversations about the future of LibraryThing and what Abe and LibraryThing could do together. Hannes (CEO) and Boris (COO) worked hard to find a deal that would be good for both of us.** We eventually found a structure we both liked and wrote a deal around it.

Who are Abebooks
Abebooks (www.abebooks.com) calls itself a “dating site for booksellers and bookbuyers.” They list books from over 13,000 independent booksellers around the world, helping you find what you want at a good price. Once just for used, rare and collectible books, they now do new ones as well. They run British, French, German and Spanish sites.

From previous conversations***, I get the impression that many LibraryThing users are suspicious of commercial entities, particularly ones that destroy small businesses. Within this context, Abe is the good guy. Check out this Guardian article about Abe and its competitors—how they’ve refuted the idea that the internet would destroy small, independent booksellers; instead the booksellers kept their homey stores and found new markets on Abe.

What will change
As of ten minutes ago, LibraryThing finally hired Abby full-time as its “Head Librarian.” Later this month I’ll be hiring two more developers, including a librarian-developer. I’m assembling my dream team, and together we’re going to kick this site into the stratosphere. For now, LibraryThing’s headquarters are going to be in the apartment above mine, in Portland, ME (so I’ll be able to sneak down and give my wife a break with Liam). If you’re in the area, stay tuned for the “startup barbeque announcement.” At LibraryThing we not only catalog your books, we flip your burgers.

What won’t change
LibraryThing’s Privacy Policy remains in effect. The crucial part reads:

“LibraryThing will not sell any personally-identifiable information to any third party. This would be evil, and we are not evil. We reserve the right to sell or give away anonymous or aggregate information.”

I’ve been so insistent about this our contract PROHIBITS me from giving them anything with a username, let alone user emails and the like.

Other protections:

  • You will not be receiving any emails from Abe unless you consent to it, and we’re not asking.
  • You will still be able to buy your books from other booksellers.
  • LibraryThing will not be plastered with Abe ads.
  • We may feature some Abe content–like links to their author interviews–but nothing too intrusive or annoying.
  • LibraryThing will never make you “friends” with a softdrink, or even a book.

The deal moves LibraryThing closer to booksellers, so I’m compensating by hiring two librarians and redoubling our efforts to provide library-quality data. Abby and I are already signed up to speak at two library conferences, and LibraryThing remains very interested in seeing LibraryThing content in library catalogs.

Lastly, LibraryThing will not be ending its membership fee for libraries over 200 books. I feel $10/year or $25/life is a good price for the service, and users seem to agree. And LibraryThing needs it; Abe gave LibraryThing some expansion capital, not a blank check. Lastly and importantly, paying for something makes you a customer and a member, not a “user.” It turns preference into loyalty. You get a stake and a say.

Thanks to all
LibraryThing has grown because users pushed it on their blogs and on their friends. I have a lot of people to thank, starting with OakesSpalding—its first paid user—and effulgent—its first paid user not related to me. The list of long-time supporters is very long. I’ll mention LanguageHat, saralaughs, wyvernfriend, stevenmcohen, jkcohen, lilithcat, sunny, MMcM, hippietrail, rjohara, ryn_books, nperrin, btripp, wombat, bluetyson, BoPeep, debra_hamel—the longer I make this the more hurt people will be if they’re not on it! My friend ben_a was instrumental in helping me think through business issues and weigh the various “deals.” I’m supposed to buy Ben an elaborate gold sculpture. All other LibraryThing supporters should come up to Portland this summer and drop by the office for a beer. We’ll call it “customer relations,” and expense it.

Lastly, I need to thank my wife Lisa. Without her believing in me, we would have never moved up to Portland for me to work on ideas like LibraryThing. That I managed to develop the site AND arrange the deal owes a lot to her support. Oh, and she managed to have a baby in the middle of it too!

* Particularly after Paul Graham’s Startup School, with Olin Shivers’s wonderful slide: “Venture Capitalists: soulless agents of Satan or just clumsy rapists?” For a great piece on the growing irrelevance of VC, see Graham’s The Venture Capital Squeeze. The irrelevance of VC is very much the LibraryThing story, but whereas Graham presumes hot web ap. startups will get eaten by big corporations for big money—and, one assumes, swiftly lose their cool—Abe provided a better road.
** I also had good conversations with the founders of
BookFinder.com, an innovative book-search company (PERL hackers!) Abe recently bought it, and even though they have it all, kept it independent.
*** The response to my
April Fool’s post about being acquired by Walmart springs to mind…

UPDATE: Abe’s press release in Spanish! (Wish LT had more Spanish library coverage…)

Labels: 1


Leave a Reply