Thursday, May 17, 2007

BookSwim aims to be the Netflix of books

The launch of BookSwim is only days away, and the startup's founders are late for an appointment.

"We were out looking for shelving solutions for our warehouse," said George Burke, 25.

"By that, we mean shelves," translated Shamoon Siddiqui, 24.

Starting an Internet operation is serious business. But these graduates of the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) know better than to take themselves too seriously. Grand dreams can rise or fall over mundane details, such as shelves for a warehouse that happens to be the basement of Siddiqui's parents' house.

BookSwim aims to be the "Netflix of books." Since 1998, Netflix has become the king of online DVD services by renting batches of DVDs via the mail for a fixed monthly fee, and letting subscribers keep the movies as long as they like.

That's how BookSwim is meant to work. For $15 to $20 per month, the company will send your top five book choices. Return three books in a prepaid envelope, and your next three choices will be mailed to you.

For now, the founders are the only employees and will handle the mailing themselves. Assuming demand develops, they plan to hire part-time helpers.

Orders can be placed at, along with customers' book ratings and comments. Burke and Siddiqui had an inventory of about 80,000 books when they launched the site's introductory phase in March.

Siddiqui says the website will recommend titles based on customers' past selections.

Hold on, guys. Don't libraries lend books for free?

"The big complaint is most libraries have working hours -- they typically close at 5 p.m.," Siddiqui said. And someone may have checked out the book you want.

Not necessary to own a book

What's wrong with book clubs?

"You still are filling up your house with unnecessary books," Burke said. "We feel it's not necessary to own a book, though you can have the option to buy if you like."

They have honed this pitch during six months of quizzing strangers at libraries, bookstores and subway stations. They say suppliers include a local branch of wholesaler Baker & Taylor, and used-book sellers such as Powell's Books and Alibris.

For now, downloadable electronic books aren't on the menu. Burke and Siddiqui cited licensing issues and shortcomings of e-reader devices. So far, e-books only account for about a tenth of 1 percent of the $25 billion U.S. publishing market, according to Dan Rose, former director of digital media for

BookSwim prefers best-selling paperbacks that generate repeat rentals and are cheap to ship. Don't expect to find many textbooks or obscure tomes.

"If you're into Bavarian architecture from the 16th century, that stinks for us because we have to go out and buy that book," said Burke, who is cofunding the venture through loans and the sale of Circular Orb, a Web design company he ran. "We're limiting our inventory based on what's shippable, what's rentable, and what doesn't cost us too much to buy in the first place."

The scheme may not be as far-fetched as it sounds.

"It's an idea worth taking a close look at. ... In general, the climate for investing right now is very good," said Henry Kressel, a venture capitalist at Warburg Pincus and author of "Competing for the Future, How Digital Innovations Are Changing the World."

Watch out for deep pockets

BookSwim's fear should be copycats with deep pockets, said Fernando Alvarez, director of the entrepreneurship program at the Rutgers Business School and one of Siddiqui's professors in the school's MBA program.

"The challenge is to prove the business works, but to stay under the radar screen of the people who can eat them alive," Alvarez said. "They have to be successful, but not too successful."

Burke and Siddiqui's fixation on pulp fiction stems from long hours in bookstores.

"We would read in Barnes and Noble a lot because we were too cheap to buy the book," Siddiqui said.

After earning computer engineering degrees from NJIT, he worked for area defense contractors -- another motivation to dive into BookSwim. "It just seemed no matter how hard I worked, I was still this [tiny] piece of the puzzle. I wanted more control over the success of my labors."

A year of planning has taught the partners to shelve their friendship during business hours. They keep copious notes and swear by Google Alerts, a tool for tracking news on just about anything.

Libraries, meanwhile, don't sound too worried about BookSwim .

"Been there, done that," said Cheryl O'Connor of Infolink, a New Jersey library consortium. She says public libraries began as subscription services. If BookSwim promotes reading, "more power to them."

Which brings us to that name. BookSwim, said Siddiqui, suggests an "ocean of books."

Burke translates: "All the good names were taken."

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