About a month ago, I got a call from Brian Ford, who happens to be my cousin. Brian’s wife, Carolyn, had come up with an idea and Brian wanted my thoughts. Amazon had recently rolled out a new feature that allows users to lend Kindle books to others using their e-mail address. This, in effect, means you can really only lend books to people you know (because you probably don’t know many stranger’s e-mail addresses). Carolyn’s idea was simple: what if there were a site that could hook you up with a stranger that has the book you want, so they can lend it to you?
Although I owned exactly zero Kindle books and in the past five years have literally written more books than I’ve read, it sounded like a pretty great idea, and I was interested in building it. The first thing I did was call up my homeboy Nathan Borror, whom I trust implicitly on all things, but especially all things web and all things books. Nathan runs social book site Readernaut, and I figured he’d be able to help me understand the ins and outs of how a service like this might work, and he’d probably also know if something similar was already out. Nathan dug the idea and said wasn’t aware of anyone else already doing it. I was sold. That same night, I dug into Amazon’s Product Advertising API to see if I could make this thing happen.
Carolyn, Brian and I also brought in my Dad, who is a great business man and marketing guy, as well as plenty of thoughts from my wife Nobu, and we all started sorting out what this thing would really be. We quickly ran up against some constraints that ended up shaping the product:
- First, we learned that Amazon only allows each copy of a book to be lent out one time. That is, if you buy Water For Elephants, you can loan it to a friend one time, and then you’ll never be able to loan it again. This meant that for our book lending service, it wasn’t good enough to have a copy of a popular book available from one of our users—we needed lots of copies of popular books.
- Second, we learned many Kindle books are not lendable. That is, their publishers have decided they are not on board with the lending concept and have forbid Amazon from allowing certain books to be lent. To make matters worse, Amazon’s Product Advertising API doesn’t include book lendability information, so we had to resort to—let’s call them “less elegant”—methods for getting that information.
- We had initially wanted to target Nook, as well as Kindle, since that platform also allows for book lending, but Barnes and Noble doesn’t have the APIs to make a really great service available, like Amazon does, and we decided that it was better to make a great Kindle site than a not-so-great Kindle and Nook site.
The first two restrictions are clear indications that the publishing industry isn’t yet convinced that book sharing won’t ruin their old school business model. And while I don’t really give a damn about their business model, I am a published author, and it was important to me that any site we built encouraged people to buy books as well as lend them. I didn’t want to build the Napster of books.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most contentious point of the proceedings was coming up with a name. I really wanted a fun, “producty” name, but I also suck at coming up with such names. Some others in the group wanted a name that was a bit more obvious and straightforward (primarily for SEO reasons). In the end, Brian suggested “Lendle,” which I thought was perfect. I suggested a pairing with the .me TLD, and we ended up with Lendle.me. As Brian said in his post about Lendle, “I’m not sure that it was a universally loved choice, but I can’t imagine calling it anything else, now.”
We spent a great deal of time hashing out the model for how the site would work. We consider the idea of book trading, but ended up going with a system that enforces a lending/borrowing ratio—that is, if you’re not willing to lend, you won’t be able to continue to borrow. When you join Lendle, you’re given two “borrow requests.” You can request to borrow two books from our users. Then, we ask you to tell us what books you own. The more lendable books you own, the more borrow requests you’ll accrue. And when a user requests one of your books and you lend it to them, you get rewarded with even more borrow requests.
One of our early concerns was that mooches would quickly deplete our supply of available books, but so far, this has not been the case. In just a few days of being live, our users have added over 1300 copies of over 800 unique lendable books, and despite several hundred borrow requests fulfilled, the vast majority of the books are still available. So far, our users have proven to not only be willing to lend, but actually to be more interested in lending than borrowing. Also, so far, our users have bought almost as many books from Amazon through our “buy it” buttons as they have borrowed from other Lendlers (yes, we’re calling them that). We gots good people.
Anyway, I spent most of my evenings and weekends for about three weeks hashing the thing out, and then we had a short one-week beta period before launching this past weekend. A real whirlwind, but it’s been fun, and worth it. In the meantime, we discovered that we do, in fact, have some competitors, including a couple that launched before we did. But we think we’re better, for a few key reasons:
At Lendle, we are 100% transparent about what books our users have and don’t have, and which books are lendable and which aren’t. Our competitors don’t tell you how many members own the book you’re requesting to borrow, so you have no indication if you’re likely to actually receive that book anytime soon or not. And some sites don’t even let you know which books have been deemed “not lendable” by their publisher, so you may request a book that it’s impossible to get! On Lendle, you’ll know what you’re getting into before you request a book.
Lendle does everything humanly (and roboticly!) possible to protect your anonymity. No one has to know what books you own, no one has to know you’re the one who lent a particular book, and no one has to know which books you want to borrow. And while borrowing a Kindle book requires your e-mail address be shared with the person lending you the book, we do it in the safest, securest way possible.
Book-sharing sites like Lendle can’t work unless people are willing to lend, not just borrow. Lendle rewards you for being willing to lend books, and ensures that “mooches” don’t deplete the available supply of books.
For those interested in some technical details: Predictably, the whole project was built using Django and Python, and is hosted at Rackspace Cloud. The stack is pretty typical for Django projects: Python, Memcached, Apache, nginx, MySQL, Django 1.3, etc. The site makes very heavy use of the Amazon Product Advertising API.
All in all, it’s been fun and exciting to watch Lendle sprout from a simple crumb of an idea Carolyn had to an actual product with an impressively high number of users for only having been live a few days.
Hell, even I now own some Kindle books—I might even read them!