Bookfinder: Eliminating obscurity

Bookfinder: Eliminating obscurity

While still in college, then 19-year-old Anirvan Chatterjee came up with the idea for, the online price comparison service for books that is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year. The site searches through more than 125 million books from more than 100,000 booksellers in several countries, and the company is still growing.

"One of the things that we've always really wanted to do is be able to take to more groups of people and to people who are looking for different kinds of books," Chatterjee told The Bookseller. "Before 2000, we were doing mostly used books. Around 2000, we started getting pretty serious about new books. Around 2002 and 2003, we started getting very serious about being able to find books in languages other than English."

Chatterjee, who was a student at University of California, Berkeley where he studied Network Information Systems and Their Cultural Impact, came up with BookFinder for a class project. Two years later, in 1999, he and his childhood friend Charlie Hsu started running the site full-time. Now, former bookseller Wendy Shaw also works for the Berkeley-based company, and Giovanni Soltoggio serves as managing director of Europe operations in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Online book marketplace bought BookFinder in 2005, but, since the BookFinder continues to be an independent operation, the sale didn't change day-to-day operations.

"However," Chatterjee explains, "AbeBooks' position as a market leader in several online bookselling segments gives us access to industry-specific consulting, support, and advice, which has helped us accelerate our growth plans."

Chatterjee spoke to The Bookseller about the big anniversary for the company, what plans are for the next ten years, and what books and websites he can't live without.

The Bookseller: How did you come up with the idea for
Anirvan Chatterjee: At the time, I was really fascinated by Doonesbury comic books and I wanted to have the complete collection of Doonesbury books, from 1969 onwards. Berkeley is a really great book town, so I went to all the local bookstores, but I couldn't find everything that I wanted locally. I started looking online and I found I was able to complete my collection by finding these books at bookstores I had never heard of. I built a really simple tool for myself—to help me complete my collection—turned it in as a final project and, in January 1997, I put it online so other people could use it as well.

Bookseller: Going on from there, how did grow?
Chatterjee: A lot of it has been just straight linear growth. Through the late '90s, we started having people using the site and discovering for themselves that it was pretty cool. I very quickly learned, as somebody who is not a bookseller myself, that there's a whole lot more to all this than I ever had imagined. Those first few years were pretty critical. It really taught us a lot of humility in that we just discovered how much we didn't know. We were able to ramp up, with the help of a community of helpful people.

Bookseller: What have you learned over the past 10 years?
Chatterjee: What we really realised is that it's actually possible for a very small business to succeed and thrive in its own small way in the marketplace like this. A lot of that has to do with the openness of the book industry. When I started out as a 19-year-old, a lot of the folks in the book world were incredibly open to the idea that they would work with this college kid and partner with us. And I don't know if that would necessarily happen in other industries.

Bookseller: What are some of your goals now that you've been around for 10 years? What are you looking forward to doing in the future?
Chatterjee: We're getting really serious about helping users who are not primarily in the United States. We have a German site and a British site and we have a French and Italian site on the way. Over the next couple of years, that's one of the biggest things we're going to be doing, really taking internationally. And bringing the experience to more people.

Bookseller: What are some of your favourite books?
Chatterjee: I'm a really big fan of Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Colson Whitehead's first book, The Intuitionist. One of my favourite books about books is Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman, who also wrote the wonderful cross-cultural epilepsy book [The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down].

Bookseller: What are some websites that you have to check every day?
Chatterjee: I use BlogLines, which is a RSS reader or feed reader. I read a lot of blogs and I read a lot of magazines that have feeds available and I really rely on BlogLines to get me through the day. Other than that, things like LibraryThing, which I really enjoy as a way to get ideas on what to read and what other people are reading. BlogLines is the essential site, though.

Bookseller: How do you see and other online projects, like Google Book Search, helping the publishing industry?
Chatterjee: Every single piece of it works differently., for example, really helps pull in the long tail. For the top thousand books, there's never going to be any kind of a problem for people to actually be able to access those in their own bookstores and their own communities. really plugs in right there and gives publishers and booksellers new markets where they can sell books. Google Book Search, Amazon Search Inside This Book, or the Open Content Alliance (the open version of Google Book Search) are excellence sources for publishers for getting their information out there. Right now, I think the biggest challenge for authors and publishers is not so much things like piracy and whatever else, I think it's obscurity. The biggest challenge is actually making sure that people are able to find your books and discover where to look.