David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

Shelfari: LibraryThing with a New Coat of Paint?

LibraryThing seems to have a new competitor. Or, at least, I’ve just become aware of them.

I’ve made no secret about the fact that I’m a big fan of LibraryThing. I’ve spent hours and hours tweaking my LibraryThing profile, adding books to my catalog, and just browsing around other people’s shelves. I’ve spoken with Tim Spalding, LibraryThing’s founder, and he’s taken the time to respond to e-mails of mine and feature me on the LibraryThing blog once or twice.

So I felt a little like a cheating spouse when I responded to someone’s invitation to sign up for a Shelfari account last week. But it was actually much easier than cheating on a spouse, because I didn’t have to go through that whole tedious seduction and getting-to-know-you routine. I exported my whole LibraryThing catalog in about three clicks, and imported it right into Shelfari. In a way, it was like moving in with your mistress and skipping straight to the seven-year-itch all in one shot.

Here are screen captures of my catalog on LibraryThing and Shelfari, side by side. (Visit my shelf on Shelfari.)

LibraryThing screen shot Shelfari screenshot

After noodling around with Shelfari a little bit, here’s a synopsis of my thought process:

  1. The name “Shelfari” is incredibly lame.
  2. Shelfari looks slicker than LibraryThing.
  3. Shelfari is more user-friendly than LibraryThing.
  4. LibraryThing is fairly slick and user-friendly in the first place.
  5. So why would I switch to Shelfari?

The big difference between LibraryThing and Shelfari is that LibraryThing caps its free accounts at 200 books; Shelfari doesn’t appear to have any limits. But keep in mind that the LibraryThing rates are eminently reasonable. $10 a year for all you can catalog, or $25 for a lifetime membership.

Oh yeah, and Shelfari has a Facebook application. (I see that LibraryThing is testing out MySpace and LiveJournal widgets, which is cool, but IMHO they need to get cranking on a Facebook app.)

But there’s a huge amount of functionality that LT has which Shelfari doesn’t seem to have. I went browsing through “my shelf” on Shelfari and discovered that my copy of Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends doesn’t have Silverstein listed as the author, only as the illustrator; and despite the fact that there’s an “Edit” link next to Edition Details, there doesn’t seem to be any way to edit that information. I was able to change editions to one which does have the author listed… but this one doesn’t have an illustrator listed. LT, by contrast, lets you edit book details to your heart’s content and upload custom covers that the whole community can use. Does the system think that “J.D. Salinger” and “JD Salinger” are two different people? Easy enough to fix that in LibraryThing.

Shelfari logoThis community focus is one of the things that makes LibraryThing so appealing. It’s kind of like — well, a library. It’s really, really easy to import and export your entire catalog so you can use it in other applications. Put it on your blog? Tie it in to your Firefox? Access it from your cell phone? No problem! If there are inaccuracies in the catalog, everybody pitches in to help fix it. If you read through the help menus and fine print, you’ll see quirky little bits of humor that give the site some attitude. “If the buzz page doesn’t convince you,” says a little blurb on the LibraryThing home page, “you cannot be convinced. Go away.” There’s a lack of commercial focus that’s very reminiscent of that library feeling. Come on in! Put your feet up, hang around as long as you like, buy some of the books on the Community Used Book table in the back if you’d like, but no pressure.

Of course, there are downsides to the public library. LibraryThing seems to go down more often than most other Web 2.0 sites I’ve seen (except for the chronically hapless MySpace). It’s not uncommon to find bugs and layout quirks. Every once in a while, you’ll find something not working with a cheerful little “we’re working to fix things” message. Oops, the plumbing’s leaking over in the corner again! Don’t worry, we’ve called the guy to fix it, he should be here in the next hour or two. Just try to steer clear of it in the meantime, ‘mkay?

Shelfari, by contrast, feels more like a corporate-owned bookstore. Like something a bunch of guys from Microsoft and RealNetworks would put together and then get funding from Amazon for. And if you poke around in the About Us sections of Shelfari for a few minutes, you’ll see that that’s exactly the case. If you’re wondering why Cory Doctorow breaks into hives whenever you say the word “Shelfari”, it’s because the president and co-founder of the company was in charge of DRM for RealNetworks. (Read Shelfari’s Management page.)

Poking around in the About Us sections of Shelfari reveals that these folks expect to sustain this site through Amazon referral fees, which seems pretty unrealistic to me. If you dig around the LibraryThing site, you’ll see several ironic references to the wads and wads of cash they pull in from Amazon referral fees. Meaning “we don’t expect to set the NASDAQ ablaze with this kind of revenue stream.” True, LibraryThing doesn’t exactly push people to buy books off of Amazon — they cheerfully funnel people to any number of sites, including book swapping sites like BookMooch and ReadItSwapIt — but they’ve got a much larger user base than Shelfari at the moment. Shelfari claims that they’re not going to accept advertising either.

So let’s do the math here: no membership fees + no advertising revenue + minuscule referral fee income – hosting fees, bandwidth fees, programming costs, overhead and salaries = remind me again how you intend to stay afloat after the Amazon money dries up?

For the moment it’s pretty clear which service gets my vote as the more functional, useful, and friendly place to be. Luckily, there’s no reason why I can’t maintain accounts on both for the moment. It’ll be interesting to see how Shelfari grows and develops over time.

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  1. tobias buckell on August 23, 2007 at 1:58 pm  Chain link

    I signed up for Shelfari first, but when it came time for adding the ‘currently reading’ widget to my site, LT’s was more minimalist and easy to add to the ‘look’ of my site and was willing to play nice. And I agree with all your thoughts, hence my move to LT when people pointed it out to me…

  2. Jason Pettus on August 27, 2007 at 9:46 am  Chain link

    As part of my day job, I am quite active at three different social networks for book lovers — the LibraryThing and Shelfari ones you mention here, plus a third called GoodReads.com. And it’s for sure, what exactly you say here — that in all three cases, there are certain very specific exclusive benefits and drawbacks to them all, making it very difficult to conclusively pick a “best” of them for all situations. GoodReads, for example, contains more user reviews than LibraryThing and Shelfari put together; but the site puts a ridiculously low cap on total review length (about two paragraphs altogether), making the reviews themselves often less helpful than at the other networks. And I definitely and precisely agree with you about the “vibe” you get off LibraryThing versus Shelfari; the former definitely feels like a labor of love, a high-tech anarchist lending library in a basement shop in a big city, while the latter definitely feels like its owners are just waiting at any moment for Amazon to out-and-out purchase them. Again, this doesn’t make either one particularly better or worse than the other; just that there are definitely two very different flavors to them, for those who think that all these social networks are essentially alike.

    I will say what is consistently the best about them all, though, and is why I am so active at them as part of my day job — it’s a great place to meet very smart, very passionate lovers of books, not only simple fans but also lots of authors and also executives within the publishing industry (or at least the young, smart ones). It’s a great place to find out about new books you might have never heard of, as well as to argue for great books that others might have never heard of, within generally positive environments full of highly literate (and mostly good-looking) book nerds. Anyway, my two cents. Your fan as always — Jason Pettus, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography

  3. David Louis Edelman on August 27, 2007 at 11:37 am  Chain link

    Thanks for that, Jason. I may have to check out GoodReads.com — hanging out on book-related social networks certainly should be part of my job too. :-)

  4. Ashish on September 19, 2007 at 5:48 pm  Chain link

    Shelfari keeps asking me to make a bloody account before I can browse anything beyond their first explore page!

  5. Gary Edmonstone on March 15, 2010 at 11:51 am  Chain link

    For those of you that might be interested, I have been working on developing my own site that allows users to catalog everything from books, through DVD’s, Albums and Gadgets plus much more. I still have a long way to go in making the site a great user experience, but I would love comments from any of your readers on how to improve.

    Fell free to take a look at http://www.kumbooka.com and drop me your comments. I also use Shelfari, and like the user experience.

  6. Deborah Bobo on April 17, 2010 at 9:28 am  Chain link

    I am a school librarian and have been looking for a site for my students to use to review books and look at what their friends have reviewed as well. I also want teachers to be able to look at each of their students ‘shelves’ to see what they are reading. I have personally been using Visual Bookshelf on FB, but you can’t access FB at my school. Librarything is accessible, but states that children under 13 cannot join. I am at an elementary school. An suggestions? Is there software that we could purchase that would work just within our school and function like these social networking sites?

  7. Gary Edmonstone on April 25, 2010 at 4:20 am  Chain link

    Hi Deborah,

    I am currently developing a website, http://www.kumbooka.com

    I am still in a fairly early stage of developing Kumbooka, however, I would love to work with you on a beta test to see if Kumbooka would work for your students.

    On Kumbooka, you can list all the books you own, DVD’s, albums, gadgets and much much more. You can view other users shelves, as long as you have permission from that person, and you can write reviews and rate all items you add. You can also add items as Owned, borrowed, wish list, reading now etc etc.

    I do not have any age limit on the site at the moment, and I would be most interested to work with you to see how we can ensure a safe operating environment for younger children.

    If you have a few minutes to spare, I would love you to take a look at Kumbooka, and let me know your thoughts.

    As I mention, we are a young website, so the time is right to make any changes to ensure a safe environment for your students.

    Kumbooka is set up as a limited company in the UK, and we are registered under the Data Protection Act, so you can trust us to work with you, and be sure we will never spam your students, or share their information with other 3rd parties.

    Let me know what you think, currently Kumbooka works best on on Safari or Fire Fox, but we are also working to improve the user experience on IE and other Browsers.

    I look forward to your thoughts and comments on how we can make Kumbooka the right choice for your students. If you are prepared to work with us on a small beta project, then I would also consider making a small donation to your school in the form of Amazon vouchers.

    Kind regards

    Gary Edmonstone
    Founder of Kumbooka.com

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