For those who are regular visitors to Facebook, you may have come across an application called Visual Bookshelf. It allows Facebook users to show on their pages the books they are reading or have read, and each of the book’s titles link back to Amazon.com. Users can also create book reviews and make recommendations.
The company behind Visual Bookshelf is Hungry Machine, a six-person web development firm that specializes in Ruby on Rails technology and Facebook applications. Visual Bookshelf was launched less than a year ago, but it already has millions of users.
Tim O’Shaughnessy is the firm’s co-founder and partner.
PeC: What does Hungry Machine do?
O’SHAUGHNESSY: Hungry Machine is a social media company that builds products and services on platforms such as Facebook and OpenSocial. We focus on building products in topics that people generally think of as doing for fun, such as reading, movies and music. Our products help people keep track of these interests and also allow them to see the likes and dislikes of their friends.
PeC: How would you describe Visual Bookshelf?
O’SHAUGHNESSY: Visual Bookshelf is one of the largest book communities on the web. It allows people to catalog what they’ve read, what they want to read, and what they’re reading now, read reviews of books, and see what their friends are reading, among other things. It also allows people to easily link over to Amazon to go and purchase the book they are interested in reading.
PeC: How does it work?
O’SHAUGHNESSY: It works by providing a solution to a problem many people have — keeping track of all the books they have read and want to read. Our most popular rendition of Visual Bookshelf lives within Facebook, where people can easily get recommendations from their friends and family.
PeC: Is it a Facebook application only?
O’SHAUGHNESSY: Visual Bookshelf is currently only on Facebook, although as additional social networks begin to allow development on their platforms, we will definitely try and provide an experience for users of MySpace, Google and others.
PeC: How did the idea come about?
O’SHAUGHNESSY: Visual Bookshelf originated in the summer of 2007 as we began to realize the potential of Facebook. One member of our team had an idea around replicating real world experiences that rely on word-of-mouth within the Facebook environment because for many people, their real world connections were accurately mapped out in an online environment. We figured we could build a product that leveraged friends by allowing people to browse the collections of those they know already. We are fortunate that our hunch proved correct.
PeC: You earn affiliate-marketing commissions from Amazon.com, right
O’SHAUGHNESSY: We do have an affiliate relationship with Amazon. Part of our business model is based on revenue generated from referrals to Amazon through its affiliate program.
PeC: How did that relationship come about?
O’SHAUGHNESSY: It’s really an easy process. Pretty much anyone can sign up for Amazon’s affiliate program. It has a great web interface that allows its partners to track purchases, clicks, conversion rates and a few other things really easily. So, in short, we were able to take advantage of an already existing program.
PeC: How many people are currently using Visual Bookshelf?
O’SHAUGHNESSY: Visual Bookshelf currently has about 1.3 million users, a good portion of whom returns at least once a month.
PeC: Visual Bookshelf also connects people who have read the same books, is that correct?
O’SHAUGHNESSY: It does. One of the best feelings is finding someone who shares the same book interests as you because you can get some really good recommendations. Because every book has its own distinct web page, it’s especially useful when you’re interested in a book that is less common. We’ve found that if only a handful of people have read a book because of its relative obscurity, it generally means that you’re likely to share quite a few other book interests with those people.
PeC: What does the future hold for Visual Bookshelf?
O’SHAUGHNESSY: The growth of Visual Bookshelf has been absolutely fantastic. In many cases, we have more reviews of a book than Amazon! With the number of people who are actively using the Visual Bookshelf, the number of books cataloged and the number of book reviews we get every day, we’re confident that if we’re not the most vibrant book community on the web, we certainly will be soon.