Updated on 03.20.10

Digging Into the Rental Argument

Trent Hamm

Shanna writes in:

You’ve written before about how Netflix is a good deal if you’re an avid movie watcher and Gamefly is a good deal if you’re an avid video game player. You’re an avid reader. Have you ever looked at BookSwim?

I have, and I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not to use the service.

BookSwim basically functions like Netflix for books. You can check out some number of books at a time (depending on the plan you use). They mail the books to you with a postage-paid return mailer (a bag) and you can hold onto them as long as you want. When you’re done with a book, drop it in a bag and drop the bag in the mail – a few days later, you’ll get the next one on your list. Simple as pie, and exactly like Netflix.

The plans have various costs. The “five books at a time” plan, for example, costs $29.95 a month, about the same cost as buying a new hardback and a new paperback from Amazon. This would probably be the level that would match my reading.

So why haven’t I signed up? There are several factors I consider when I look at any such entertainment rental service.

Will I actually use it enough? I read – on average – three books a week. I’m pretty sure that I would use this service quite a lot if I were a member.

However, my reading needs are, at this point, largely met by the two book services I use – the library and PaperBackSwap.

Is there a free (or lower cost) alternative that provides the same service? The obvious answer here is the library. It’s absolutely free, and much like BookSwim, I can just log on to my library’s website and “order” books. The big difference is that my library puts books on hold for me and, when they arrive, they put them in a rack at the library. I have to go there and pick them up.

Another disadvantage of the library is late fees. While the first three weeks of a book rental are free, everything after that accrues fines – and those fines build up quite rapidly. I’ve forgotten to return a couple children’s books before and by the time they sent me a notice, I had racked up more than $20 in fines.

So, the library’s advantage is that I have free access. The disadvantages are that I have to go pick up the books, I often have to wait on new releases, and I sometimes accrue late fees. Is that worth $30 a month?

Would such an expense fit into my budget? If I did choose to sign up, the cost of the service would come out of the amount I allow myself to spend freely each month. More likely, my wife and I would both use the service and “split” the rentals and cost between us, as she’s as avid a reader as I am.

The real question, then, is whether the service provides enough positive benefits over what I can get for free to make it worth $30 a month.

For me, so far at least, the answer is no.

I have never not had access to a book that makes me excited to read it. It might not be the latest best-seller, of course, but it’s always something that I’m really happy to have on my bedside table.

To me, that’s the make-or-break deal. I don’t need to have the latest and greatest to fill my reading desires. I merely need to have something that excites me to pick it up, and that might be a fifteen year old novel from my favorite author or a biography of someone I’m intrigued by. New isn’t really part of the equation – and on the rare occasions when it is, I don’t mind waiting a month or two to pick it up.

After all, I have plenty to read.

So, as tempting as it might be to subscribe and get a steady flow of new releases, it doesn’t really hit the sweet spot of what I love about reading – at least not enough to warrant another $30 a month expense.

However, I would not be surprised at all to see this given to me as a gift subscription in the future at some point, as it screams “perfect gift for Trent.”

If you’re thinking about a rental service, ask yourself whether that service really hits your sweet spot, or whether you’re covered by other things you have access to in your life. It might just save you some money.

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  1. Lynn says:

    Here’s a fantastic deal: Practically all the college/university/seminary/med school/art institute libraries in my state share a big interlibrary loan type system. There are two big public libraries who are also part of it. By driving 120 miles to one of those public libraries, and paying $25 for an out-of-county library card, I now have access to millions and millions of incredible books. When I see a book recommended on a blog or wherever, I go to the loan system search page and request it. Within 5-7 days I get an email from the library I’m actually a member of, telling me that my book is waiting for me at the front desk of the college library in my town. It checks out for three weeks, with two renewals if no one else has placed a hold. I can renew and track requests by signing in at “my” library’s web page. The initial drive was required, because I had to present a photo ID and proof of address, but I can do my annual renewal by mail.

    The only downside I can think of is that losing a book would cost me $120 because of all the processing. I’ve also been fined 80 cents because a book from “my” library that I returned to the college was apparently not checked in properly by the college, and by the time it got back to “my” library, it was 4 days overdue. That shouldn’t happen again, because I now renew books to make sure there is at least a week left when I turn them back in.

    I would encourage any avid reader to see what kind of interlibrary loan program might exist in their state.

  2. Holly says:

    I hadn’t heard of this before now! I got all excited about the possibilities, but after looking for the next 5 books on my to-read list and not finding them there, I think I’ll be sticking with the library.

  3. Rob says:

    Trent- to combat late returns, you may want to ask your library about options. With mine, you can provide an email address and you’ll get a heads up 3-4 days before the due date, and another 3-4 days after(the before is usually plenty, since it includes a link to renew the book online directly)

    The tipping point for me with BookSwim would be condition of the books. I’m….lets say more then mildly OCD. Although my county has an exceptional library system, I’ve had plenty of experience with finding one only to find there were stains or damage that made it effectively unreadable for me. If I could be sure of better quality, heck yes I’d sign up, $30 a month would be cheap for nice, clean books. But until then, I’d rather play interlibrary loan roulette knowing that if there’s bubblegum wiped across the cover, at least I haven’t spent anything before I send it back.

  4. Julie says:

    For me, another consideration would be how good BookSwim is (vs. my library) at getting really new books. My library has most of the new books that I want, but sometimes they don’t. And sometimes there are 10-20 reserves on a really popular new book (I’ve seen 24 on a single book). Given that the lending period is 3 weeks, that means it could be months before I get my hands on the new book I want.

    When my library doesn’t have a new book (or doesn’t have it available for a long time), I’m forced to either go to a bookstore and buy it or read it there. Or, I suppose, ILL it or request it and hope that the library gets it in at some point.

  5. Rebecca says:

    One more reason why I love the fact that we live about 500 ft from the library! Both my husb and I request books online from the state wide intralibrary system, and we get an email when they arrive, usually a book is checked out for 4 weeks, new releases are 14 days, videos 7 days.

  6. RobD says:

    If I am following this argument correctly, wouldn’t it be better to compare the rental service with what your free services plus $30 per month could do? If you only occasionally needed a book *now*, the $30/month would probably cover it and leave some left over. (As the comparison went against the service, it’s moot…)

  7. Jennifer says:

    We just moved to a new area and the public library gives cards to kids (probably not that unusual) but the kids cards don’t accrue late fees! My daughter checks out many more books than I do (we often get 4 or 5 each week) and it’s so nice not to have to worry about returning them late. Of course we try not too but occasionally we forget one. And I’m just excited for her to have a library card at 22 months old.

  8. Ellen says:

    I use a service like that (booksfree.com, not BookSwim) because my local library is actually quite terrible for the books that I like to read–genre paperbacks–and buying them, even used, at the rate I read them, can get really expensive. So for $17/month, I get four books at a time (this usually means, factoring in mailing time, I get to read 12-14 books in a month). In this case, it’s pretty cost-effective for me. But if the library was better, I would be thrilled to patronize it.

  9. I think I’d rather still buy my books and build my collection. Books are one of the few things I’ll actually let accumulate in my house.

  10. Britney says:

    I don’t rent my books for pretty much the same reasons. I’m lucky enough to live in an area where I can get two library cards to different systems (one near where I live and one near work), and between them I can get just about every book I want between the two. Yes, I have to walk or take the bus to the library, but the location is convenient enough that it’s near someplace I go nearly every day so getting there is not a problem.

    Late fees are small enough that I’d have to be very, very late or lose the books all together for the library to be less cost-efficient than Bookswim.

  11. deRuiter says:

    Let’s see: libraries, cheap books at yard sales, house sales, estate sales, borrowing / lending with friends, discount books at big box stores, discount book table at Shop Rite Grocery store, cheap books at the Salvation Army and Good Will, free / cheap books on Craigslist and upillar, picking books from the paper recycling put out in town once a week, occasionally buying what I really want with a coupon from the big book store chains and ordering through an airline portal (bonus airline miles) and free shipping, I don’t think this is a good deal for me.

  12. Jeannette says:

    The library used to be a fabulous option. However, due to budget cuts, it’s become considerably less so.

    Now, you can only put 9 books on hold. Sounds like a lot? Not really. Right now, I am on a wait list for 9 books, each of which has over 100 people (some have 300 and up) waiting for a copy. At an average of two weeks per person, well, you do the math.

    In the meantime, my hold list is tied up and I can’t add books that ARE available because I’d lose my place for those other 9 books.

    Other factors: New books no longer get three weeks, they now get one or two weeks. This doesn’t work very well if you are taking out a number of books at a time (which I do, to make the best of the cost of going to/from the library–which is a minimum of $4.50 a visit and up). So you have to go back sooner.

    Finally, the depth of books available seems to be far less. And unlike others mentioned here, there is no asking for a book from some other system or even for them to buy it.

    The bottom line: We’re lucky to still have the library and have it open six days a week, albeit with shortened hours.

    oh, and I live in a MAJOR city. Sometimes the suburbs is better.

    I may look into the BookSwim option. If it has some of the books I want, it would be worthwhile, however, it’s also somewhat cheaper to see if I can get some of those same books from Paperbackswap.com, which, to me, remains the best option for a lot of things, especially if it’s a book you want to buy.

    What I really miss are the stores that used to have informal “book clubs” and rented out popular fiction (new mostly) for something like $5 a month. They no longer exist, not to mention that all the used paperback book stores are now gone from the city (too expensive rents) and you’re forced to scrounge at Sal Army, which has raised their book costs and which is also raided regularly by people to get books to sell online (ebay, paperback) so the available stock is hugely diminished.

    Now that people know they can sell stuff for less than they paid, it’s impossible to find either free or reasonably priced used books anywhere!

  13. Gretchen says:

    You read 3 books a week?

  14. lvngwell says:

    I am very OCD about my books too! 99.99 percent of the time I read informational books – “how to” “self help” that sort of thing. It is VERY important for me to be able to underline in a book as I read it – It helps me concentrate and read. I also Keep my book for reference and refer to them all often.

    I will check out a book at the books store first and if it does not have enough info in it to convince me that it will be valuable in my library I just skip it and research the topic on the internet for free or find another book that IS a keeper.

    I live in a small town with a small library and I have never used it for more than my kid’s books. I do go to their yearly purge sale and pick up tons of great stuff there – as well as old magazines WHICH I LOVE!! I cut out what I like and toss the rest. That way I can make theme books with ideas and tips – I just love it and I refer to tem often for ideas and inspiration.

    Any movies I have rented from the library were usually unplayable. I would rather pay a bit for something that doesn’t aggravate me or wait till it comes out on TV and record it if I want to watch it again. When my kids were little even if we paid full price for a movie we got full value for it as we wore them out in no time – my kids just loved them!

    I find that garage sales are awesome places for books and they are where I get 90 percent of the books I own. You can pick up even current release books that cost as much as $50 for about $2 to $5 dollars. Patience is the main ingredient there – you have to hunt for what you want – which is the fun of garage sales!

    Finally – when I walk into a books tore and pay full price for a book I do not feel back about it in the least. I value the knowledge and information in the books and always use it to design a new jewelry item or fix something in my house (or my life!) that saves me WELL OVER what I paid for the book. They are, to me, an investment in the quality of my life – and a quality life is priceless!!

  15. Claudia says:

    In rural Minnesota and Wisconsin every library belongs to a interlibrary network. I’m willing to bet if you looked into it, this is probably available in most areas. I can go online to reserve books and DVDs in the network and I can renew online and they send reminder emails -so,no late fees ever. Most new books are for one week, however, they can be renewed. The libraries also have mail-order available for people who can’t get to the library. All the libraries have local websites as well as the network website. If they have these amenities here in “the boonies of the northwoods”, I’m sure urban libraries offer similar convenience.

  16. elderly librarian says:

    People forget or are not aware, that they, as taxpayers, can use university, medical, or community college libraries as well as the public libraries. Or that the public library can interloan the item for you from almost anywhere in the country. Ask your public library for the login to WORLDCAT database and it will bring up the library closest to you or in your state first in the listing. I wonder how long this service will be available because libraries in general are losing funding.

  17. Mia says:

    I love to read, so this article has been very insightful.AThanks for posting! I never thought about the interloan program at libraries. I live in a small town and our library is somewhat lacking especially in the topics that interest me. I haven’t been there in years literally. But now may be the time to see if they have a interloan program and how it works. I have been trying to get my book spending under control and have had a great experience with paperbackswap.com. Most of the books I receive are in really decent condition some in almost new condition.

    I do subscribe to audible.com where I can get a new audiobook once every couple of months. But the book is mine. I own it. I don’t know about renting a physical book for a couple of reasons – I tend to book hop; at any point I can be reading 3-4 physical books and listening to an audiobook. I could have the book for months and months on end which would mean I not really getting the value out of my month subscription, plus when I’m done I have to return it. If i found it valuable I will no longer have it to reference or be able to loan it out should I decide to do that. Plus, the condition of the book would concern me – I like to keep my personal books in pristine, like new condition. I don’t like to read books with excessive writing, highlighting, underlining, or bent pages – it’s a little distracting to me. I think for physical books I’d like my own copies. But you could always use the rental service to “test drive” books before you buy them. If you find it valuable, something you would want to read again – buy it. If not, you don’t have to worry about having a book you could do without taking up valuable real estate on your bookshelf.

  18. Georgia says:

    I finally got to the place where I could give away a lot of my books. It took years and lots of soul searching. But it has been a wonderful blessing for others. I first gave to my local library where, if I wanted to reread the book, it was available. The I started giving to the library at the mental institution where I worked. There I also gave a lot of new kids books, as I worked p/t at Scholastic at the time. I could buy the remaindered books there for $1 for 3 hardbacks & $.10 for paperbacks. Boy, did my coworkers hate it when I quite working there, as I usually supplied them also.

    My last place to give away was the Auxilliary House I stayed in when my husband was in the hospital a lot. They had a very small library of donated books. If you were reading one when it was time to go home, you could just take it home with you. I ended up giving them so many books that I more than doubled their library. They said if they ever got a complete room for it they would have to name it after us.

    In total, I have given away more than 5k books and it has benefitted everyone. My library at home now has a maximum of about 1k in a lot of genre’s – Christian, sci fi, mystery, romance, self-help, biographies, etc. And I live in a 1k sq. foot trailer. Luckily we also have a room attached that is at the end of our carport. It also has lots of shelves.

    And strangely enough, I am reading Swiss Family Robinson again. It is over the 50th time in 60 years. For some reason it touched a place in me and I cannot give it up. However, I did give a better copy to the Camel Library in Kenya. I forgot, I have been sending books there for the last 1 1/2 years. Look it up on the computer. It costs about $54 to send 20# of books, but I get the books at the $1 store, etc. It is wonderful helping children & adults learn to read.

  19. Jason says:

    Holly, I too got all excited only to find that out of the past 20 books I’ve read only 5 of them are available on BookSwim. The lack of selection is a deal breaker for me.

    My local library is great but I often have to wait for books to become available. Right now I’m trying to hurry through a book because it is due in a few days, I can’t renew it, and there is a long line of people waiting for it. This could be avoided with a service like BookSwim. I’ll have to check back in a couple months to see if their catalog improves.

  20. Easter says:

    I’m a very happy BookSwim customer. They don’t have everything I am interested in reading, but I find that they tend to get (or be willing to order) the big bestseller novels (J.D. Robb, Jodi Picoult, Charlaine Harris, etc.) that I want to read once when they come out but won’t read again. I also like that you can request a book, and if there is enough demand, they will order it and add it to their catalog. I have the five-book plan, and I use it for mysteries, blockbuster bestsellers, and similar “guilty pleasure” books. I use the library for more obscure or older titles. I also have a Barnes and Noble rewards credit card that earns me semi-regular Barnes and Noble gift cards. Between these three things, I have not paid for a book in over a year, and I read about four books a week.

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