Digging Into the Rental Argument

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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