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BookSwim is Netflix for Books

I’m all for anything that gets people to read more. Though I count myself a connoisseur of good film and television, I’m always reading a book (right now it’s “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell” by Susanna Clarke). I admit, though, I don’t quite grasp the concept of BookSwim, which is essentially a Netflix-like rental by mail program for books. Oh, I get how it works: you sign up, choose the books you want, they get mailed, you send them back when you’re done and get the next book on your list. But I’m having trouble grasping what makes the service useful to the average reader. It may be, however, that the service isn’t useful to the average reader.

New Jersey-based, BookSwim, which sent out its first book last March (“The Richest Man in Babylon” by George S. Clason), has plans starting at $14.99/month, which allow you to take out two books at once. Assuming your library is often out of the books you’re into, you’d need to read about three books (trade paperbacks cost about $6-7 each) per month, or at least one higher priced new release hardcover book to justify that cost. How many people actually do that each month? My guess is, sadly, not many — either for lack of time or lack of interest.

Indeed, BookSwim concedes that the service is not for everybody. BookSwim’s Eric Ginsberg told me by email that only about 12% of Americans read one or more books per month — that means there is likely a relatively small pool of avid readers for whom the library doesn’t cut it who might be interested in the BookSwim service. (Ginsberg mentioned that the 12% figure puts their potential customer pool at about 36 million Americans, but if that stat figures in people who read a single book each month — and I’d guess that would account for a large portion of those 36 million — then the number of readers who would benefit from the service is actually bound to be lower.)

Image via BookSwim.

Ginsberg defended BookSwim by saying that anyone who buys one average price new release hardcover book per month could save month by using the service’s 2-book at a time plan (true, but can’t you wait a few months for the paperback?), and by saying that unlike the library, BookSwim doesn’t impose late fees and lets you keep books as long as you want (true again, but my library lets me keep books for two weeks, and if I have to read two books in a month to break even, that’s how long I have with BookSwim, too). He also noted that renting books is better for the environment than constantly purchasing them (certainly true!).

I also asked Ginsberg about wear and tear, since books generally wear out more quickly then DVDs. “Our subscribers value our quality service,” he told me. “Along the lines of ‘Do unto others…’, no one wants to get a damaged book in the mail, so we rarely if ever have a problem.”

That’s not to say there won’t be people who will find utility BookSwim’s service and catalog of over 185,000 titles. Judging from the user feedback they have printed all over their site, they already have a good number of satisfied customers. There are certainly avid readers out there that would benefit from BookSwim. It seems especially well suited to fast-based book discussion groups (the type that meet weekly or bi-weekly to discuss a new book). Suggestion: add some social features to allow people to form book discussion groups and talk about titles online.

What do you think? Would a Netflix for books be a useful addition to your life?

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