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Sort Of Like A Library Without The Free Part

May 16, 2007

I was struck by an article in yesterday's Minneapolis Star Tribune about a shortly to be released online service by the name of BookSwim. According to the article,

"BookSwim aims to be the "Netflix of books."...For $15 to $20 per month, the company will send your top five book choices. Return three books in a prepaid envelope, and your next three choices will be mailed to you."

It's an ingenious idea for the lazy suburban generations who don't want to go to the local library or bookstore, or don't have either of these institutions available to them within a 50 mile radius (which I think is, sadly, the case for many people living in the US today.)

I don't want to shoot the concept down before it's even got on its feet, but I do feel somewhat skeptical about the scheme. Here are some of my main concerns:

1) Books are not like wafer-thin DVDs. Even the average paperback weighs half a pound or more. This makes shipping an expensive proposition.

2) The company claims it has over 150,000 titles, but according to the article, it favors "best-selling paperbacks that generate repeat rentals and are cheap to ship. Don't expect to find many textbooks or obscure tomes." If users find themselves unable to use the service for anything more than Harry Potter and the latest Oprah recommendations, they won't see much point in using the service, as these books are the sorts of titles that can be picked up at any gas station. I stopped going to my local Blockbuster because nine times out of ten, I could never find what I wanted to watch on its shelves. I don't think my tastes in movies are particularly obscure, but sometimes I want something other than the latest Will Smith flick. Diversity is key.

3) The creators and publishers of popular titles might not take too kindly to the service if it is successful, as it will represent a major loss in book sales. I wouldn't want to incur the wrath of Stephen King's lawyers.

4) Paperbacks are easily lost and damaged. Come to think of it, so are hardbacks.

5) People often like to write in their books, keep notes in the margins etc. This service would fall apart if readers did this to the books they received. The defacement of library books is a terrible thing, but if you borrow a library book and it's got someone else's scrawlings in it, you don't mind so much because you haven't paid for the book, you've just borrowed it.

6) Which brings me on to my next point: The title of this blog post comes from the headline that accompanied the Minneapolis Star Tribune story on ArtsJournal, where I first read the story. BookSwim is essentially providing library services. But people are more accustomed to borrowing or buying books, not renting them. I wonder how the company will drive buy-in.

7) The company eschews the idea of offering electronic books, at least for now. To my mind, this is where new online publishing enterprises should be heading. NetFlix was founded to fill the gap between the end of DVDs and the beginning of downloadable movies. Already the company is looking to the future by offering 2000 titles for direct download to a PC. Electronic books and readers are more sophisticated than online video streaming technologies at this point. I read many books on my little Sony Clie PDA which is about four years old. It won't be long before the quality of the electronic reading experience will be superior to that of its paper counterpart. Let's also not forget that eBooks allow the reader to make notes and create cross-references on the pages. You can't mark up or in any other way personalize a BookSwim book.

8. BookSwim needs to tweak its website (which is currently in BETA version) or it might offend its customers and potential customers. When I did a search for Joan Acocella's Twenty Eight Artists And Two Saints, which isn't Maeve Binchy but equally isn't a treatise on guinea fowl written in 1861, the following message came up on BookSwim's the search page:

"Sorry. Whatever jiberish you just searched for did not produce any book results. Please try again using our Advanced Search."

I don't think calling readers' book desires "gibberish" is going to Swim.

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