Netflix for Books

I grew curious about the book rental companies out there, and decided to compare the three options: BooksFree, BookSwim and Paperspine. No word whether a future competitor will have a name that is not a portmanteau.

Critics of online book rental services often argue that libraries offer books for free. But they ignore the downsides to libraries: often low selection, late fees, and the inconvenience of having to drive to pick up and drop off books. Also, your local library has DVD’s too, but that hasn’t crimped Netflix’s style. And not to get down on libraries, since libraries are wonderful, but just to say some people prefer alternative modes of book procuring.

The Three Options:

BooksFree is a Netflix for books that allows the reader to rent books for a monthly fee, shipping paid (so yes, the name is kind of a misnomer). It isn’t new — it’s been around since 2000, and it’s had its spotlight in the blogosphere before. Unfortunately, the books selection at BooksFree is still woefully thin, especially in the literary category. If you’re interested in tawdry mass-market paperbacks, though, this might be a decent service. It’s main pitch seems to be for audiobooks, for which they have a separate plan.

If your tastes lean to the literary, you’d be better off going to BookSwim, another online bookish rental company (the Blockbuster to BooksFree’s Netflix — or is it the other way around?). It not only has a sizable literature category, but also ways to search within that category, like a section for Short Stories, and even Literature > Short Stories > American. All the kinks aren’t worked out (novels and books that could not be considered literature by any stretch kept popping up), but the selection and search functions are better. Their specialty is renting textbooks (presumably for a semester). However, the website lags.

The third and best option, in many ways, is Paperspine, also the most recent of the bunch. It gets high points for having the best selection of literature — The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Out Stealing Horses, The White Tiger — and a special category right on the main fiction categories for Short Fiction. The browsing selection for short fiction was also the best of the three here, with David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion, Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You, and Etgar Keret’s The Girl on the Fridge. The major downside, if you didn’t catch it from the title, is that they only carry books in paperback — that’s right, no new books here — although they claim to have a hardback plan in the works.

The Plans: (all fees are monthly, all book numbers refer to books possessed simultaneously, and there are plans all along the spectrum)

2 books for $9.99
15 books for $47.99 (!!)
1 Audiobook for $22.49
6 Audiobooks for $62.49 (you better have a long commute)

3 books for $19.98
11 books for $39.94

2 books for $9.95
5 books for $24.95

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8 thoughts on “Netflix for Books

  1. Jackie says:

    Great review – first one I’ve seen with this much detail. I use BookSwim and I really like it, actually, but I appreciate your opinion. I liked that the first month was only about $10, was worth it for me. Thanks again for your input – happy reading!

  2. Lisa says:

    It’s kind of hit or miss, but I like Bookmooch because it is free – you pay to ship a book to a requester, and then when you request, the donator pays to ship to you.

  3. Dan Collum says:

    Really is this necessary what has happened to all our libraries. Not to be a hater. I glad to see there is an market for this servvice, it means people are reading. But really the library is free.

  4. See most of the titles you’ve used as examples, I CAN get at my local public library. Most people can save themselves a trip to library by checking the online catalgue first before they leave their home and check on the book’s status, or even place a hold on it so it’s ready for them whenever they feel like coming over. Some library websites even let you pay off your latefees (which are a lot cheaper than paying for a monthly rental service!). My library sends me e-mail notifications three days before my books are due, so I haven’t had to pay a fine in a long time because I always remember thanks to that reminder email service. And if I can’t get a title immediately, I can wait a week and get it through interlibrary loan or place a hold so it will be resered when it gets checked in. I can’t imagine why anyone would pay to borrow books when libraries stock so many good titles using funds taken from our taxes! It’s almost like paying for books twice in that respect.

  5. Amy Greene says:

    I think these services are better for people who have been going to the library for a few years and have read most of the titles. Hell, I have donated over 2,000 books to the library. By using this service I can read books that the library does not have without having to purchase them. I read about 5 books/week and that is costly.

  6. Ashleigh says:

    Or if you live in a small town in the midwest with a library that has a very limited, outdated collection.

  7. glenda borrello says:

    I’m new on this blog. I found the review very helpful.
    The reasn I am looking into books by mail is that I have a dear friend who is 85 years old and cannot get to her library. I so wish I lived near her as I used to. Then she would have transportation. Her state does not offer a book mobile or mail ordedr books.
    Any other recommendations?

  8. Kelly says:

    Thank you for the insight. I will soon be working in an area where the nearest library will be an hour and a half away and I’m just not sold on the digital book readers.

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