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)

BooksFree:
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)

BookSwim:
3 books for $19.98
11 books for $39.94

Paperspine:
2 books for $9.95
5 books for $24.95