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Blog: Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles
Reducing Book Clutter (Part 1): Book Rentals for Grownups

Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend.
Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read.

~ Groucho Marx

If you're a bibliophile, conquering book clutter may sometimes seem impossible. Perhaps you're a fast reader -- you buy popular novels or non-fiction books, plow through them like popcorn but are unlikely to read them again. Previously, we've talked about how to pare down your library and organize what remains. These methods concentrate on what to do when you've collected a backlog -- but what if you (wisely) want to keep a backlog of conquered books from building up and blocking your hallways in the first place?

Over the next few weeks, we're going to explore resources for acquiring books for the short-term (by renting, trading and borrowing), accessing clutter-free audio versions of books (even at low or no cost) and developing a high quality library of digital books without spending a fortune.

Renting vs. Borrowing Books

You've rented videos and DVDs, cars and perhaps tuxedos, but did you know it's actually possible to rent reading material other than textbooks?

The concept of renting books is closely allied with that of borrowing books. If you've ever let a library book overstay its welcome in your home (perhaps because there were so many other good books to read, or maybe because the library book was hidden under household clutter), you might have come to feel that the late fines you paid, still less than the actual cost of the book, were like small rental charges.

Paper Doll is a huge fan of the public library system; in fact, my first job, from the age of 16 until I left for college, was at my public library. (Imagine my nerdy-girl excitement at getting paid to organize books!) However, as public library funding decreases nationwide, the hours and even days of operation at many branches have shrunk, making it more difficult to get to the library when it's open. Reduced funding often also means fewer new titles are available, and fewer copies of individual titles can circulate.

Unlike borrowing from the library, renting books is not free -- a major sticking point for those of us who are frugal readers. And certainly, shipping books increases your carbon footprint. However, renting has definite advantages over borrowing. Titles are available when you want them. You don't have to drive to the library, worry about days or hours of operation, and there are generally no fines because there are usually no due dates.

Conversely, renting has the same drawback as borrowing titles from the library. If you love the feel of a brand new book, with crisp pages, shiny covers and flat corners, and you tend to eschew library books because they might be more-than-gently loved, renting won't be a superlative experience for you. Overly-worn books are generally taken out of rotation by rental services, but if you're the sort of person who can't stand the idea of used books, or are enough of a germaphobe that you don a Hazmat suit to stay in a hotel, renting may not be for you.

Renting vs. Buying Books

Compared to purchasing a book, renting has three major advantages. The first is fiscal. For the cost of purchasing one new hardcover book, you could rent and reasonably read anywhere from three to 15 books (depending on shipping speeds) of comparable length titles in one month. Creating a personal book budget is easier, because rental services charge a flat fee each month, no matter how much you read.

The second advantage is convenience -- renting is more convenient than schlepping to the store and buying in person, though it's probably a wash when compared with shopping online. When you hear of a book you'd like to read, you just add it to your online queue and it will be sent automatically.

From an organizational perspective, renting books reduces the emotional sway books have over a reader, thereby reducing clutter. If you know you'll be returning your rental (just as you might return a library book), you've eliminated the possibility of getting sentimental about keeping (vs. donating) the books that might otherwise clutter your home and exceed the storage space on your shelves.

Book Rental Options for Grownups

Although the textbook rental arena is crowded, the demise of Paperspine in December 2009 left only two major contenders for non-academic book rental supremacy:

BookSwim, like many rental services, considers itself as "Netflix for books". In a way that proves that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, BookSwim is flattering Netflix all the way to the bank. The process is simple. Once you sign up for your preferred level of membership, just:

1) Create a Rental Pool, a list of books you'd like to rent. It's like a Netflix queue.

Just as you might search Netflix for a specific movie, TV show, actor, director or genre, you can search BookSwim's catalog for a title, author or ISBN to develop your list. BookSwim carries a variety of titles, from hardcover new releases to paperback classics and re-issues.

You can also click "Browse Our Books" to see new releases, pick from categories (like sports, home & garden, and history) and then delve into sub-categories (like American history, European history, military history, etc.). You can search by specialized lists, including Oprah's Book Club list, the New York Times BestSellers list and BookSwim's own Top Authors list. The service will also provide recommendations, based on your tastes.

2) Books are automatically shipped to you.

As with Netflix, the titles at the top of your BookSwim list are mailed to you automatically. Unlike Netflix, which has oodles of warehouses and a cozy relationship with the U.S. Postal Service (so you get your new DVDs within a day or two), all BookSwim titles travel from their central Pennsylvania warehouse via UPS Innovations, a hybrid U.S. Postal Service/UPS delivery service. Shipments generally take 3-10 days, so shipping time may slow the number of books you can read in one month.

BookSwim's staff inspects each title as it's returned to the warehouse and promises "you'll never receive a book that looks as if it's survived three wars and a stint in the Rockies." So, no icky books!

Once you get your book or books, you can read them at your own pace, whether that's conquering a leisurely few pages a day or a gobbling up titles with a flashlight under the covers like when you were little. There are no due dates or late fees, though (again) as with Netflix, the faster you read and return books, the more bang you'll get for your membership buck.

3) Return the books in the pre-paid mailers.

Once your books are received, BookSwim can identify the numbered code on the books' spines, credit your returns and send out the next titles on the list. Books are grouped into shipments to keep your (and their) costs low, but you don't need to read all books in a package before sending them back; rather, at each membership level, there's a minimum number of titles to return in each pre-paid mailer, to keep costs in line. If you lose the pre-paid mailer, you can print a new one from the web site, or, if necessary, request a pre-paid return bag at no charge.

If you actually end up adoring a book so much that you can't bear to part with it, you can purchase it at the discounted BookSwim member price -- think of it as rent-to-own.

Read as many books as you crave for whatever flat-fee level you choose. The membership categories are:

Light Reader--For $23.95/month, you can have out three books at a time. Return the first two books while you're reading the third.

Casual Reader--At 29.95/month, keep five books at once, and return three or more titles at a time.

Avid Reader--At this level, $35.95/month, you can have seven books at a time. Just put four or more titles in any return.

Devout Reader--This status, for $59.95/month will delight you with 11 titles at the same time. It will probably annoy your carrier, however, who will have to start renting books on Chiropractic Self-Care to keep up with the weight of your deliveries! When you've finished six titles, return them and keep reading the remainder.

For people who like the idea of book rentals but who read few books each month, there's also a 1-book-per-month plan for $9.99 plus $3.99 shipping fee. However, Paper Doll feels that if your schedule is that limited, a library card or one of the audio or digital options we'll be discussing in coming weeks might better suit your needs.

Memberships are automatically billed to members' credit cards on a monthly basis. If you'll be traveling or need to watch your cash flow, you can put your account on hold for 30, 60, 90 or 120 days; you won't receive book shipments, but you can still access your account and add titles to your list.

BooksFree came onto the scene in 2000. In fact, even before BookSwim launched in 2006, BooksFree was the first company to offer flat-rate book rentals to consumers. Unlike BookSwim, which offers both hardcover and paperback titles, BooksFree has focused solely on paperback titles. In recent years, however, BooksFree has expanded into the CD and MP3 audio book realm.

BooksFree operates on the same general plan as discussed above:

1) Add books to your queue from BooksFree's 280,000 book titles (or 26,000 audio books). Just brows titles, authors or ISBN numbers and click the red "Add" button to populate your list with desired titles.

2) BooksFree ships the books at the top of your queue. There are no due dates, no late fines and no shipping charges. Paperbacks are shipped two or three per package via USPS Media Mail, which means it typically takes 5-15 business days to receive your titles. The CD audio books are shipped separately, one title per order (no matter how many discs are associated with any one book title), via First Class U.S. mail, and arrive within 2-3 days.

3) Read the books, then return them at your leisure in the pre-paid mailers, or purchase them at member discounted rates.

BooksFree reminds Paper Doll of a stern librarian. Members are required to ship back the exact number of books that they received in any given package, so if you have a plan that includes having a large number of books out at once, it requires a little more mental effort. Also, while they'll replace lost pre-paid mailers, BooksFree warns, "Members are encouraged to put return mailers in a safe place to avoid losing them. Replacements are costly."

BooksFree has an incredibly complex array of pricing and plan options, which, while generally lower than those of BookSwim, can be confusing. For example, if you wish to rent paperback titles only, there are seven monthly-billing levels, ranging from $10.99/month for one two-book order at a time to $49.99 for five three-book monthly deliveries. Discounts are available if you pay for membership on a semi-annual or annual basis instead of monthly.

BooksFree also offers multiple levels of plans for renting children's books, audio book CDs, MP3 audio books and combination plans. And if all of these options aren't enough, BooksFree offers a la carte rentals for those who don't want to become members. Ad hoc rentals have fixed rental periods (45 days for paperbacks, 30 days for audio books) and BooksFree rates vary according a book's original list price.

While the sheer number of rental plans can be overwhelming, the site does offer step-by-step guidance to help you find the ideal plan for your reading needs. It's not clear from their FAQs whether memberships can be placed on hold, and while one assumes that membership levels can be changed at any time, it's not explicitly stated.

Finally, BooksFree offers some interesting perks, including an in-stock guarantee, a large selection of out-of-print titles and an interactive community of readers.

Just as services like Chegg and BookRenter cater to college students renting textbooks, and BookSwim and BooksFree indulge (mainly) adult readers, there are some great book rental options for young but eager readers (or parents who want to encourage their kids to be more active readers). Next time, we'll explore some of the fun and quirky options in the world of children's book rentals, and meet characters like BookPig and learn how to find books for your little Seed, Sprout, sapling and tree. Happy reading!

posted on: 8/31/2010 10:30:00 AM by Julie Bestry
category: Paper

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Discuss This Post

by Andi Willis, Good Life Organizing on 8/31/2010 8:19:21 PM:

Julie, A client just told me about www.paperbackswap.com yesterday. It's a online book swap with little to no cost other than postage. If you haven't already, check it out.

by Julie Bestry (Paper Doll) on 8/31/2010 11:16:36 PM:

You're ahead of me, Andi! Today's (and the next) are about renting...the upcoming ones after that, as noted near the top, are about trading. :-) Paperbackswap is one, but there are a bunch of nifty ones. Keep watching! :-)

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Paper Doll, Tackling The Stacks And Piles

by Julie Bestry

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Julie Bestry, President of Best Results Organizing in Chattanooga, TN, is a Certified Professional Organizer®, speaker and author. Julie helps overwhelmed individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems.

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