Are Book Rental Sites Better than the Library?

A few months ago, I saw this at Failblog:

book rental service?

was just thinking. my sister does -alot- of reading, and spends like $1000 a year on just books alone. most of them she reads once then never looks at again. is there any kind of like…video rental store but for books? would make things alot cheaper, plus once one person had read one the next person can get enjoyment from it etc

I laughed and thought, “It’s called a library.” Then I started to wonder if a Netflix for books might actually exist. It turns out they do, which then prompted me to wonder if they’re better than the library.

How Book Rental Sites Work

Book rental sites like BookSwim and BooksFree work just like Netflix. You pay a monthly fee and then they send you the allotted number of books per month. Shipping is free both ways. When you return one, they send you the next book on your list.

What Book Rental Sites Cost

BooksFree’s cheapest plan is $9.99 a month for two books at a time. They only offer paperbacks and audiobooks. The audiobook plan comes with a separate fee. The cheapest plan sends two books at a time and requires you to return them together to get more. The other plans circulate the books like Netflix.

BookSwim’s cheapest plan is $19.99 a month for three books at a time and you can return them separately to have more shipped. Their selection includes hardcovers and paperbacks.

Are Rental Sites Better than the Library?

I haven’t tested either site because I have a backlog of books at home and an awesome library that carries nearly everything, but I can see the advantages and disadvantages of the rental site.

Rental Site Advantages

  • Shorter wait for hot books
  • Wider selection for rural residents
  • No need to travel to a library
  • No late fees or due dates
  • Site available 24-hours a day.

Library Advantages

  • Books are free
  • Higher limit for checked out books
  • Wider selection for residents of cities or larger suburbs.

I’m biased, but I think the library wins, for the simple reason of cost. However, convenience is bigger concern for some people. I’m spoiled by my library system. Consider these factors when choosing the best source for your books:

Location and Hours

The Los Angeles system has many, many branches all over the city. I’ve never lived more than 5 minutes from a branch, but that isn’t true of people in rural areas, where a visit to the library could entail a drive of 20 minutes or more. My library also has good hours – my branch is open until 8 weeknights. Some branches are open Sundays. I know many rural libraries have cut hours, which makes them hard to use.

Online Ordering and Renewal

The LAPL catalog is also online, and I can order books to be delivered to my local branch. I can usually get any book I want, although I have spotted some gaps in their fiction collection. I can also renew online. Some rural or smaller systems don’t offer either of those options.

Cost of Late Fees

The biggest danger of the library is late fees. If you’re forgetful or can’t get to the library before a book is due, then maybe the rental service is best for you. Most libraries have night drops, so you can still return books, but then you have to go back to the library when it’s open to check out new books.

Catalog Size

The Los Angeles library system is huge. They have most new books as well as books dating back 80 years or more. I don’t know precisely how many books they have, but I’d guess it’s in the millions. They check out 15 million books a year. BookSwim advertises over 120,000 books and BooksFree claims over 140,000 titles. If your library has fewer books than that and limited interlibrary loan privileges, then better selection is a strong selling point.

Final Thoughts: Library for City Folk, Rented Books for Country Folk

I can certainly see the appeal of renting books through the mail if you live in an area with a poor or distant library system. But if you live in a large suburb or city, then stick with your library. Even if you have to get on a super-long waiting list to read the current bestsellers, free is better than $10 a month. But, if you rack up more than $10 a month in late fees, get thee to a rental website to feed your book habit.

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