A new Web-based rental service called BookSwim describes itself as Netflix for books.
After checking it out, that seems to be a fair enough summary.
The pricing doesn't seem to be quite as good a deal as Netflix; the fees are slightly higher and the average price of books is somewhat lower than for movies. But it's in the ballpark.
For example, BookSwim offers a subscription with three books out at a time for $19.98 per month. BookSwim covers shipping both ways via U.S. Postal Service media mail, though books over two pounds do carry an extra fee based on the actual difference in postage.
This is not too far away from the three-DVD subscription from Netflix for $16.99 per month, also with free shipping.
BookSwim is aimed at high-volume readers; its plans go up to 11 books at a time for $39.94 per month.
BookSwim has an additional requirement that is probably a consequence of the media mail rate schedule. Customers must return multiple books at a time, depending on the service plan: 2 or 3 for the 3-book subscription, 4 or more for the 11-book subscription. Then BookSwim ships multiple books at a time to the customer.
I was curious about the weights of books, so I grabbed a few Larry Niven/Jerry Pournelle novels off my recently read stack and weighed them on my kitchen scale:
Fallen Angels (with Michael Flynn) in paperback: 0.48 pounds
Inferno in trade paperback: 0.51 pounds
Escape from Hell in hardcover: 1.27 pounds
It looks like paperbacks will never exceed the two-pound mark. However, I can see larger hardcovers getting into excess-weight fees, especially technical nonfiction:
GPU Gems 3 by Hubert Nguyen: 3.8 pounds
Physically Based Rendering by Matt Pharr and Greg Humphreys: 5.77 pounds
Fortunately, the fees would be low: only an extra $1.40 each way for the latter book based on the published media mail rates, cheap compared with its current $74.36 price on Amazon.com.
One might think about using BookSwim to rent textbooks. At $120 for four months' use of seven textbooks, this would be a great idea...except they thought of it first, and they don't do that. BookSwim has a separate service to help students find textbooks, but it's nothing like the regular subscriptions; mostly it consists of referring customers to BookRenter.com, where textbooks rent for a large fraction of their retail price.
In its online media kit, BookSwim addresses the obvious question: why not just go to a library?
The company's answer includes these main points: no late fees, 24-hour browsing, a wider selection, less waiting for popular titles, and no need to leave home.
I'm not persuaded by all of these reasons. I don't believe BookSwim's selection is as wide as a major city library. The Martin Luther King Jr. Library here in San Jose claims a collection of over 1.5 million items. And its catalog can be searched online, like most libraries these days. BookSwim's selling points probably mean more to customers who don't have a big library nearby.
I suspect the waiting-list and convenience issues will favor one side or the other, depending on the customer and the books they're reading.
The page also says this about BookSwim's selection: "Can't find a book on BookSwim.com? Let us know and we'll buy it!"
All in all, BookSwim seems like a pretty good deal for avid readers. It seems to make the most sense for people who like to read popular, new hardcover books, especially if they read a lot, don't care to keep all the books they read, and prefer to use their spare time for reading rather than running to the library.
That summary may sound like a narrow market, but it fits me pretty well, and I think it could make a decent business for BookSwim.