Home > On Reading > Why BookSwim Is Bad for Reading

Why BookSwim Is Bad for Reading

BookSwim is a business that essentially claims to be the book version of Netflix.  I’d been to their website a few months ago, but when someone reposted it on Twitter I revisited.  I was immediately struck by how the whole thing bothers me.  After a bit of pondering, I realized why.

BookSwim is attempting, subtly, to become a monopoly in the supply of books.

They claim to be more convenient and better than borrowing from a local library, cheaper than buying books, and more trustworthy than eReaders.  They also claim to be better than swapping services like SwapTree, since you’ll be getting new or barely used books instead of old copies.  However, they understand you may still want to buy a book, so you always have the option of buying a book you have rented from them and then just not returning it.  Soon, all you will need for books is a BookSwim account.

Everyone knows monopolies are bad from an economic standpoint.  Where there’s a monopoly there’s horribly high prices, and the item being offered becomes a mark of wealth rather than something everyone uses.  However, I see a monopoly of this type as dangerous to literacy, intellectualism, and even freedom.

How easy would it be to censor what the public reads if everyone attains their information from the same book provider?  Can you imagine the nightmare for freedom of thought it would be if one congolmerate controlled all collection development for an entire nation?  Already they claim to have almost every book you would ever want to read, yet when I searched for five books on my to be read list, only the most recently published one (this year) was held by BookSwim.  (Most of the other were from 1960s to the 1980s, though one was a classic).  They claim to be willing to buy any book they don’t have that you want, but I honestly am skeptical about this.  Maybe I’ve received too many promises like that from cell phone providers, but I can just see the “sorry, there wouldn’t be enough demand to warrant the price” email now.

I know most users wouldn’t limit themselves to just BookSwim for getting their books.  At least not right now.  Yet this scenario of a Big Brother monopoly over where we can acquire our books is clearly what BookSwim wants.

“But, Amanda,” I can hear you saying, “Shouldn’t a business want to become a great succcess?”  Well, yes, but they could have come up with a business model that is more supportive of the community of reading and learning.  A website such as IndieBound, for instance, that makes it easy for users to find local independent bookstores.

Reading and learning isn’t just about “Oh I got this book that’s popular right now, and it came so conveniently in my mail.”  Reading and learning are about the journey and the connections.  When I go to my local independent bookstore and browse for something to read, I not only get a used book cheap, but I also chat with the owner and other browsers.  I leave knowing that my book came from someone else in the community.

I like knowing that the books I read come from many sources.  I use the local public library, borrow from friends, buy used from indie bookstores, buy new copies, receive ARCs from LibraryThing and blogs, and plan to swap via SwapTree in the near future.  My knowledge-base is fluid and about a community.  It isn’t one business that ships my books to me in the mail.  It’s the various communities of readers that overlap and interact to make for my own unique learning experience.  If a company such as BookSwim did become a monopoly, I would lose all that, and that is one of my favorite aspects of reading.

  1. October 13, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    I couldn’t disagree with you more. I will disclose that I am a BookSwim employee, but you are quite off base with your thoughts.

    First off – BookSwim is by no means a monopoly and has no plans at all to become one. Second – BookSwim is doing its best to fit a need of the book reading market – to get bestselling hardcovers cheap.

    When it comes to older titles we cannot compete (and don’t wish to) with the library or with a used book store. That is why we do not carry or stock those books. We love our local libraries and have worked with libraries in the past and hope to work with them again in the future.

    Newly released hardcovers and bestsellers are costly ($15+) and because of our system we have the ability to get you those books as cheaply as ($5/book) (free shipping as well). That is where we save you money.

    If you can please let me know how any of the above is evil or monopolistic, I would love to hear your comments.

    • October 13, 2009 at 1:59 pm

      Nick–Thank you for disclosing that you work for BookSwim. It’s a fun detail to know, as a blogger.

      I made no claim that BookSwim is currently a monopoly. I simply said it is aiming to be one. I garnered this impression from the website, which posits that it is:
      1. better than a library
      2. better than buying
      3. better than swapping
      All of these claims are in regards to being better for any type of casual reading. Yes, there is a caveat on the website about libraries as community and being useful for research. I must say I view this as a toss-up in an attempt to keep libraries from getting angry.

      Second, nowhere on the website does it say that BookSwim is aiming to provide only new books. It does, however, claim that it will buy any book you want that it doesn’t have.

      Third, you are claiming that BookSwim is seeking to cater only to readers who want to read new releases now. I am a librarian. I know many voracious readers. None of them read exclusively new releases.

      Additionally, your website mis-represents library’s inter-library loan system. Unless a book is insanely popular (think of The Hunger Games), the wait time is usually not more the 2 to 4 weeks for a popular title. If people’s budgets are pressed, they are usually willing to wait. If it is a book they are truly that excited about, they will buy it. Now how many books really come out in one year that people are so excited about they can’t wait a couple of weeks? For most people this is one or two.

      If BookSwim’s policy indeed is to cater to people who almost exclusively read new releases yet don’t want to pay for new books, but will pay $29.95 a month for 5 books a month, I don’t see the venture going very far.

      However, I must say I don’t believe you that BookSwim is not aiming to be a monopoly. What company that is aiming to be a monopoly admits to as much? Yet all the signs on the website point toward that being a final aim.

      Finally, I also disagree with you that there is not a missing niche of being able to borrow new books. That’s what public libraries do.

      • October 13, 2009 at 2:08 pm

        To clarify a few points.

        1) We do not state that we are better than a library blanketly. We state that we offer services that a library does not, as well as offering hardcovers and new releases (I will expand on this further later).
        2) We never state that libraries are useless or that you should stop going to your library. Nor do we state that you can only get your books from us, in fact MANY of our customers use us to augment their libraries offerings.
        3) I live in Bergen County which has one of the best inter-library loan systems in the US. As well, we’ve been doing research on library availability for years. If you live in a smaller district, its possible that you can get a popular bestseller in a few weeks, but the wait-list for “Lost Symbol” at my local library is roughly 5 months.

        We cater to people who READ bestsellers, not people who EXCLUSIVELY read best sellers. Just because amazon sells books doesn’t mean you can’t go to Barnes and Nobles. In fact, most readers have many sources for getting books. We just want to be one of those sources.

  2. October 13, 2009 at 3:24 pm

    1. Your website does state that you are better at everything than a library except a community or research.
    2. No, you don’t state people can only get books from you. However, you do state that they should.
    3. I never claimed that no popular books have a long wait time. I said *most* don’t. Is a $29.95 a month prescription worth it when most people have only 1 or 2 books a year that they want to read that are that popular? I sincerely doubt it.

    You may think you cater to people who read bestsellers, not who read them exclusively, but I am telling you your features and prices are catering to people who read bestsellers exclusively.

    I am not the type to accept anything a company says at face-value. BookSwim says it’s not aiming to become an information monopoly, but I see it positioning itself to do so.

  3. October 13, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    I don’t think they’re any more at risk at becoming a single source of books then amazon is, or netflix for movies or gamefly for games. I do see how poaching readers from libraries wouldn’t set right. But could never be more then a premium service, and premium services only serve a niche.

    • October 14, 2009 at 9:35 am

      Hey Fran! 🙂 I think they are a greater risk than Amazon simply for the reason that Amazon doesn’t let you borrow books. You must buy them sight unseen. This is seeking to fill both the buying and the borrowing niches, which imho makes it more of a danger than Amazon. (Though Amazon is its own can of worms).

  4. October 14, 2009 at 4:49 am

    Interestingly, you’ve also outlined a nice argument against e-readers. All of that will vanish in a world full of e-readers; you might still get e-ARCs, but the indie bookstores and libraries will either vanish or fundamentally change were books to go exclusively virtual. There’s no indication that this is happening yet but the growing popularity of the devices is making it a distinct possibility. This is especially so with the Kindle, as Amazon has basically complete control over what you do, as evidenced by their ability to remove books at will (even if they argue they’re not going to). Once you invest in that Kindle, Amazon can control everything about the books you buy from them. It’s not a nice future.

    Also, plenty of public libraries buy tons of new releases. I can’t tell you how many book bloggers turn up in Library Loot with the published edition of the ARC I had just reviewed within days of its release. The library in my parents’ town is like this. My mom had a list of new books she’d heard about on TV and the library had all of them. Unfortunately my libraries in the UK have never been quite this good, and obviously they’re not all like that, but who would pay for BookSwim when they could use their public library for free?

    • October 14, 2009 at 9:41 am

      Hi Meghan–
      What you’ve outlined about the Kindle is *exactly* why I refuse to buy into them. It’s so scary (to me) that Amazon both sells the reader and has so much control over the content of the reader!

      I hadn’t thought about how eReaders remove community from reading, but you’re right. They are set to. Even if public libraries buy eBooks, patrons could “borrow” them without ever coming in to the library.

      Thank you for supporting my point about public libraries buying new books! Sometimes people don’t believe the librarian 😉

      I couldn’t get over the huge fees involved at BookSwim. $29.95 for 5 books a month? That would *maybe* last me, and is not anywhere near what I sometimes pay in late fees ($2.90 yesterday for 3 months’ worth of late fees).


      • October 14, 2009 at 10:09 am

        When I think of the Kindle, I think of an awesome device (the big one is wonderful to use) with a free data connection that needs to be hacked to be useful. Hacked to remove the ability to remove books. Hacked to allow browsing of the web. Hacked to allow my own content to be freely placed on the device. The hacking negates the free data plan because the device no longer functions along Amazon’s business model, but it’s your device – so you can use it how you like. You should be able to get your own data plan. ($20/month)

        I don’t see why “E-Readers” would have to remove community behind books and libraries. I can argue that “social networks” could work around the devices and books. Especially around trading books – I’ll get into the legality of that–how authors could still get paid and the usefulness and harmfulness of DRM Encryption in that situation–some other time.

        I can also argue that libraries are a place for more then retrieving books. You have librarians who are paid experts and curators of knowledge. A Kindle may have a library of books, but it doesn’t have librarians. On a side note, they don’t have quiet work areas or comfy chairs either.

        But even though I have a library down the block from my house, I haven’t had the need to be in one for a long while. I have my own comfy chair, and don’t read books that often.

        One thing the Kindle does facilitate that a library can’t is that I could write a book and publish it on the Kindle for free, and distribute it worldwide without cost and with an excellent margin. Sites like Lulu allow me to make print copies, but their costs are non-trivial (good rates, but not cheap). That kind of freedom is liberating. I wont argue that publishing companies are worthless, as they are not, but they’ve had a monopoly on publishing for a long time. Devices like the Kindle allowing for self-publishing make me very happy.

        In my head, preferring a paper book over a kindle is akin to preferring a small black and white TV over a larger color one. I don’t see the technology being the problem; it’s a tool like any other, and it can be just as enabling for you and me as it can for companies like Amazon and BookSwim.

  5. October 14, 2009 at 11:27 am

    Most of the concern around the Kindle is about the DRM. It saddens me to think that Amazon would offer it in a format that requires users to hack it, instead of offering it the way we would want it in the first place. My number one issue with DRM is the fact that you can’t share books you supposedly own with your friends. Yes, you can hack around that, but the whole concept behind the Kindle is anti-sharing.

    I do appreciate the ease of self-publishing in the eFormat. Sticking your work out there and seeing how many people buy into it is a wonderful idea from a writer’s perspective. I do wish that the eReaders available were more about community and less about elitism.

    Not everyone can be a hacker, after all 😉

    Of course, you know I can’t let the slam against paper books go. To me, paper books will always be the color television, whereas eReaders will be the portable tv I put up with when my roommates are watching a stupid show on the nice one.

    • October 14, 2009 at 12:17 pm

      One of the major concerns with anything digital is copying. The trouble is everything we do – from loading this webpage to listening to a preview of a song is copying. It’s how the internet works. The concern with copying is actually a concern with payment. An author writes a book, and you buy one copy and give it to all of your friends and as seen with products like music, the entire internet. In the end the author has sold 1 copy.

      With drm, you could write a system, where you could give your purchased books to another person and loose the ability to read it yourself. Just like I could give you a book I’m done with. That actually doesn’t sound too bad, until you learn more about drm.

      The only way to enforce that kind of restriction is with hardware control. If they can guarantee that only their software that behaves properly can be part of a “book transfer” then the system could work. But they can’t do that.

      So they add in an accounting layer that keeps track of purchases. Servers that need to be contacted to authorize devices to read the books. That works too, they can figure out if a “hacked” device is giving out too many copies and stop the theft. But that’s a problem too.

      That would mean we’re reliant on a 3rd party server to authorize gifting of a book. This doesn’t even touch on what happens if you drop your device in the tub or loose it and want to re-download the content. If you drop a normal book in a tub you do loose the book, but you don’t normally keep your entire library in a single book. If the 3rd party goes out of business or has legal or moral problems, you’re out of luck.

      Not everyone has to be a hacker – hackers love to discover and share =)

      • October 15, 2009 at 9:10 am

        What boggles my mind is the fact that do publishers/authors really think that we don’t share print books with our friends?

        A librarian friend of mine was commenting that publishers didn’t want to sell electronic versions of books to libraries, because then multiple people would read them for the same price as when one person buys the book. Hellooooo, that’s what we do with print books too!

        I can see the concern of one copy providing for the whole world. I admit that I can’t think of anything to prevent this from happening. I will say, though, that if a book is really amazing, people will buy it anyway. I’ve seen hard-core pirate friends do that with music, because they want to support art they enjoy. I would like to think the same thing would happen with books.

        Maybe if authentic versions of eBooks had something special about them that was impossible to pirate? Kind of like an extra. You can still enjoy the pirated version, but it’s not as nice as the authentic one.

        Wow, this conversation got way off-topic 😉

  6. Michael
    November 20, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    Quote: “I like knowing that the books I read come from many sources.”

    Is this really the reason you read? Let’s be serious here. If you had the convenience of books being shipped to your home with free shipping, would it really slaughter your reading experience? I can promise you that the content of the book does not change whether you get it from BookSwim, the local library, a friend, or a dumpster. In the end, people read a certain book because of the author’s words and not because they built rapport with the store owner or librarian.

    I along with billion’s of other people go to McDonald’s because it is convenient and we are hungry, not because the person who took our order was a really friendly person.

    The food still tastes the same if you buy it for me, BookSwim buys it for me, my mother buys it for me, my best friend buys it for me, a librarian buys it for me, the owner of an Indie book store buys it for me, or if I buy it for myself. Whichever way I will still enjoy it the same.

    • November 20, 2009 at 8:28 pm

      I never once said that acquiring my books from many sources is the *only* reason I read. I said it’s an aspect that I really enjoy. It enhances my experience. It’s similar to how I may not buy all of my groceries from the farmer’s market, but I enjoy the experience of buying at least some of them there. It enhances my eating experience.

      What I am talking about is something which I doubt you can understand. I am talking about community. Of course if I borrow a book from a friend and read it my experience reading it will be different than if I acquired it from a dumpster. The implication is there that my friend liked it enough to want to loan it to me, that she trusts me enough to lend it to me, that she read the same words that I myself am now reading, and that I can upon returning it discuss the book with her.

      I’m talking about *experience* not convenience, but I guess I shouldn’t expect someone who frequents a disgusting establishment like McDonalds to understand.

  1. October 14, 2009 at 10:36 am

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