I've mentioned the idea of "Netflix for books" a couple of times in the past and a couple of folks pointed out the logistics headaches that would accompany such a business model. Then I got an e-mail from a fellow by the name of George Burke. It turns out he's in the process of launching that exact business and is calling it BookSwim.
I wanted to hear more and I thought some of you might as well, so I asked George a series of follow-up questions. He was kind enough to provide the following answers:
JW: So this BookSwim service truly looks like "Netflix for books." How did you solve the problem of books weighing more than DVDs?
GB: First we’re utilizing a discounted mail program reserved for books and other media, called Media Mail, and we send out and receive 2 or 3 books at a time. Also, we keep costs down by limiting our catalog to books that won’t break your postman’s back – reference books and textbooks are out.
JW: Approximately how long will it take for customers to get the next book on their list?
GB: USPS Media Mail can get users' queued books shipped between 2 to 6 days, but we offer our initial "welcome package" with Priority Mail which often arrives within 1 to 2 days.
JW: When do you expect to launch?
GB: We're staying up all night, white-knuckled and blurry-eyed, to shoot for a March 2007 launch, but no date is firm. This is only a BETA launch because we’ll be rolling out additional services later in the year.
JW: Approximately how many books will be available to choose from at launch? Will they be from all areas (e.g., business, novels, etc.) or just certain categories?
GB: Most in-print leisure reading books (fiction and non-fiction) will be available to rent. In fact, a few out of print titles too! Our catalog will be quite extensive, but extremely specialized books that maybe only 2 human beings might want, like Bavarian Architecture of the 1600s or Diabetic Vegan Cooking Recipes, are excluded from our catalog. However, should enough people request a title, we’ll include it in the catalog because we have no clue what's going to get rented – so we let the people decide for themselves.
JW: Have you determined what the monthly/annual membership fee will be?
GB: We're going to have a 3-book plan starting at about $15/month that allows unlimited rentals that allows for 3 books in-hand, ranging all the way to an 11-book plan for the fanatical reading insomniacs (and families). We also offer a Free Trial Account that allows timid, indecisive people to try out the BookSwim interface.
JW: Do you have any projections for the number of customers you expect to sign up in the first year or two?
GB: Without giving away our specific projection numbers, our first year of operations for our BETA release will have very low membership rates as we perfect the rental model and continue to cut down costs. But we’ll explode in year 2 as we revolutionize the way America reads.
JW: Will there be any other perks for members?
GB: It stinks when readers have to return a library book that they've fallen in love with, so we've added the ability to purchase any rental at a discounted price. Currently users can also hook up with readers of similar literary taste and get book ideas from each others’ rental queues. In the future we also aim to provide users with a golden recommendation system, along with a way for members to discuss the books they've read.