I've never had an online avatar. I am just not much of a Second Life person. Best I can do is try not to mess up my First, but if I ever did go looking for another incarnation, chances are I would be a book. Collectively, they have had one of the most profound effects on this First Life.
Now, by "book", I do mean the wealth of information on roughly the same topic or a collection of short works by the same author or united under a single theme. But I also refer to the purely physical form, the familiar weight, the scent of paper, the minute smudges of ink, like imperfections in the human face, transforming something merely beautiful into something truly divine. Sure, the E-ink is coming close, really close, and yes, in it and its offshoots, does doubtless lie a future of the publishing business, but for those on a budget — yet wanting to retain the familiarity of devouring material books — allow me to introduce you to BookSwim.
The idea for what is essentially the Netflix of books (run along a similar operating model), its VP of Marketing Eric Ginsberg confided, was born when its two forefathers, George Burke and Shamoon Siddiqui, were getting their caffeine and free reading material fix at their local behemoth bookstore cafe in New Jersey. If they were freeloading, the duo asked themselves, along with quite a few regular patrons, then why not make it easier for anyone to just take a book, read it — and put it back, minus self-justifying the questionable morality of skimming an establishment that feeds you?
Easily said — and very promptly done. Their first rental, The Richest Man in Babylon, was shipped to a subsciber exactly a year hence, eight months after the business officially came to be, begun out of the vast contents of their families' and acquaintances' bookshelves donated to a good cause.
Eric himself, a math teacher and avid music fan who combined the two running his own music education non-profit, joined the merry band around the same time, bringing along his experience as PR representative for the largest independent library system in the state. Now "the voice of BookSwim", Eric was more than eager to talk up his company's stellar milestones and its ambitious plans for the future.
"How do you get your customers the books?" I had to ask. "Isn't it prohibitively expensive shipping them first class, considering book weight compared to Netflix's stock-in-trade DVDs?"
"Thus far, we are using USPS Media Mail. Quite a bit more affordable and fairly fast, too. But, obviously, we're, also, exploring other options."
Of course, the books don't have that far to go. BookSwim's main warehouse may be in New Jersey, but it isn't the only one, and thus far, BookSwim mainly delivers within the US. However, as with anything, there are exceptions.
Said Eric, "We have a client all the way out in Paraguay. Believe it or not, we managed to get our books to him — through the US Ambassador's office."
That would build client loyalty, wouldn't it?
Which, Eric happily admitted, it does — but though hardly shy when boasting of surpassing their first-year membership goal in under six months and the sustained growth still beating their own expectations, he remained stubbornly mum on what exactly said membership is. Netflix released their numbers after three years (even to this day refusing to cough up their first-year data), and following in its benighted footsteps, BookSwim is keeping those close to their vest.
Anything else, however, was fair game. Touching upon Amazon's Kindle, for example, and whether it and similar devices will soon supplant material books, Eric said, "It's great technology, sure, still in its early days, but for some, books need to be held to enjoy. Tangibles are going to retain a part of the market. How big? Couldn't say, my crystal ball's in the shop. But they will."
And then, he just went and laid out the cost of building a Kindle library compared to becoming a BookSwim customer.
"The Kindle currently costs $360 or so. Heck of an investment to try to save money in the long run, especially in this economy. Renting books (bestsellers, classics, textbooks) can start at $9.95 (for three or more books a month) and we let our members cancel anytime. You can't get out of owning a Kindle. So, if regular book prices are around $25, added the initial Kindle price would mean you'd have to buy 24 e-books at $10 a pop just to cover the initial cost. Only then will saving kick in."
Hell of a salesman is Eric. Not to say I was immediately convinced, but considering that one can outright purchase the book he or she particularly liked through the BookSwim website (or keep it for the length of the membership at the expense of reducing their drawable pool), his pitch did leave me with the food for thought –his pitch, and the fact that the company emphatically doesn't intend to rest on its laurels. For instance, Eric said, on top of soon unrolling a new, even more streamlined site, BookSwim is currently in talks to acquire stock directly from publishers rather than major distributors as it had had to do until now. It would "create buzz for new authors," he said, adding that it would benefit publishers in the long run to rent out the same book 20 times for, say, a dollar a rental, than hold out hoping it will have been bought outright for approximately the same amount. I guess this incontrovertible logic is what you get if you retain a math major for your PR person.
Another piece of tomorrow's news is that BookSwim is, indeed, intending to branch out into sending books through the Internet, but still an underdog, it is perfectly happy letting Goliaths the likes of Sony and Amazon develop and perfect the technology needed.
Our interview coming to a close, Eric left me with this, "We're the second most convenient way [to enjoy books] after Kindle, and second cheapest after the library." Considering the success of BookSwim, I guess coming in second does pay — in some select cases.