January 22, 2010

Product review: BookSwim.com

(Every day, I like to post at least a thousand words of original content to the CCLaP website; on the days I don't have a review of a book or movie ready, I thought I would try other material, such as this series of personal essays, looking at a topic in the arts from my life that I think you might find relevant or entertaining too. You can click here for a master list of all personal essays now written, if you're interested.)


A few weeks ago I got an email from movie-rental service Netflix, of which I'm a member, letting me know that the next DVD in my queue happened to be an extra-obscure one, so obscure in fact that the disc was having to be shipped from a warehouse outside of Chicago, making it actually two to three days that it was going to take to arrive instead of the usual 24 hours; and to make up for this, the email continued, Netflix had decided to temporarily bump my maximum number of DVDs allowed out to three, versus the two of my particular membership type, and was going ahead and shipping out that third movie from my queue that morning, free of charge. And I thought, hmm, well, that's pretty cool of Netflix to do, which got me thinking about just how many times I've said that now in the two years I've been a paying member, which then got me thinking about one of the most important basic lessons about business out there, which nonetheless so many businesses seem to never truly understand -- that it's not whether a company technically delivers on what they promise that determines our opinion of it, but rather how it behaves in the other moments, of whether the people there are making it a hassle to get merely the things that company promised, or a breeze to do so and with a few unannounced perks thrown in.

And the reason I've been thinking about all this so much recently is because for the last three months, I've been conducting a test run of the "Netflix for books" service BookSwim.com, and keeping notes of my experience as my guest membership ran its course; I recently met a senior executive there through literary social network Goodreads.com, in fact, and was telling him about how I also regularly review products and services here at CCLaP on top of just books and movies, which is how the entire situation came about in the first place. And the fact of the matter is that, while they do technically deliver exactly what they promise in their marketing material, I also experienced a whole series of headaches along the way, nothing major but instead a dozen little annoyances which dragged my entire mood down, and the truth is that unless I lived in an area where the service was more valuable (but more on this in a bit), I would've eventually dropped my paying membership if I had happened to be on one when experiencing all this.

But first, a technical low-down, for those who aren't already familiar with how these kinds of services work; basically, for a flat rate per month, you're allowed to have X amount of books "checked out" from BookSwim and delivered to your home through the mail, which you can keep as long as you want with no penalties. To get another two books, turn at least two back in, using the pre-paid return envelope; and that's pretty much it, unless you count the option to simply buy a particular book you have at home and keep it permanently. Like Netflix, the whole thing is administered through an expansive website, which is where I also started once my guest membership was up and running; but it was there that I discovered the first of these many little headaches I mentioned, in that out of the 100 books I searched for in their system (all of them carried by the Chicago Public Library, so not exactly obscure), only 25 percent of them were available, including a complete lack of titles from such surprisingly big authors as TC Boyle, Junot Diaz, Charles Stross, and both Cory and EL Doctorow. And again, as I'd like to over-emphasize today for the sake of fairness, this is a minor problem only -- even 25 books is enough to last me a long time, and with a total reading list of 500 titles here at home these days, I'm sure I would've found enough books to keep my queue stacked up no matter how long my membership lasted.

Beat-up rental from BookSwim.com

But also like I said, it's not technically whether a company delivers on their promises that shapes our opinion of them -- this is 2010s America, after all, where we expect at least that from every company in existence, or else risk being sued back into the stone age by irate customers -- but rather how easy or difficult that company makes it to be a customer, of whether they make you jump through a whole series of little hoops every time one wants to get something simple done. And unfortunately, the longer I played around with my guest membership, the more of these little hoops I came across, little loopholes and technicalities and fine-print rules that made life for me there just a little tougher and a little tougher -- like the fact that out of each shipment, you only get to choose one specific title to be guaranteed in that delivery, the rest picked randomly from your queue no matter where on the list they are. Or that the books are generally in rather poor shape, most of them purchased used from public libraries and already beat-up even when first acquired. Or that they expect customers to pay just a fraction under retail price when choosing to "conveniently" purchase that copy, when most wouldn't fetch even five bucks at a thrift store in the condition they're in. Or that they decided one day during my membership to try a new experiment with the shipping, ditching the return bags in favor of a cutting-edge cardboard container which is then simply turned inside-out when returning the books, but then didn't actually contact customers about this change until a week after they started sending them out, and with there being no indication on the container itself that it could be used again as the return mailer. (In fact, I was one of the people who returned books during this week-long interregnum, in which I had thought they had simply forgotten the return envelope; I ended up having to go all the way down to my local post office and purchasing a return container, a chore that took an entire afternoon and left me angrily grumbling the whole rest of the day.)

Now again, to be fair, the letter explaining the new mailer did eventually arrive, and a week after that they decided to simply go back to the envelopes, since the entire thing was causing so much confusion; and also to be fair, some of these annoyances were not the service's fault, but merely the limitations of trying to run a company like this in the first place, such as the whopping eight days it takes for each delivery to travel from the warehouse to your home, and the eight days it takes for them to travel back. But again, in a situation where BookSwim could be trying to alleviate this wait in small ways, they're instead adding yet another layer of frustration to it; namely, they make this big deal at the website about electronically "registering" your return delivery with them, so that they'll know the package is on its way, which one would think was being done so that they could get your next package in the mail right that moment, cutting the 16-day delivery cycle in half, while the fact is that they still don't put your next package in the mail until the previous one arrives, making me wonder why they urge you to electronically register that return mailing to begin with.

But like I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, even with all this, there's a specific situation where BookSwim would be of enormous benefit to a particular person -- and that's if that person is a heavy reader, chose one of the most high-end memberships available (such as the one allowing you to have seven books out at a time, for example), and lived in an area with a small library system, making it difficult to acquire such books in any other way than by buying them. That way you could be going through the entire 16-day delivery cycle with two or three books at any given moment, while still having four or five books at home to make your way through, all while getting through enough titles total to justify the membership price ($36 a month for the seven-book option, which if you read three books a week makes it three bucks you're paying per title). And once again, that's a big thing I want to emphasize here today, is that the company is far from negligent or incompetent, and that there definitely are situations where such a service would be of real benefit; it's just that unfortunately that window is small, and that all other people will be dealing with a whole series of small irritations along the way. If you find yourself in a situation like I described, I would definitely recommend BookSwim to you; unfortunately, though, I think I would give it a pass for most others.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 12:20 PM, January 22, 2010. Filed under: Arts news | Literature | Reviews |