As promised in my 2013 Bookish Goals post I’ve spent the last couple of months trying out PaperBack Swap. Now that I’ve had a chance to both send and receive books I’d like to offer a review of the service for those who are looking for new ways to economically source books.
What is PaperBack Swap?
PaperBack Swap (PBS) is a way for readers to exchange books they want to get rid of with books they want to own. You create an account, post books you’re willing to part with, members request them, and you ship them off. In return you receive “credits” that you use to request books from other users.
PBS is by no means unique; sites like BookMooch offer the same services, likely for about the same cost. PaperBack Swap was simply the first one I heard of. In the future I may check out a couple more sites to see if they have different selections of books — more non-fiction than fiction, for example.
Creating an account was easy, but actually getting started was a bit stressful.
I entered seven or eight books right when I signed up, and almost immediately—before I was finished entering all the books—I had requests for five of them. This was exciting, but they generally want you to mail books within two days — and because I was just getting started, I didn’t know the ins and outs of the process yet.
The process for printing out wrappers and labels was confusing. The page is chaotic, and there was no clear explanation for what to do. It looked like I had to add money to my account to print out shipping labels, and I was so confused that I had to ask for assistance (turns out you can choose to pay and print labels with mailing info already attached, or just print out addresses and take everything to the post office to mail).
The wrappers themselves were another issue. Printing them from your own printer is convenient, but they’re all printed on regular paper — perfect for wrapping small paperbacks, but doesn’t work when you’re trying to ship a large, heavy hardback. Anything bigger than a mass print paperback needs its own bigger envelope, which I had to run and purchase right then in order to make sure I could meet the two-day mailing timeline. I would have been less irritated by this had it been mentioned sooner.
It gets easier
Fortunately you quickly get into the rhythm of posting, printing, and shipping books. Every time I’ve posted books I get requests for a couple of them that day; I’ve learned to post books a couple days before a day I know I’ll have time to run by the post office.
And for those times when two days isn’t possible (a holiday weekend, for example), there is a place where you can delay your mail-by date by a few days.
Another feature I’ve found really helpful is the “Live Help.” This is where you can see a list of “Tour Guides” (special members of the PBS community) who are currently online — then you can ping them with your questions and get help sooner than you might if you were submitting a support ticket. Both times I’ve needed help the Tour Guide I contacted was friendly, helpful, and prompt.
Which is good, because the site is not as user-friendly as it could and should be.
What about receiving books?
I’ve had trouble with this too — again, a case of poor documentation and bad user interface.
When I first searched for books I’d like to receive, I would find the book, but be unable to request it — there didn’t seem to be a “Request this book” option anywhere. I could buy the book new, or buy it from Amazon, or post it to my own shelf, or add to my wish list, or any one of 11 other options, but I couldn’t request it.
I tried adding the books to my wish list, thinking that maybe then I’d have the option to request it. No such luck. I took advantage of Live Help again.
Turns out books can be listed in the PBS system even if no one has them posted as available. Adding them to your wishlist makes the system notify you when the book, or a similar one, is available, and then you can request it. When a book is actually available, there’s a “request book” button you can click.
Once I finally stumbled upon some books that were available, it was a simple process: just request and wait. Once the books arrive you have to log in and confirm their delivery so the member who sent the book gets the credit.
So far the books I’ve received have been in good condition. There’s also apparently a way you can qualify requests for books — requiring that it come from a non-smoking home, for example. However, I’ve yet to see a place in the request process where I can add those qualifications. Back to Live Help yet again, I suppose?
My first attempt to request a book from my TBR list was lackluster: I searched for 30-some books before I finally found one that was actually available.
I was hoping for more newer books, and a wider range of genres. But right now PBS feels a little like my under-resourced local library: housing books published between 3 and 20 years ago, with regular fiction featured heavily. I’m still having to resort to online purchasing for some of the more “specialized,” newer, or older books.
The lack of selection is also playing havoc with my OCD; it renders me incapable of planning what books I’m going to read next. At least at the library I know a given book will be there at some point, even if it’s checked out one week. I can plan ahead a little when it comes to checking out books.
With PBS this really isn’t possible. I can add stuff to my wish list all day, but there’s no guarantee anyone will ever post the book. It’s pretty much a “search and request now” kind of thing, which is frustrating.
Final verdict (for now)
I’ve only been using PaperBack Swap for a couple months, and I’m not ready to pronounce a solid “this is awesome” or “this is stupid” verdict.
I think the key to my sticking around will be balancing what I send and what I receive.
At this point I estimate I’ve spent around $30-$35 on sending (purchasing envelopes and shipping tape, shipping expenses, gas for getting to post office, etc.). Meanwhile I’ve requested three books whose total price were I to buy them new comes to around $37. Pretty balanced.
In a few months if I’m spending a lot of money on shipping, but not receiving any books because nothing I want is available, that’s when I’ll have a problem. If all I’m doing is spending and getting nothing in return, I’ll close my account and go back to selling my unwanted tomes to Half-Price Books.
What’s your experience with services like PaperBack Swap? Would love to discuss!