Danika Ellis Aug 6, 2020
The USPS is in trouble. For the short version, check out John Oliver’s explanation on Last Week Tonight. The slightly longer version is that 2006’s Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act required the United States Postal Service to pre-pay health and retirement benefits 75 years into the future—a requirement that no other governmental organization (or business) is required to do. This alone has put USPS in serious financial trouble, not to mention all the other ways that Republicans over the years have attempted to hamstring the organization. These financial restrictions forced USPS to lay off many employees.
8 Reasons Book Lovers Need USPS
Why should you care about the state of USPS? Well, if you’re a book lover in the United States, you likely rely on it in ways you aren’t aware of. The U.S. has the cheapest shipping costs in the world, and because of Media Mail rates, books are especially cheap to ship. Here are 8 reasons book lovers should be defending USPS:
1) Bookstores Depend on it
Raven Book Store succinctly demonstrates how big a difference it would make to bookstores–especially during the pandemic—to have to switch to UPS or FedEx. Whereas USPS has a specific, discounted Media Mail rate for shipping books and other educational material, private shipping companies charge full price—and their prices were already higher to begin with. How to be Antiracist is $27 new. Shipping it to a customer would cost $24 at UPS and $14 at FedEx, while the USPS cost is just under $3. How many customers would be willing to pay for that shipping cost?
Increased shipping costs would drive more customers to Amazon, further monopolizing the book-buying world. Even Amazon relies on low USPS costs, but they would have an advantage in absorbing the damage, because they already have their own courier/next-day delivery system. A local bookstore has no way to compete with that, and with COVID-19 pushing many bookstores to close their doors, that would leave them with no source of income.
There are also some library systems that use USPS for inter-library loans. In fact, there is a separate library rate. Although some library systems use couriers, there is a chance that USPS makes it possible for your library to get books from other cities for you.
2) It Makes Book Giveaways Possible
Here is the first tweet that made me aware of this situation: https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?creatorScreenName=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.twitter.com%2Fdanikaellis&dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-1&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1287034884670853121&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fbookriot.com%2Fwhy-booklovers-need-usps%2F&siteScreenName=bookriot&theme=light&widgetsVersion=223fc1c4%3A1596143124634&width=550px
I’m Canadian, which means that my country has one of the highest shipping rates in the world. Believe me: you don’t want this. If I wanted to give away a book within my own country, it would cost about $15 to send. Which is why you don’t see a lot of Canadian book giveaways—it’s sometimes cheaper to just buy the book brand new! U.S. Americans often have online book giveaways, whether it’s from publishers or bloggers or just someone feeling generous. Those giveaways will not be feasible if instead of spending $2–5 to ship a book, it starts looking like $14 for every book.
3) It Makes Sending ARCs More Reasonable
If you’re a book blogger, BookTuber, or Bookstagrammer, you’re probably familiar with ARCs: Advanced Reading Copies. These are early versions of books that are sent out to reviewers in hopes that they’ll result in more coverage and sales. ARCs are already expensive to print, and COVID-19 has led many publishers to switch to just digital versions for the time being. If, in the absence of USPS, shipping costs for ARCs begin at $10 or $15, we’re going to see a lot fewer of these paper ARCs in the world. Some publishers are already willing to pay couriers to get their books in the right hands, but it will likely mean that they are a lot less willing to take a chance on a less well-known blogger, BookTuber, or Bookstagrammer.
4) Book Swapping Sites & Book Exchanges Rely on it
Like book giveaways, book exchanges are only reasonable when shipping costs are low. There are lots of book swapping sites (I used to be a big Bookmooch user, before Canadian shipping costs were too high to manage), where you can wishlist books and send books to others on a token system, trading your unwanted books for desired ones. There are also less formalized versions of this, especially between reviewers—many people swap ARCs with people across the country from them. I’ve also seen recently more people trying to pass on their read or unwanted ARCs to own voices reviewers. All of this makes perfect sense when you’re spending under $5 to ship them, but falls apart when you have to pay UPS or FedEx prices. At that point, you might as well wait to buy a new copy.
5) Even Amazon Uses it (Say Goodbye to Penny Books)
In 2017, I wrote the post Why Would Anyone Sell Books for a Penny on Amazon? Mostly, the answer is pricing algorithms, but it also relies on cheap, bulk shipping. Right now, if you sell a book on Amazon, you can charge $3.99 in shipping. Every time. Picture book with only 16 pages? $3.99. Boxed hardcover set you can hardly lift? $3.99. Coffee table book? $3.99. This consistency in pricing is frustrating for booksellers (who have to up the price of heavy/large books because they can’t adjust shipping charges), but is valuable for companies working on a large scale. They get their books for free, automatize everything they can, and let the algorithm adjust the price to being a penny cheaper than anything else listed. They ship out so many books that they get a bulk discount, making it even cheaper than media mail, which means that they make a tiny profit off even the books they sell for a penny. It’s hard to imagine this being possible with any other shipping company, and I wonder if USPS disappearing would result in Amazon having to change its default book shipping cost.
6) It Makes Book Boxes Affordable
There are tons of subscription book boxes popping up all the time—the biggest being Book of the Month. BotM can keep costs low because it is operating in bulk: they are responsible for a whole lot of a title being sold at once. With that, I imagine they are also working with a bulk mail discount, which makes shipping costs very low. How could Book of the Month continue to charge $15 a month including shipping if they had to switch over to UPS or FedEx? We’d be seeing a lot fewer subscription book boxes, and the ones that did exist would have to bump up their prices considerably.
7) It Justifies Your Book Swag Purchases
Outside of Media Mail, USPS also offers very low First Class shipping rates. Small, lightweight purchases correspond to a very low shipping cost. That’s only possible through USPS. Buying bookmarks or cute bookish enamel pins or any other fun little purchases becomes hard to justify when you have to pay a courier to deliver it. Like book giveaways, book swag giveaways are also popular online, especially from authors. They often acquire bookmarks and other little promotional materials and give them away to fans—but without USPS, it becomes unreasonable to ship out these little luxuries.
8) Rural Communities Need USPS
I’ve been concentrating on the bookish angle, but this is the most important point: USPS is vital for rural communities. It is required to deliver to every address, no matter how remote or unprofitable (which is also why expecting it to compete with businesses is unreasonable). Amazon, FedEx, and UPS all rely on USPS to do the “last mile” of deliveries to more remote areas: they hand off the package and pay USPS to do the actual delivery of the package once it’s gone to their closest sorting point. Without USPS, many remote and Indigenous communities would be cut off from vital services. For book lovers living in these rural, sparsely-populated areas, it’s highly unlikely there’s a local bookstore around, and there may not even be a library close by. USPS is their only access to books.
How Can We Save USPS?
Now that you know why book lovers need USPS, what can we do to keep it around? To save USPS, there needs to be structural change to how it is supported and regulated, so contacting your local representatives is the most effective thing you can do. Let them know that you support the USPS, and demand that the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act restriction that requires USPS to pre-pay health benefits and retirement benefits 75 years in advance is unreasonable and needs to be lifted.
Of course, an infusion of cash can’t hurt, so you can also buy stamps! Check out Annika’s post on bookish stamps from the USPS to get you started. Maybe write your representatives some postcards and feed two birds with one scone! Let’s do our part to make sure USPS—and the bookish ecosystem it supports—is around in the years to come.