Books and the United States Postal Service

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Image by F. Muhammad from Pixabay

I should begin with a couple disclaimers. First of all, I’m writing about a situation in the United States and I know there are those reading from other countries. I hope your situation is better, and if it is, you are welcome to gloat! Second, I do not want to get into the politics around funding of the postal service with regard to the upcoming election. I’ve made my own decisions in this regard and written to my elected officials. You don’t need to hear my thoughts in that regard.

Nor do you need an analysis from me of why the USPS faces the financial woes they are facing. Certainly, in recent years, and especially in the pandemic, first class mail has declined precipitously, a major revenue stream. Some have even suggested we all go out and buy a sheet of stamps to help the post office’s cash flow. But I don’t have the accounting background or time to delve into postal service financials–an issue that is complicated and debated. One of the challenges is that the USPS, since 1971, is supposed to be, by law, self-sustaining without taxpayer funding.

The health of the postal service affects not only our elections but many sectors of commerce in our country from the delivery of prescription drugs, many Amazon packages and as the last leg of delivery of many items to homes and businesses. The access to these services throughout the country is especially significant in many rural locations, not always served by other shippers.

The book world is crucially reliant on the USPS. One of the particular benefits the USPS offers is Media Mail, and a closely related service for libraries, Library Mail. These programs allow the shipping of books, sound recordings, printed music, and other educational media to the public, and between libraries and educational institutions at reduced rates. Have you used inter-library loan to get a book, available to you at no cost? Your library likely used Library Mail.  Begun in 1936, the Media Mail program recognized the importance of the flow of educational information and the free flow of ideas.

During the pandemic, when most bookstores were (or are) closed, Media Mail has allowed for the shipping of books by independent booksellers, chains, and even Amazon, at lower costs, playing an important part in sustaining jobs and income, and providing books to so many of us under stay-at-home orders, or voluntarily self-isolating because of risk.

In addition, Media Mail is used for book giveaways, advanced review copies to reviewers, book boxes which have become increasingly popular, and various bookswapping sites. In a BookRiot article one bookstore selling a $27 book indicated that it would cost $24 to ship the book via UPS, $14 via Fed Ex, and $3 via Media Mail. It may be necessary to raise these costs, but it would likely come at the expense of many of the programs mentioned here, at the expense of book sales, and maybe some booksellers. “Just get it at Amazon?”  That is an option, but realize that for many, you pay $119 annually, the equivalent of the shipping cost for roughly 40 books, and depending on shipping arrangements, it still may be the USPS delivering that book to your mailbox.

It’s clear there are problems with the business model of the USPS that I personally think best resolved after the elections, while ensuring the timely delivery of absentee ballots to voters and their boards of elections. For those of us who love books, bookstores, libraries and other aspects of the book trade, how these problems are resolved are important, particularly while we are under pandemic conditions. Media Mail and Library Media provisions historically were made to facilitate the flow of educational materials and ideas and have helped small booksellers with their businesses. Those who value these provisions should watch whatever measures are taken.

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