I was at the post office this morning mailing a package to a friend. The postal worker had a lot of questions for me: Anything liquid, fragile, potentially hazardous? Are you sending this priority or first class? Do you need insurance? No, neither, no. Since I was mailing a book, I knew that the package was eligible for "book rate" aka media mail, which meant that it would be less expensive to ship. And since there was no urgency for the book to arrive fast, book rate was perfect. As I swiped my credit card, forking over about $3 instead of $5, I realized that I didn't know why things like books can be sent cheaper via USPS. So, I asked my postal friend, Kim.
Kim told me that media mail exists to support the post office's mission. Mission? I hadn't thought about them having one! It was created in the 1930s to encourage the flow of educational materials through the mail. These were the Depression years; a time when funds were limited and spirits were low. With lower shipping costs, more people could have access to materials to expand their minds, escape their woes and share points of view. Media mail created social access during a time when people surely needed it.
According to the USPS, "Media Mail shipping is a cost-effective way to send educational materials. This service has restrictions on the type of media that can be shipped. Media Mail packages may not contain advertising. Comic books do not meet this standard. Books may contain incidental announcements of other books and sound recordings may contain incidental announcements of other sound recordings." Books have to be at least eight pages long. Things like manuscripts, printed music, videos, sound recordings and educational binders are eligible. The total weight can't exceed 70 pounds. (What's wrong with comic books??!! Some can be very educational!)
Media mail can take up to 10 days to deliver, unlike first-class and priority mail which can take 1-3 days. I didn't realize, though, that the package was subject to inspection. If I had slipped a birthday card into the box, the book could have been returned to me. I could have even been fined!
I've been reading online reviews from people who use media mail. They complain about boxes getting spot-checked and opened. Someone had a package returned because he had used t-shirts as filler to protect the contents. I suppose it could be construed as smuggling, especially if the t-shirts say Cheap Painters Near You with a phone number and url! When I ship copies of my books to people, I sometimes send a paper note (not on a t-shirt) with "thank you for your interest in Cut Paste Gone." I'll have to check with Kim if this kind of communication is acceptable. Moving forward, if I'm not sure if what I'm sending qualifies for media mail, I will spend the extra bucks for first-class mail. The potential fines might cost more in the end anyway!