Why is there media mail?
March 5, 2010 12:26 PM   Subscribe

Media mail doesn't seem to make economic sense, and I'm curious why it exists...

Reading this question makes me wonder: why does USPS offer such a steep discount for media mail? I imagine that their main costs are weight (fuel) and sorting, and media mail is both heavy (books!) and ordinarily not pre-sorted, so it's hard to see a straight-up economic reason to do so.

Is it just lobbying from the publishing industry?
posted by paultopia to Law & Government (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Plus media mail is slow. The times that I've received a textbook via MM, I've felt like the USPS makes the rate so low because their attitude is just, "It'll get there when it gets there." They must have some way of keeping marginal costs down when timeliness isn't an issue. (Plus, the speed, or lack thereof, provides an incentive to ship first-class or priority. Or UPS.)
posted by supercres at 12:33 PM on March 5, 2010

supercres: Doesn't that just raise the question why they don't ship it at a normal speed and charge an appropriately higher rate?
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:35 PM on March 5, 2010

It's slow. You can ship media through normal-speed mail paying normal-speed rates.
posted by craven_morhead at 12:41 PM on March 5, 2010

Shrug. I would guess that it's light bait-and-switch. Say I go to the local post office with a book for a cousin's birthday. I know media mail is cheap, but maybe not how slow it is. When the postal worker tells me 2-3 weeks, I upgrade to first class, whereas without the MM rate getting me to the post office, I would've just shipped UPS with a label printed online.

Maybe they use MM shipments as filler when there's some space in a long-haul truck or cargo flight. I'm really just speculating; I would guess that dfriedman's point is more likely, though I'm not sure what the marginal benefit of media mail is in that case.
posted by supercres at 12:41 PM on March 5, 2010

I believe that it may have started as a way for libraries to have less expensive shipping. It is slower, but I ship media mail all the time, and shipping speed isn't very bad in general.
posted by thebrokedown at 12:42 PM on March 5, 2010

Yeah, I can't find anything to back this up, but I thought that the original, discounted "book rate" for mail was intended to encourage literacy, and the dispensation of information, by making it cheap(er) to ship books.
posted by steef at 12:44 PM on March 5, 2010 [3 favorites]

Looks like I'm wrong about the library angle, as there is also "library rate" shipping.
posted by thebrokedown at 12:45 PM on March 5, 2010

AskMeFi should be ashamed.
posted by Nattie at 12:46 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

According to the guy who works in the mail room at my office, media mail is shipped whenever there's an empty space on the truck, so there's no guaranteed delivery time. To me, it makes sense that having some packages with no deadline for delivery is economical for the post office, since it gives them more flexibility in packing their trucks.
posted by cider at 12:50 PM on March 5, 2010 [4 favorites]

Media Mail is a space available type of service. If the USPS is really busy, like around Christmas, Media Mail may sit in a distribution center for weeks until they have space on the trucks to move it on. That is why it sometimes gets to you in 3 days, and the next time it may be 3 weeks.
posted by COD at 12:52 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

USPS says it started in 1938 "to encourage the flow of educational materials"; as such video games aren't included.
posted by nat at 12:56 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

Steef's answer is the one I've always heard from post office employees. The idea was to make "educational materials" cheaper to ship.

It's not uncommon for me to send 50+ packages of media mail a week.

Yeah it's *possible* media mail takes 2-3 weeks, but most of the time it only adds a couple of days. If you're shipping to a nearby state, it will often take no longer than first class, the difference is more noticeable when the package is going across the country.

(it WILL almost certainly take noticeably longer if it's a large, heavy package containing 20 books rather than 1, but then again a large package of 20 books can be insanely expensive going any way other than media)
posted by the bricabrac man at 12:59 PM on March 5, 2010

Originally it was a special deal for the publishers of magazines and newspapers. At one time most newspapers were delivered by mail. Either the govt. thought it was very important for people to get their newspapers and keep themselves informed, or else big newspapers were able to coerce govt. to cut them a special break.

This was the answer from yahoo answers. It's clearly bullshit - if this were the case, media mail would allow advertiser-supported magazines and newspapers. Which they don't.

Media mail is the only USPS parcel post service that charges by weight. So yes, it's cheaper than parcel post, but it does account for the fact that heavier books cost more to ship.
posted by muddgirl at 1:01 PM on March 5, 2010

Yahoo answers is pretty clearly wrong. Periodicals have had their own bulk postal rates and handling procedures for at least a century.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 1:13 PM on March 5, 2010

Mod note: comment removed - um, this really isn't the "tell your bad post office story" thread.
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 1:31 PM on March 5, 2010

I imagine that their main costs are weight (fuel) and sorting

Consider that there may be periods of time when human sorters are being paid but don't have anything to do, and that the extra gas from the weight of the package is barely going to increase the gas cost on a truck that's already running not quite full. Why not make some money during those times, especially if it can be done with no time obligation to take resources away from more profitable mailings when things are busy?
posted by Dr.Enormous at 1:42 PM on March 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

It used to be that it was very cheap to send printed matter overseas, in an “M-bag,” which was literally a big old mail bag you could fill with books. It was an especially great deal for those sending textbooks to schools in 3rd world countries. Any situation where you didn't mind waiting weeks and weeks for the boat to pull into port.

A few years ago the post office substantially raised the rates for M-bag service. It goes by plane now, and at not much of a discount over ordinary mail. Their explanation for the change was that Congress started requiring all categories of mail to be delivered at a profit. So this makes me think that media mail is not subsidized either, though the margin may be lower.
posted by serathen at 1:44 PM on March 5, 2010

Best answer: This is from "Library Materials in the Mail: A Policy History," by Linda Lawson and Richard B. Kielbowicz. Library Quarterly, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Jan., 1988), pp. 29-51:
President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the book rate by proclamation in 1938, responding to intense pressure from book publishers and their allies. The National Committee to Abolish Postal Discrimination against Books, made up of book publishers, librarians, and educators, convinced Roosevelt that it was unfair for a two-pound magazine to be sent from coast to coast for only three cents postage, while a book of equal weight cost twenty-six cents to be sent by parcel post. The president established a special book postage of 1.5 cents a pound regardless of distance and kept renewing the rate until Congress added the book classification to statute in 1941, when it raised postage to three cents a pound.
posted by steef at 1:53 PM on March 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

From the USPS:

"Media Mail® service is a cost efficient way to mail books, sound recordings, recorded video tapes, printed music, and recorded computer-readable media (such as CDs, DVDs, and diskettes). Media Mail can not contain advertising except for incidental announcements of books. The maximum weight for Media Mail is 70 lbs.

There are presorted rates available for bulk quantities of Media Mail (minimum quantity is 300 pieces).
A barcode discount is available for Media Mail.
Rates are based on weight and size."

As such, you can mail digital games (on readable media). It is not just for educational materials. Media Mail is different from Library Rate.

"Items on loan from or mailed between academic institutions, public libraries, museums, and other qualified organizations can be sent using Library Mail.

Library Mail:
"Content is limited to books, sound recordings, academic theses, and certain other items.
Advertising restrictions apply.
Each piece must show in the address or return address the name of a school or nonprofit organization.""

As to why they do it, 1) public service (the USPS is a quasi-private government organization in the public service), 2) the mail can be very slow, since it goes in a container and the container only moves when it is filled, so it may be cost effective for the USPS since it fills containers and is cheap to move (I am speculating on this). Considering the amount of money the USPS is losing, I am not sure. I do know they lose money on periodical rate, but I am not sure about media or library.

I live on Maui and I Media Mail can be very slow. Living on a rock in the middle of the Pacific makes one very interested in the mail system and how it works.
posted by fifilaru at 2:58 PM on March 5, 2010 [2 favorites]

The National Committee to Abolish Postal Discrimination against Books

Instantly goes on my list of top 10 committee names of all time.

the mail can be very slow, since it goes in a container and the container only moves when it is filled, so it may be cost effective for the USPS since it fills containers and is cheap to move (I am speculating on this)

If I remember what my local post office guy told me correctly, it was basically that there was a set amount of space for each shipment devoted to media mail, so if there was more media mail than would fit, it would stay in the warehouse until the next shipment.
posted by the bricabrac man at 7:16 PM on March 5, 2010

It is 48 cents cheaper to send a CD via First Class mail than by Media Mail.
posted by bink at 10:02 PM on March 5, 2010

Bink is right, at least in a general sense. First Class charges by the ounce, and Media Mail starts at $2.38 for one pound. As far as delivery time goes, First Class tries to go anywhere in the country in one to three days. The lesser classes can wait up to three days at *every* stop. Some plants guarantee a three day wait, the smaller plants will send it on sooner as space permits.
posted by faceonmars at 10:42 PM on March 5, 2010

Zinesters are big on media mail too - it's a lot cheaper.
posted by divabat at 6:06 AM on March 6, 2010

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