Media mail is just about the least expensive shipping method the US Postal Service offers. But many people abuse it, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes unintentionally. So how do you get media mail rates, and more importantly, what qualifies as media mail? What is considered media mail by the USPS?
Generally speaking, for things to qualify as media mail, remember two rules. If you wouldn’t find it in a public library or university library, it probably doesn’t qualify. And if it contains advertising, even very old ads that are no longer valid, it almost certainly doesn’t qualify. If it’s a book or a sound recording with only incidental announcements, it’s OK. Anything beyond that is only OK if it meets very specific criteria.
What is considered media mail by the USPS?
Media mail is intended for libraries to ship books and sound recordings to one another. The rest of us get to use it too, as long as we use it to ship qualified items: books, music and movies that only contain incidental announcements. Computer readable media (think software), printed music, sound recordings, educational materials such as printed educational reference charts, and loose leaf pages of medical information in binders are all OK. Yes, some of this stuff is pretty crazy specific.
Yes, movies containing previews are considered media mail because previews qualify as incidental advertisements.
Pre-recorded Audio cassettes and VHS tapes aren’t specifically called out, but they would be OK for the same reason CDs and DVDs are.
Not containing advertising is the rub. Magazines aren’t eligible for media mail if they contain advertising. Neither are comic books, for the same reason. Newspapers would be a problem for the same reason. This even holds true for vintage magazines or comics whose ads would never be honored anyway. As far as the USPS is concerned, advertising is advertising.
Software is tricky. Reference materials are OK. Video games are not. Software often weighs little enough that it can go First Class, and that would be a safer option most of the time.
Media Mail is a lot cheaper than most other options, which is why people would want to abuse it. A 2-pound box that costs $7.70 to ship via Priority Mail costs $3.17 to ship via Media Mail service (at 2018 rates).
How many books can you ship Media Mail at once?
There’s no limit on how many books or other eligible items you can ship. Whether it’s a single item or a big box of them, if everything is eligible, it’s still considered media mail.
I’ve shipped book sets with 10 or 12 volumes Media Mail without problems, and they didn’t even hassle me about the packing material I padded them with. And there were at least a couple of occasions where I shipped a big banker’s box-sized box full of paperbacks via Media Mail and that wasn’t a problem either. Technically, if you used wadded-up newspaper as packing material, that’s breaking the rules. So stick with bubble wrap or foam if you need to pad the box. It’ll keep you out of trouble, and it’s lighter anyway.
There’s no limit on how many individual Media Mail packages you can ship at a time either. Small businesses selling stuff online is a major revenue stream for them, so the USPS isn’t going to discourage it.
Uses and misuses of Media Mail service
I sold a few books and CDs online in my day, and I used to cut the invoices down so they contained little more than the shipping address, purchase price, and return address. I did it to save weight, because sometimes that 1/3 sheet of paper instead of a full sheet kept me from hitting a shipping boundary. What I didn’t realize was that my trick to save myself a buck in shipping was probably also keeping me out of trouble.
The second most unintentional misuse of media mail is shipping magazines or comic books with it. People frequently forget that distinction. Magazines that don’t contain any advertising, like Consumer Reports, might be OK, but that’s a judgment call and it’s the postal inspector who opens your package who gets to make that call. I always shipped magazines a different way in order to be safe. Software will also frequently fall into that gray area.
Intentional misuse of media mail is shipping stuff that isn’t a book or anything else you could expect to find in a library. You might get away with shipping a pair of shoes media mail for $3.17, but don’t count on it. I’ve heard stories, and not just from hanging out at estate sales.
Penalties for abusing Media Mail
The penalty for abusing Media Mail is that your package will arrive recipient postage due. If the shipping recipient refuses the package, then the United States Postal Service will return the package to you, postage due.
Other drawbacks to Media Mail
There are other drawbacks to Media Mail. It’s slower. Typically a Media Mail package arrives in around 10 days, but it can take up to 30 days. You can also expect the package to get rougher handling. When the United States Postal Service needs to protect other packages during shipment, it’s Media Mail that gets the call. Pack your items in a bubble mailer or box to ensure they have adequate protection.
One more precaution with shipping
Years ago you could put stamps on almost anything, drop it in a mailbox, and call it good. No longer. If a package weighs more than 15 ounces, you have to hand it to a USPS employee. That means handing it to the mail carrier, or taking it to the post office. And generally speaking, they don’t like stamps on packages anymore. It’s better to either pay for the postage online and print a shipping label, or pay for postage at the post office and have them put printed postage on it. And although it’s getting rarer, some post offices are open on Sunday. Believe me, I mailed a few books on Sundays in my day.
Although services like Ebay and Amazon may let you print a prepaid Media Mail label, you usually can’t print one by going to USPS.com. Usually to get Media Mail rates, you have to take your package to the post office and ask for it. Expect the clerk to ask what it is. I got used to hearing that question very quickly.
What qualifies as Media Mail: In conclusion
So, repeat after me. What qualifies as Media Mail is books, music and movies that contain only incidental advertising. That means no magazines, no newspapers, no comic books, and no video games. It also means things you wouldn’t ordinarily find in a library.
That said, judicious and proper use of Media Mail can save you a lot of money. If you sell online, shipping is probably your biggest or second biggest expense. So I hope this clears things up for you and helps you ship things in a more cost effective way. As long as you follow the rules, there’s no reason to be apprehensive.