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?
Nobody explained the rules to me when I sold my first used book back in 2005. So hopefully this will help you.
What is considered media mail by the USPS?
Media mail is intended for libraries to ship books, music and movies to one another. The rest of us get to use it too, as long as we use it to ship books, music and movies that only contain incidental advertising. Computer readable media (think software), printed music, sound recordings, 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.
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. 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.
Uses and misuses of Media Mail
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, such as 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 judgment call area.
Yes, it is possible, even likely, that someone will open your media mail package and inspect it to make sure it’s OK.
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 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.
Like I said, I’ve shipped more than a few packages in my day, and I’ve ordered more than a few things online too. Few people ever complained about how their package showed up. Occasionally someone complained about the speed, but we get what we pay for. I’ve received a few shipments in ratty looking packaging after going through Media Mail, but as long as the seller packed it in a box or a bubble mailer, the contents were always fine.
One more precaution with shipping
I remember a time when you could put stamps on almost anything, drop it in a mailbox, and call it good. That changed this century. 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.
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 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.