10 Ways to Save Money on Books

I used to spend thousands of dollars a year on books, most of which I never read. Recently I’ve begun to trim my book spending. I spent nearly $3000 on books in 2003, but that number dropped to $700 last year. How did I do it? Through self-discipline and some common sense tricks.

1. Avoid new releases

New releases sell at a premium. Sometimes you can get them cheap at Costco or Amazon. It’s best to avoid them completely. Put them on hold at the library. If you’re tempted to buy a newly-released book, ask yourself: “Why do I need to own this now? Can I wait?”

2. Read reviews

Reviews help separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s a terrible feeling to spend $25 on a book only to discover it’s awful. Amazon is an excellent source for reader opinion. I also like Metacritic and The New Yorker. Find a source that you trust, and rely upon it to screen books.

3. Find the classics online

Most of the literary canon is in the Public Domain. There are thousands of freely available texts for download at Project Gutenberg. One excellent way to read the classics is through Daily Lit, a service that gives you bite-sized chunks of books in your inbox.

4. Search for bargains

I look to buy books cheap at garage sales, thrift stores, and library book sales. If you’re patient and have a general idea of what you want, you can build a fantastic library for cheap. Don’t forget: if you find a nice stash at a garage sale, you can negotiate for a better price.

5. Make Amazon your all-purpose book tool

Though I buy some books from Amazon, I mainly use the site as a reference. I’m able to check reviews, prices, and related works. For many books, I can preview the first few pages. I can check release dates. My top use for Amazon is to compile a “reading list”. Whenever I spot a book that might be interesting, I add it to my Amazon list. About once a month, I go through this list and put the books on hold at the library…

6. Frequent your public library

This is the cornerstone of my system. The true revolution came when I discovered my library’s website. Referencing my Amazon wish list, I place books on hold. When they’re ready, I stop after work to pick up a batch. I keep those books out for what seems like forever. My library system lets me renew for nearly six months! I believe that every smart, frugal person should make active use of her public libary.

7. Explore used book stores

Not all used booksellers are created equal. Scour your neighborhood to find the good ones. Some are stocked with romance novels and children’s books. That’s fine for some people, but I like a used bookstore with a diverse inventory. My wife has introduced me to the joys of the Edward R. Hamilton catalog. We just placed an order yesterday. Had we purchased these same books on Amazon, we would have spent over more than twice as much. (If you’re willing to buy used through Amazon, you can find many common books for only a buck or two.)

8. Harness the power of the internet

There are many book-related resources online. Over the past few weeks, readers have e-mailed to share resources such as:

  • TitleTrader lets you swap books, DVDs, and CDs. The site offers a points-based system for requests.
  • PaperBackSwap allows members to swap books my mail. For each book you send (paying postage), you earn credit to receive a book.
  • Bookins is similar to the first two services, except that it reverses the payment structure. You only pay to receive books. Shipping books is free. Why is this a big deal? If you have too many books and want to purge your library, you can post your list and then gradually get rid of your overstock at no cost.
  • BookSwim promises to be like Netflix for books. It’s nearing launch.
  • Audible is an expensive but useful option, especially if you enjoy listening to books on your iPod (as I do).

9. Buy only what you intend to read

This may seem obvious, but it’s taken me a long time to learn. I tend to want to own any book of interest. This is a huge money sink if the books remain unread. One approach is to only buy new books after you’ve read those last purchased. I’m not to this point yet, but I’m much better than I used to be.

10. Share

Pass books around to family and friends. Ask to borrow theirs. Create an informal book exchange among your social network. This is an excellent way to stretch the value of a dollar.

Eighteen months ago, I purged a large portion of my personal library. At that time I wrote:

We have many bookcases with many shelves. To be precise, we have eighty-five bookshelves of about thirty inches each. That’s approximately 2550 inches of books, or about 213 feet. That’s a hell of a lot of books.

A recent change in my mental outlook has allowed me to realize that I don’t need to possess as many books as I once did. It used to be that I felt the urge to own any book that looked remotely interesting. No longer. Nowadays I’m more interested in purchasing high-quality copies of books that I already love or want to treasure.

Spurred by Live Simple, I’ve scoured our bookshelves in an attempt to free space. To do this, I deliberately shut off my sentimental faculties. If it’s not a book that I want to re-read or to keep as reference then I set it aside to purge. I’ve purged hundreds of books. (This sounds impressive, but really it only freed about twelve shelves of space. I still have seventy-three shelves filled with books.)

Since then, I’ve purged even more books. More impressively, I’ve reduced the flow of books into the house. I still have a large library, but at least now my book spending is under control.

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