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How to Save Money on Cheap Books – Read More While Spending Less

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Have you ever heard the expression, “Like a kid in a candy store”? That’s exactly how I feel in a bookstore. The sight of all those beautiful new books, glossy-covered and filled with words waiting to be read, makes my eyes light up.

Until I look at the price tags, that is. Even paperback novels cost as much as a movie ticket, and the prices for hardcover books and college textbooks are even more staggering. At these prices, if I bought every book I wanted to read, I’d have no money for anything else.

Rather than blow my entire budget on books, I’ve learned ways to support my reading habit for less. I’m constantly seeking out new sources of cheap and — better still — free books. Here are some great resources for the bookworm on a budget.


Libraries

For any book lover, a public library is heaven on earth – a whole building full of books anyone can read for free. If you have a good library in your town, a library card is a ticket to every era in history and every world you could ever dream of.

Sadly, however, not all public libraries are created equal. Some are vast edifices crammed with millions of volumes on every subject, while others are modest buildings housing only a few shelves.

Fortunately, when you borrow books from the library, you’re not limited to what’s in your local branch. Your library card doesn’t just give you access to the stacks – it’s also a passport to your entire library system.

Interlibrary Loan

If your local library is part of a larger system, you can access any book in that system through interlibrary loan. Here’s how it works: First, you ask the librarian for a book your local branch doesn’t have. Then, the librarian punches the title into a computer to search every other branch in the area’s library system. Many library websites also let you do this on your own online instead of going into the library.

If one of those other libraries has your book in stock, the librarian sends a request to have that volume sent to your local branch. You leave your name and contact information so they can let you know when the book comes in. In a few days – or possibly a few weeks, depending on how fast the system is – you get a call telling you to come down to your local branch and pick up the book.

When you’re done reading the book, you return it to your local branch like normal, and your branch sends it back to its home library. The whole process is much slower than using the library the normal way, but if you’re willing to wait, you can eventually have any book in any branch delivered right into your hands.

E-Libraries

Even if your local library isn’t part of a county or state library system, it may still belong to an e-library. This is a collection of e-books and audiobooks that library members can download and stream for a limited time.

For example, my local library is a part of eLibraryNJ. When I’m looking for a book my local branch doesn’t have, I search the eLibraryNJ site for it. If I find it, I log in to the site by entering the name of my local library branch, my library card number, and a PIN I created when I signed up. I can then download a copy of the book onto my computer or tablet.

The downloaded copy is good for a fixed period, typically two or three weeks. During that time, no one else can download the same book unless the library has multiple digital copies. When my time to read the book is up, the file on my computer becomes unusable, and the book is automatically “returned” to the system for someone else to borrow. To find out if your library is part of an e-library network, do a search for “e-library” or “virtual library,” followed by the name of your state or city.

If you don’t find one, try Open Library instead. Various libraries across the country have made selected books from their collections available through this site. Anyone can sign up for an account and borrow from its lending library of over 440,000 e-books. The site also has over 1.7 million public domain e-books you can read at any time without having to check them out.


E-Books

Speaking of e-books, reading your books in digital form is another great way to save money. Search for any book on Amazon, and you’ll probably find that the Kindle edition, if there is one, costs less than a printed paperback. For some larger books, the e-book is as little as half the price of the print version. Plus, e-books don’t take up room on your bookshelves – which, if they’re anything like mine, are already packed.

Furthermore, you can find digital versions of many books online for free, legally. E-libraries are one major source, but even if your library doesn’t belong to one, there are plenty of other sites to get your book fix.

Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and the iTunes store all offer some e-books you can download and read for free on a compatible reader. The book-review site Goodreads offers both full-length books and short “teasers” that authors have made available to read online. You can also find over 60,000 public domain works to read on Project Gutenberg.


Audio Books

Audiobooks give you the freedom to enjoy a good story while keeping your hands free for other tasks. You can listen on the road, in the shower, or while doing chores. Any device that plays digital music, such as a computer, smartphone, or dedicated music player, can play audiobooks.

The biggest provider of audiobooks is Audible, which is owned by Amazon. For a flat monthly fee, you get your choice of any audiobook in its collection once a month. Your subscription also includes two monthly “Audible Originals,” exclusive audio recordings created just for Audible. Other audiobook subscription services include Downpour and Scribd.

In addition, you can borrow audiobooks through many e-libraries. For instance, Hoopla is a service that partners with public libraries across the country to provide e-books, audiobooks, and other digital content to their patrons. There are also completely free recordings of public-domain works, read by volunteers, on Librivox.


Used Books

As handy as e-books and audiobooks are, old-fashioned bound books still have a few big advantages. You can take them everywhere, and they never run out of power. For thrifty readers, the best perk of bound books is that they’re easy to find secondhand at really low prices.

Places to find used books include:

  • Online Sellers. When you search for a book at a large online store like Amazon or eBay, you’ll often see secondhand copies selling for minuscule prices. Of course, you also have to pay for shipping, but the total cost can still be less than half the price of a new book. Other good sources of used books online include Alibris (good for rare books and textbooks), and Thrift Books.
  • Used Bookstores. Brick-and-mortar bookstores usually don’t have as large a selection as online stores. However, The Washington Post says they usually have better prices. At many bookstores, you can find newer books for around half the cover price. Some stores sell only secondhand books, while others have both new and used books. To find a used-book dealer near you, do an Internet search for “used books” with the name of your town. If you’re looking for a copy of a specific book, try searching on BookFinder.com.
  • Yard Sales. Books sold at garage sales are a mixed bag. You may find a lot of duds that aren’t worth reading. But every so often, you come across a treasure trove: stacks and stacks of new fiction, nonfiction, and rare volumes. Even when the pickings look slim, books at a yard sale are always worth a quick look. If you happen to find something you like, the prices are usually unbeatable since sellers are trying to clear out clutter. Some sellers even offer bulk discounts, such as, “buy four and the fifth is free.”
  • Library Book Sales. Public libraries often hold book sales as a way to raise funds for public programs. They sell off their own unwanted volumes, as well as books donated by patrons, and use the money to buy new books or facilitate events for the community, such as homework help or story time. At our local library’s annual sale, hardcover books are $1 or $2 each, and many paperbacks cost only $0.50. Buying from book sales is a way to pick up new books cheaply and also support your local library so you’ll have more books to borrow later. Consult your local library’s website to see if it has a sale coming up, or just ask the librarian. You can also look for book sales in your area on Book Sale Finder.

Book Swaps

When you keep buying lots of books at really low prices, after a while, you run out of shelf space.  That’s why, for the book junkie, book swaps are a win-win. You can clear out your overstuffed shelves, pass along the excess books to other book lovers, and bring home new titles to read and enjoy.

Here are several ways to trade with other bookworms:

  • Book Swap Parties. A book swap party works just like a clothing swap party. You get together with a bunch of friends and bring all the books you want to get rid of. Then, you all browse each other’s collections and choose new-to-you books to take home. Any books left over can be donated to a library book sale or given away on Freecycle.
  • Paperback Swap. There are several online swap sites devoted specifically to books. For example, at PaperBack Swap, you list all the books you don’t want and wait for another member to request them. When that happens, you ship out the book and earn a credit, which you can cash in for a book from another member. The site charges a small fee for each swap, in addition to the cost of shipping your old book.
  • BookMooch. BookMooch works like PaperBack Swap, except it uses a point-based system. You earn one-tenth of a point for each book you list and one point for each book you ship. Cashing in points costs one point per book. However, you must always ship out at least one book for every two you receive.
  • Little Free Libraries. Little Free Libraries are physical, self-sustaining trading sites for books. They can take different forms, but most are just small wooden boxes full of books that can be located anywhere. For example, you can find them in people’s front yards, public parks, coffee shops, offices, and the lobbies of apartment buildings. Anyone who passes by can leave a book in the box or pick one up for free. According to the Little Free Library site, there are currently more than 90,000 Little Free Libraries in the world. They’re found in all 50 states and in 90 other countries as well. You can search the site to find one near you. There are also tips on the site for starting a Little Free Library of your own.

Final Word

My favorite piece of nightwear is a long shirt covered with portraits of famous authors, such as Walt Whitman and Jane Austen. In the middle is the slogan, “A book lover never goes to bed alone.” It’s funny, but it’s also true – as long as I have a book to take to bed, I never feel alone. I have whole worlds, and all the people in them, to keep me company.

Being a book lover also means that life never gets boring. As long as you have plenty of books, you’ll never lack for entertainment or new ideas. And with so many libraries, online book sites, secondhand sellers, and book swaps to rummage through, you need never lack for books either. Your only problem will be finding the time to read them all.

What are your favorite places to find new books?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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