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

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What is the rank of the United States among countries with the largest proportion of book readers? According to Harper’s Magazine, the U.S. comes in at number six. The country with the largest proportion of readers: China.

Some people love reading. For me, the sight of beautiful new books – glossy-covered and filled with words waiting to be read – makes my eyes light up. Others don’t enjoy reading nearly as much. Millions more wish they read more frequently but are hindered by one major headache: cost.

These days, even a paperback novel costs $10. Bigger books can carry a price tag as high as $30. College textbooks can be even crazier if you don’t know a few tricks. At these prices, if I bought every book I wanted to read, I’d have no money for anything else.

So over the years, I’ve learned ways to support my reading habit for less. I’m constantly seeking out new sources of cheap books and, better still, free books. Here’s my list of the best resources I’ve found for the bookworm on a budget.

Libraries

student reading in the library

For a book lover, a public library is heaven on earth – a building full of books that 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 ever dreamed of.

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

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.

Inter-library Loan

If your local library is part of a larger system, you can access any book in that system through inter-library 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.

If one of those other libraries has your book in stock, the librarian sends a request to have that volume sent over 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, just like normal. Then that 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 ebooks and audio books that library members can download for a limited time.

For example, my local library is a part of eLibraryNJ. When I’m looking for a book that 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 that I created when I signed up. Then I can download a copy of the book onto my computer or tablet.

The downloaded copy is good for two weeks. During that time, no one else can download the same book. When my two weeks are 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.

If you don’t find one, try Open Library instead. This site is a collaboration among more than 1,000 libraries around the country. Anyone can sign up for an account and borrow from its collection of over 100,000 ebooks. The site also has over 1.8 million public-domain books that you can read at any time without having to check them out.

eBooks

women reading ebooks

Speaking of ebooks, 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 one should exist) is cheaper than a printed paperback. For some larger books, the ebook is as little as half the price of the print version. Plus, ebooks don’t take up room on your bookshelves – which, if they’re anything like mine, are already packed.

Better still, you can find digital versions of many books online completely free. E-libraries are one major source, but even if your library doesn’t belong to one, there are plenty of other sites to download your daily book fix.

How to Read Them

One problem with ebooks is that you need a device to read them. With dedicated e-readers ranging in price from around $50 to more than $200, it’s not at all clear that the savings on books are enough to offset the cost of the reader.

However, there are plenty of ways to enjoy e-books without having a special device solely for that purpose. Instead of shelling out cash for a machine that can only do one job, you can use free apps to read ebooks in different formats right on your computer, tablet, or phone.

Book-reading apps and formats include:

  • Kindle. The Kindle is Amazon’s e-reader, and books in Kindle format won’t work on other types of readers. However, the free Kindle app – available for Android, iOS, PC, and Mac – lets you read Kindle-formatted books on any computer or mobile device. Just visit Amazon to download a copy.
  • Nook. The Nook e-reader is Barnes & Noble’s answer to the Kindle. To read Nook books on other devices, download the Nook app. It’s available for iOS, Android, and Windows. However, there is no Mac version.
  • iBooks. The iBooks app comes bundled with new Apple devices, including Mac computers. If you have an older Apple device, you can download the app from the iTunes store. The app can read books in ePub and PDF format and also play audio books.
  • Google Play BooksGoogle Play Books is another free app for reading ePub and PDF books. It can upload any book up to 100 MB in size, and it can store up to 1,000 books at a time. There are versions available for Android or iOS.
  • Overdrive. The Overdrive app is designed specifically to work with e-libraries. It can read ebooks in its own Overdrive Read format, as well as ePub, Kindle, PDF, and MediaDo Reader formats. It can also pay audio books and videos. There are versions of Overdrive for Android, Apple, Chromebook, Kindle Fire, Mac, Windows Phone, and Windows desktops.
  • ePub. The ePub format is an open standard that works on most e-readers and apps, including Nook, iBooks, Google Books, and Overdrive. You can also read ePub books on a Windows or Mac computer with a free program called Adobe Digital Editions. However, you can’t read ePub books on a Kindle. Fortunately, there’s a way around this. Calibre, a free, open-source program, can convert nearly any ebook format to any other format. With this program, you can convert books formatted for other readers to work on a Kindle – and vice versa.
  • PDF. Many ebooks are formatted as PDFs. You can read these on any computer with Adobe Acrobat. Most Web browsers can also read these files right in the browser window.

Where to Get Them

Once you start hunting for ebooks online, it’s amazing how many sources you can come up with. Here are just a few of the places you can download ebooks at little or no cost:

  • Amazon. A search for “free Kindle books” in the Kindle Store turns up more than 90,000 titles. The largest categories are nonfiction and Kindle Short Reads – selections you can read in anywhere from 15 minutes to a couple of hours. If you want even more choices, you can sign up for Kindle Unlimited. For a flat $9.99 a month, you get all you can read from a catalog of more than one million Kindle titles.
  • Barnes & Noble. Barnes & Noble offers a much larger selection of free ebooks. There are more than 1.2 million titles here, spanning a wide range of genres. You can find literary classics, history, romance, sports, children’s books, and even cookbooks. All selections are Nook books, which can be read with any ePub reader.
  • BookLending. If you already have a library of Kindle books, the BookLending program allows you to share them with others – and read theirs in return. This works thank to a built-in feature in Kindle books that makes them loanable. You can lend out each Kindle book you own book for one 2-week period, during which you can’t read it on your own machine. At the end of the two weeks, the book returns to your collection.
  • Good Reads. The book-review site Good Reads has a collection of 2,500 ebooks you can read online or download. Some are full-length books, while others are “teasers” for longer works. Selections include both classics and new works by little-known authors, including many foreign-language books. The files come in a variety of formats, including Kindle, ePub, PDF, and plain text.
  • Google BooksGoogle Books is a collection of more than 25 million books that have been scanned and converted to searchable files. Not all those books are available to read in full, however. With most books, all you can do is search the text and view a preview – from a few lines to several pages – containing your search term. However, books that are in the public domain can be viewed on-screen in full.
  • iTunes. If you go into the iTunes store, select Books from the “Explore” menu, and then click on “free books,” you can find a variety of titles. There are classic works and newer ones, selections for kids and for adults, fiction and nonfiction. All works are in iBooks format, so you’ll need an Apple device with the iBooks app to read them.
  • Internet Archive. The Internet Archive is a collection of about 10 million books that anyone can read in full on the screen. The texts are contributed by libraries all over the world. To find a text, type in the title or author’s name into the search bar. If the book is available, you’ll see a variety of options for downloading it.
  • Project Gutenberg. At Project Gutenberg, volunteers have collected together more than 50,000 works in the public domain. You can not only read them but also use them in any way you like, from teaching them in a classroom to adapting them for the stage. The books are in a variety of formats, including ePub, Kindle, plain text, and HTML. Use the search bar to look for a title you want, or browse the collection by category.

Audio Books

guy listening to an audiobook

One problem with printed books and ebooks is finding the time to read them. Since you need both hands free, it’s hard to combine read while you’re doing other things. Audio books solve this problem. They let you enjoy a good book while you’re driving, doing the dishes, working out, or whatever else you have to do during the day.

You can listen to audio books on any digital music device. You can also play them on your PC or portable device with a music app, such as iTunes. Overdrive, the free app for reading ebooks from the e-library, can also play audio book files.

The best-known source of audio books is Audible. Its collection includes over 180,000 titles, many of them read by well-known actors such as Tim Robbins and Emma Thompson.

There are two ways to listen to books from Audible. You can download them one at a time for prices that range from free to over $40, or you can pay a flat $15 a month for membership. That gives you one book of your choice each month for free, plus additional titles at a 30% discount. You can use the service’s free trial to get your first month at no charge.

Other sources of audio books include:

  • e-Libraries. Many e-libraries have audio books, as well as ebooks, available to borrow. Check your local e-library to see what selections and formats it offers.
  • Downpour. Downpour is similar to Audible, but with a twist. In addition to buying audio books, you can rent them for 30 or 60 days, at about 70% less than they cost to buy. You can also subscribe for $12.99 a month and get one free credit good for nearly any book, with additional credits at $12.99 each. The service has tens of thousands of titles, with thousands more being added each month. The Downpour app works on any iOS or Android device.
  • Scribd. Scribd is an online subscription library that includes both ebooks and audio books. An $8.99 monthly subscription allows you to access three ebooks and one audio book per month. Additional “listens” cost $12.99 each. There are also some selections on the site called “unlimited listens,” which you can enjoy at no extra cost. Like Audible, Scribd offers a one-month free trial.
  • Hoopla. Hoopla is an e-library exclusively dedicated to audio books, CDs, and DVDs. You can check out audio books through the website or the hoopla mobile app, available for iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Apple TV, and Google Chromecast.
  • Librivox. One of the best sources for free audio books is Librivox. Its collection includes more than 10,000 audio books read by volunteers from all over the world. All books on the site are in the public domain, which means they mostly date from 1923 or earlier. You can stream the audio files right in your browser window or download them to hear later. You can also sign up to contribute your own audio recordings to the archive.
  • OpenCulture. There’s a smaller selection of free audio books – about 900 titles – at OpenCulture. Most selections are available in either iTunes or MP3 format. There are also some in the form of embedded YouTube videos or Spotify streams.
  • Internet Archive. The Internet Archive has a collection of about 13,000 free audio books and poetry readings. Some of these files are contributed by archive users. Others are pulled from sites such as Librivox and Project Gutenberg.

Used Books

used books shelf

As handy as ebooks and audio books are, old-fashioned bound books still have a few big advantages. You can take them everywhere, and they never run out of power. But 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 as little as a penny. Of course, you also have to pay for shipping, which usually adds around $4 per book. Other good sources of used books online include Half.com (now part of eBay), Powell’s Books, 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. On the plus side, The Washington Post says they usually have better prices. At many stores, 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 on “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. Often, all you find is a few dusty volumes on a table, such as a few beat-up children’s books or textbooks from 1992. 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 unbeatable – as low as a quarter apiece. 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. They sell off their own unwanted volumes, as well as books donated by patrons, and use the money to buy new books. 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 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 at Book Sale Finder.

Book Swaps

girl friends swapping books

Buying lots of books at really low prices has a downside. 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 that are left over can be donated to the 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. So basically, you get a whole new book for just the cost of shipping the old one.
  • BookMoochBookMooch 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 trading sites for books. They can take different forms, but most are just small wooden boxes full of books. 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 50,000 Little Free Libraries in the world. They’re found in all 50 states and in 70 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 a whole world, and all the people in it, 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 new ideas to keep your thoughts busy. 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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