A good book can take you anywhere you want to go, teach you things you didn’t realize you should know, and show you what life is like for all kinds of people. Do you want to travel to Greece? Try your hand at hiking the Pacific Crest Trail? Leave Earth behind to embark on an intergalactic adventure? You can. Books are magical.
But these days, they’re also expensive as hell. I read a lot (I average more than a book a week, sometimes reading as many as three), and if I were to buy every title that has caught my attention at full price, I’d go broke in a month. I’ve always been a coupon-cutting penny pincher, so when I realized that my favorite hobby could also be my financial downfall, I quickly started researching ways to read more while spending less. Nowadays, I never spend more than $20 a month on newly released books—that’s roughly six books for less than the full retail price of one brand-new hardcover.
That said, you should always try to support your local independent booksellers and favorite authors when you have the room in your budget (more on this below). “Paying full price for hardcover books pays writers better and also covers costs associated with editing, design, marketing, and author tours,” says Karen Maeda Allman, who coordinates author events at Elliott Bay Book Company, an independent bookstore in Seattle. “We love when [readers] pre-order books from us; it’s a vote for your author’s book and a chance for these books to make it onto The New York Times Bestseller List.” Though the books usually cost more, your support is critical in keeping a local, brick-and-mortar business afloat.
But we know that not everyone can afford to buy every book they’d like to read at full price, so if you’re itching to read more each month for less, here’s how you can do so without breaking the bank.
Write reviews in exchange for early-release books
You spend a lot of time reading books and even more time telling your friends about them—so why not jot down those thoughts and trade them for free, early access to the titles you’re most excited about? Online platforms like Edelweiss+ and NetGalley allow readers to request advance reader copies (referred to as ARCs) of books from publishers in exchange for their honest reviews. Such reviews and other reader feedback on yet-to-be-released books help publishers and authors promote new titles and garner excitement ahead of the book’s release date.
Creating an account and requesting digital copies of the titles that sound most interesting to you from one of these platforms is easy, but keep in mind that you’ll have to write a review for every book you receive. If you’re unable to keep up once the titles start rolling in, your stats (which are visible to publishers) will suffer, and it may be hard to get approved for more digital copies in the future. “Book influencers come from all backgrounds these days, and so access to NetGalley is a little looser than it used to be,” Allman says. “In exchange for access and info about upcoming releases, NetGalley expects some reviews and promotion. This could be on your Instagram or book blog, of course, as well as reviews online or in print.” You can also opt to review the titles you read directly on Edelweiss+, NetGalley, or Goodreads if setting up a blog isn’t for you.
For more access to ARCs, you can sign up for Shelf Awareness’s newsletters. Shelf Awareness sends out two newsletters (one for readers and one for folks in the book business) with information about the publishing industry. Among the industry news, you’ll find opportunities to enter raffles for free ARCs directly from publishers—you’ll be required to enter your contact information, including your mailing address, because you’ll receive a paperback copy of the book in the mail (rather than a digital file) if your name is chosen. Though both newsletters give readers access to ARCs, Shelf Awareness Pro subscribers usually get more opportunities. The Pro newsletter comes daily and can easily become overwhelming if you don’t keep on top of your inbox, but readers who can handle the influx of emails are rewarded: On any given day, it usually has around eight to 10 ARCs up for grabs.
Subscribe to a monthly book box
Signing up for a monthly subscription book box can take the stress out of picking your next read because instead of spending time researching the newest releases or trying to select just one title, you can simply wait for the books to come to you. The convenience isn’t the only reason avid readers should sign up: Because book boxes often cost less per month than you would spend if you were to buy the books on your own, the service can also help you save money over time.
Your money goes furthest with Book of the Month, Book Drop, and Bookroo, three book boxes we recommend for adults and children. Book of the Month, which gives subscribers their choice from five recently released titles, costs $15 a month for one hardcover book; Book Drop, which sends one softcover book in your preferred genre, costs $21 a month with shipping; and Bookroo, an affordable box for toddlers and elementary schoolers, costs $25 a month with shipping for two or three children’s books. In the year that I’ve subscribed to Book of the Month, I’ve received 12 hardcover books that retail anywhere from $25 to $35—if I had bought each one new from the bookstore, I would have paid between $300 and $420 by the end of the year. But because I pay only $15 a month for books that I would have certainly purchased on my own, I’ve spent only $180.
Tap into the public domain
There are many websites you can use to read older books that are considered public domain, for free. “Public domain” refers to all creative works that aren’t copyrighted, either because they were created before copyright existed or because the rights have since expired or been forfeited. Not all public domain works are free, but you won’t have a hard time finding all of Shakespeare’s plays or Jane Austen’s body of work on one of these sites, for instance. Project Gutenberg is one of the most popular destinations for free ebooks, with more than 60,000 digitized publications available for download. Manybooks, a free ebook website with many titles sourced from the Project Gutenberg archives, has another 50,000 free titles.
Get friendly with local bookworms
Do you have a family member or friend who enjoys reading the same kinds of books as you? If so, ask if they’d like to be your book buddy. Together, you can decide what books you both have interest in reading and then divvy up the list and coordinate your purchases. Once you’ve both finished your picks, swap. Not only does this arrangement cut down on costs, but it also gives you a person to talk books with. You can even employ this idea within a larger group of readers, too—just be sure everyone agrees to buy a different book and pass it on once they’ve finished. Think of it as an asynchronous book club.
Both children’s book blogger Ryan Billingsley and Elliott Bay’s Karen Maeda Allman suggest keeping an eye out for Little Free Library boxes in your neighborhood, another good way to tap into your local community of readers. Started by a nonprofit organization of the same name, the Little Free Library installations are book-sharing boxes that encourage folks to take a book and leave one of their own. To find one near you, check the organization’s map—100,000 book-sharing boxes are available around the world. And if you don’t have any near you, start your own, and you’ll get first dibs on anything people drop off!
Find free books for the blind and visually impaired
The National Library Service is an excellent service for folks with low vision, blindness, or physical disabilities that prevent them from reading or holding a printed page: The organization works with a network of libraries in every state to deliver books and magazines in braille or audio formats that you can receive and return by mail, free of charge. You can also opt to instantly download ebooks and audiobooks. If you or a family member is eligible, the NLS even loans out playback equipment and accessories.
Large Print Reviews, a website that reviews large-print and audio books along with low-vision aids such as magnifiers and screen readers, is another good resource for visually impaired people looking to read more for less. The site has pulled together a list of online book depositories that offer free access to ebook collections, all of which you can access online. The list includes the following:
- Bibliomania, which houses a collection of 2,000 classic titles plus reference books, study guides, and religious texts.
- The Online Books Page, a site that culls all the “freely readable” books on the internet. It provides access to more than 2 million books.
- Read Print, an online collection of classic books, poems, and short stories.
Invest in an e-reader
Ebooks are almost always cheaper than physical books—new paperbacks and hardcovers can run you anywhere from $15 to $25 and up, respectively, but the digital copies of the same titles usually start around $10.
Take stock of what you already own before starting your hunt for the best e-reader. Do you have a general-use tablet, such as an Apple iPad or Samsung Galaxy Tab? If so, it can easily take the place of a dedicated e-reader. Laptops and smartphones can function as e-readers, too; though neither device seems like the most practical e-reader stand-in, it’ll get the job done, especially if you’re looking to spend as little as possible.
If you don’t have anything that can moonlight as an e-reader (and you refuse to read an epic novel on your tiny phone screen), you’ll have to invest in one before stacking up the savings. This can be a big up-front cost, but the purchase will pay for itself over time as long as you commit to reading on it often. We think the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite is the best e-reader for most people (and we expect to see deals on it come Prime Day), but we also recommend the Kobo Clara HD and the Kobo Libra H2O in our guide to the best e-readers. One of these e-readers will run you anywhere from $130 and up. If you’re working with a tighter budget, a cheap Amazon Fire HD 8 will work in a pinch—though it’s not the fastest tablet, it’s great for reading, especially if you plan to buy your ebooks from Amazon.
The Wirecutter Deals team suggests that folks who are planning to pick up a new e-reader try to wait—with Amazon’s Prime Day now confirmed for the fourth quarter and Black Friday and Cyber Week just two months away, we’re expecting to see solid drops on most of our recommended e-readers and tablets. Wirecutter Deals editor Nathan Burrow suspects that the Kindle Paperwhite (10th generation) will drop to $90 or less on both Prime Day and Black Friday, while the cheaper Fire HD 8 tablet will likely fall to $50. The Kobo Clara HD will likely be on sale from Walmart, as will the slightly pricier Kobo Libra H20.
Make use of trial subscription periods
As long as you don’t mind that you won’t actually own the books you’re reading, signing up for an ebook subscription service is a good idea if saving money is your end goal—subscriptions to popular services, which offer unlimited access to huge libraries of ebooks and audiobooks, cost anywhere from $9 to $15 a month.
But before randomly picking one to subscribe to, take advantage of the free trial periods these services offer. Kindle Unlimited and 24symbols offer a 30-day free trial, while Scribd allows future subscribers to try out the service for 60 days. Audible, an audiobook subscription service that has two all-you-can-read options (one of which is devoted to romance novels, swoon!), also offers a 30-day free trial. If you were to test out each service one after another, you’d be able to read as many titles as your heart desires free of charge for six months. Be sure to set reminders for yourself to cancel your subscription just before your free trial is up to avoid being charged the monthly fee. Once you’ve made your way through your trial periods, you can sign up for the service that works best for you with confidence—and continue to save money, as one individually purchased ebook or audiobook often costs more than the monthly subscription to these services.
Although the library is an excellent (and free) resource for borrowing books for a specified length of time, there’s something to be said about filling your own shelves with books you get to keep to reread over and over. I’m no stranger to buying the books I could easily check out for free from the library, but unless I’m really excited about a recently released book and I want to support the author, I almost always buy my books used. Your money goes further when you buy secondhand—depending on where you’re shopping, you can sometimes find previously owned books for a fraction of the price that they would sell for new (and, oftentimes, those books are in impeccable condition anyway).
Occasionally, you might be able to turn to your local library to not only borrow books but also to buy used books. “Most libraries do something called ‘weeding’ where staff go through a collection and discard copies of books based on various criteria like age, physical condition, dated content, low circulation stats and number of copies on the shelf,” says Alia Jones, a Cincinnati-based children’s library service assistant and book blogger. “If these weeded books are in good working condition, they might end up in a library book sale.” These sales are often organized by Friends of the Library groups—nonprofit, charitable groups that support their community libraries—and sometimes you can score paperback books for as little as 50¢. If a Friends of the Library group is in your area, sign up for its newsletter to keep up to date on future book sales. You can check Book Sale Finder to find upcoming library sales in your area, too.
If you want to shop for secondhand reads, another obvious place to start is at your local used bookstore. Supporting local businesses is paramount, especially during the pandemic, and buying directly from the bookstore helps to keep its doors open. You can also visit Half Price Books, a national used bookstore chain with 120 locations across the United States. If you can’t find what you’re looking for—or if your town is a bookstore desert—don’t give up. You can often find really good books hiding in your local thrift stores. In my experience shopping for books in small thrift shops across the country, I’ve noticed that most secondhand stores offer great discounts that reward you for buying more (think buy-one-get-one deals). Don’t pass up the occasional yard sale, either.
If you would rather stick to buying online, especially now, during the pandemic, you have tons of used-book websites to peruse:
- Thriftbooks offers free shipping once you hit the $10 minimum—and the books are usually marked down so low that you can sometimes get three titles for just over the minimum.
- Better World Books also offers discounted ebooks, in addition to selling physical books.
- Alibris sells rare, hard-to-find titles and used textbooks.
- Book Depository is a UK-based website that offers free global shipping on discounted books.
- Half Price Books’s website ships to any location worldwide—but for each book you purchase you must pay a shipping fee (instead of one fee for the entire order), which can quickly add up. (If you have a brick-and-mortar location nearby, you can arrange for contactless curbside pickup.)
You might also be able to find great deals on used books through Amazon. Depending on the age of the book and the seller, you can sometimes find books on sale for less than 50¢. Though that’s an extreme example, it’s not unheard of to find the book you’re seeking for less than $5. Even after you factor in the cost of shipping, books nabbed for such a low price can be anywhere from a third to an eighth of their original price. Normally, these sellers aren’t affiliated with Amazon; they’re just using the site as a sales platform.
Just keep in mind that shipping from a used-book site might take longer than, say, two-day Prime shipping from Amazon—so if you need a specific title for a book club or a school course, plan ahead.
Shop at your local independent bookstores
Though I’m a reader on a budget, I’m always looking for opportunities to support my local independent bookstores—and precisely because I’m a reader on a budget, I also make sure to sign up for their newsletters. Many bookstores offer discounts and announce sales every so often, but you can’t take advantage of discounted pricing if you don’t know about it. Signing up for weekly emails, along with following your favorite shops on social media, is a good way to make sure you never miss out on a chance to save.
Also ask your local bookstore if it offers frequent-buyer cards or free memberships—if so, you can work your way toward a reward, whether that’s a coupon or a free item, with every purchase you make. Allman notes that many independent bookstores, such as the one she works for in Seattle, also offer discounts to teachers, librarians, and book-club groups. If you think you might be part of a population privy to discounts, don’t be afraid to ask.
Some bookstores also offer free programming, Allman says. For instance, she says that her bookstore works with libraries to produce free programs with authors and community events, and it often curates literary festivals in the area. Check with your favorite bookstores to see if they do something similar—though such events are not a way to buy books for less, they still offer an opportunity to engage with your local literary community for free while also supporting your area’s indie stores.
Make the most of your library card
Though this may seem obvious, it’s worth saying: If you want to read a lot for as little as possible, your local public library is your best friend. Your library card can go a lot further than you may realize—not only can you borrow physical books, but you can also check out ebooks and audiobooks. Utilizing your library’s website is the best way to secure holds on popular books you want to read. Checking your library’s website beforehand allows you to find out if your branch even carries the book you’re looking for, and if it doesn’t, it can often request a copy from another branch for you.
Folks who prefer reading ebooks might assume that the library doesn’t have anything for them—but that’s not true. “I love that I can digitally check out ebooks from home, and even audiobooks for my commute,” says Billingsley. “It’s a very cool resource most libraries offer that I’m not sure many people are aware of.” To get started, download either the OverDrive app or the Libby app. Both designed by OverDrive, these free apps allow you to borrow titles from your library straight to your e-reader, tablet, or phone. (OverDrive and Libby are essentially the same app, but OverDrive, which has been around longer, is compatible with more devices than Libby.) All you need to get started on either app and gain full access to your library is the information on your library card. You can borrow audiobooks through OverDrive and Libby, too.
If you belong to a few libraries or share your tablet with a partner or family member, Libby makes it easy to switch between accounts while displaying all your digital checkouts on the same shelf. This is especially helpful for readers trying to save cash—for example, if your main library doesn’t have the book you want, you can check to see if your secondary library has it before you buy it. If you prefer audiobooks and find the apps’ selection lacking, check out Hoopla, another service that partners with public libraries across the country to provide readers with access to audiobooks (as well as ebooks and other digital content).