How to enjoy more than 100 books a year without breaking your book budget.
I got through more than 100 books in 2015, and in the process I learned several tricks about how do it affordably (spending between $0 to $4 per book).
It started with carving out time.
Through the first half of the year, I biked to work for 30 minutes each way, listening to an audiobook as I biked.
Then my work moved to another city, and it was too far to bike. So now, like an employed child, I ride a Razor scooter to the train station, take the train to another city, and then ride to the building where I work. Altogether, this has given me a lot of time to listen to audiobooks — though I mostly spend my train time writing.
In addition, I usually have 30 to 45 minutes of housework to do when I get home, which gives me another window to listen to audiobooks. Then, if I’m not too exhausted, I’ll spend roughly 30 minutes reading before bed. On weekends, I’ll also read for 2–3 hours on both Saturday and Sunday.
That’s pretty much it: 1.5 hours of listening per day while I do other stuff, plus ~7 hours a week of reading.
Here are the details of how I got through 100+ books in 2015 for cheap.
I’ll list each option I used, from least helpful to most helpful.
Oh boy. Kindle Unlimited.
During Amazon’s Prime Day, while scoffing at exceptional deals on out-moded USB drives, I found a deal for 40% off a three-year subscription to Kindle Unlimited.
I figured I only needed to find 50 good books of the 700,000 available to make the purchase worth it for me, so I bought the subscription. But after committing I couldn’t even find 50 books that were worthwhile. The selection is so bad. The advertisement should say “Get access to more than 700,000 self-published romance books!” because that’s essentially what Kindle Unlimited is.
I’ve spent hours scrolling through the selection, which is harder to comb through than if you were to take an old bookstore, blow it up, and scour the debris. There’s simply no good way to find more than a handful of books that are even sort of worthwhile, and the whole time you’re doing it you’re looking at men with chests like nippled rotisserie chickens. It’s such a waste.
I’m holding out hope that Amazon will improve the selection, but I have my doubts. Getting Kindle Unlimited was one of the worst purchases I made this year, even at 40% off.
If you sort the Kindle Unlimited selection by highest rated, lots of classics in the public domain pop up. You can then sometimes add narration to those classics for only $1, as I did with Proust’s Swann’s Way. It turns out that you can do this without ever getting a subscription to Kindle Unlimited, but I only discovered it after subscribing to Kindle Unlimited… so there’s that.
Pros: Lots of nice man bodies on the cover of romance novels???
Cons: Garbage book selection, overpriced, horrible sorting mechanism
LibriVox offers books that are in the public domain and read by volunteers. They’ve got a great selection of classics, but as you might expect, the quality of the reading varies tremendously. In addition, at the beginning of each track they blab about about how “This is a LibriVox recording. All LibriVox recordings are in the public domain. To learn more… blah blah blah.” It’s hard enough to listen to Immanuel Kant without someone interrupting every handful of minutes to talk to you about LibriVox. I also found it somewhat difficult to get the files to my Kindle since LibriVox’s third-party app isn’t intuitive.
Still, I listened to the full version of The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James and enjoyed it.
Pros: Fantastic selection of the best books ever written, 100% free
Cons: Amateur readers, clunky UI
I started the year by finding a deal for 50% off a year-long Scribd subscription — a deal they sent me because I’d posted a document on their site and joined their mailing list. Fifty percent off meant I paid $4.50 a month to access a host of big-name ebooks and audiobooks.
Considering that I read or listened to at least 3 books a month from Scribd, this was one of the best book-related purchases I’ve ever made. Even now that the deal for 50% off is done, I’m thinking about staying. Scribd gives you a credit for one audiobook a month and access to their library of ebooks, all for $9 a month — making it a better deal than Audible (which is $15 for a single audiobook only). Scribd also has a selection of free audiobooks that you can listen to at will, in addition to a rotating list of free audiobooks each month (think Netflix for audiobooks).
That said, Scribd has a few major hurdles. Their apps are consistently buggy, so much so that there were times when I couldn’t read or listen to the book I wanted to simply because the app didn’t work. In addition, the Kindle version of the app doesn’t let you increase the listening speed of audiobooks, which is becoming a deal breaker for me (more on that later).
Pros: Fantastic selection, good price — especially if you manage to nab a discount
Cons: Buggy app, can’t increase listening speed in certain versions of the app
My Local Library
When I started the year, I borrowed CD versions of audiobooks, transferred them to iTunes, put them on my phone, and listened as I biked. I had no problem completing the books before the 6-week borrowing period ended, but it’s such a pain to burn CDs (and it felt so much like 2002) that I didn’t stick with this method for long.
I also checked out a stack of physical books every week or so, which, if you count all the fees I racked up by forgetting to return them on time, added up to only about 70 cents a book. A good deal!
Pros: Free (or nearly so, after the occasional fee), great selection
Cons: You can’t write in the physical books, have to return them
My Local Used Bookstore
I like to frequent a bookstore down the street from where I live — both to sell them my used books for store credit and to buy some of my own. I joined their mailing list, and one day they gave me a deal for 50% off any purchase of 20+ books. So I bought 22 books for $80, just less than $4 a pop.
In addition, I ate through my $120 of store credit throughout the year.
Pros: It’s fun to browse bookshelves, the books are relatively cheap, you can write in them
Cons: Few audiobooks, some books are nearly as expensive as they were new
I saved the best for last.
My library, like many other libraries across the nation, partners with Overdrive to offer ebooks and audiobooks to anyone with a library card. While the app isn’t intuitive, the process is amazing once you get the hang of things. You can put books on hold, download those that are immediately available, save books to your device, and listen to them at whatever speed you’d like to.
I’ve found a lot of books I’ve been wanting to read for a while and a lot of new books as well. It’s simply the best way that I’ve discovered so far to get free books.
Pros: Free, nice selection, functional app
Cons: You have to return the books (they automatically withdraw them from your device), but you can’t send them back late so there aren’t any charges
Bonus tip! If you check out an ebook from Overdrive, you can tap to add narration in Kindle and generally pay a lot less than you would otherwise pay for buying the audiobook version outright.
Q & A
Q: If you listen to books at a higher speed, do you get anything out of it?
A: It depends on the text and the reader. You can’t speed up Kant, for instance. But some texts are so easy to comprehend and some readers talk so slowly that you’d be insane not to speed things up. For instance, I listened to Jose Saramago’s Blindness and Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton on 1.5x or 2x speed and was able to catch it all.
Q: If you get through that many books, do you retain anything?
To shore up against potential memory loss, I created a Google doc where I type everything that stands out to me from each book. I bookmark sections of the books as I’m reading or listening and then type those sections down verbatim. This year I have over 50 pages of notes from the books I read. The process helps me remember each one.
Q: What if I don’t have a book budget?
A: Today is the best time for cheapskates to be alive. You can spend $0 and get some of the best books out there with LibriVox, ebooks in the public domain, Overdrive, and your public library.
Q: Audiobooks intrigue me, but why should I listen to them if there are so many great podcasts available for free?
A: Podcasts are fantastic; however, I generally prefer audiobooks because books tend to have a higher vetting process than podcasts do, and the wisdom in most classics has proven the test of time. Also, I think it’s valuable to hear a single, sustained argument for 8–15 hours over the course of a book. That said, podcasts are engaging and memorable — often more so than books. I might go back to them some day.