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To Read or Not To Read (E-books). Are Paper Books Cheaper than E-books?

A woman reads a paperback and a Kindle
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder


Everyone mistakes my sister and me for twins. Some people even think we’re the same person. (I have tons of stories.) But unlike everyone else, she and I see plenty of differences.One major difference is our reading habits. I’m a lover of paper books with pages I can turn and margins I can write on, and she’s a fan of e-readers with enough storage space to hold hundreds of books at one time.

In one of our many discussions about e-books versus print books, I realized something. We always look at e-books from a convenience perspective, but what about a cost perspective?

Are print books really cheaper than e-books?

Thanks to some classic sibling rivalry, I plunged into the world of digital bookstores and ended up with a cost comparison of e-books to print books to help you find the best route for your budget and reading style.

What I did

In my comparison, I focused on 16 popular online sellers and six best-selling books.

For buying e-books, I choose Amazon’s Kindle store, Apple’s iBooks store, Barnes & Noble’s NOOK store, the Google Play Books store and the Kobo bookshop. For renting e-books, I looked into Overdrive, Project Gutenberg and Hoopla.

You can buy e-books at lots of other sites, of course, but when it comes to price, these are some of the best.

For print books, I checked out Amazon, AbeBooks.com, Barnes & Noble, Alibris, Better World Books, Thriftbooks and Book Depository. I also looked into my local library’s selection.

Then, for each seller, I researched the cost of six books: “Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, “Educated: A Memoirby Tara Westover, “Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, “The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur, “Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury and “Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.

Besides covering a range of genres, each book ranks on either the New York Times Best Sellers list or on the Amazon Best Sellers list.

What I Discovered

A woman reads an e-book on an Kindle
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

Before getting into the nitty-gritty cost analysis, let me announce that the award for lowest prices goes to… both!

In general, neither e-books nor print books are cheaper than the other. Of the six books I compared, e-books won the award for the lowest price three times, while print books won three times also. I have to admit, I was pretty surprised.

E-Books Have Price Consistency

Here’s where things get interesting. E-book prices are more stable than print books. Prices in the e-book market are highly competitive, since e-books sold by Kindle, for example, aren’t typically compatible with, say, NOOK devices (although some sources say it’s possible).

So, all five e-book sellers sold “Ready Player One” for $9.99, “Educated: A Memoir” for $12.99, “Little Fires Everywhere” for $13.99 and Fahrenheit 451 for $11.99.

Print Book Prices Vary

Print-books prices are far more erratic. None of the print-book sellers that I consulted matched prices on a single title. And the difference in costs fluctuated by as much $5 in some cases.

But of the three titles that print books won, the prices were significantly cheaper than their digital counterparts. For example, “Little Fires Everywhere” cost $13.99 as an e-book and $7.96 (new with free shipping) as a print book from Book Depository.

E-Books Can Be Cheaper

This detail won’t shock you, but I think you’ll like it: E-book prices cut out shipping costs and the 8 percent extra it costs to publish a print book. These cuts give new releases their competitive prices across e-book sellers.

Take “Educated: A Memoir,” for example. It ran $12.99 for the e-book but doubled, in the most extreme case, for the new print book.

The same applies to books in the public domain. While old print books cost at least 1 cent plus shipping for a used copy, e-book retailers can offer the same book for free.

For “Frankenstein,” several e-book sellers listed free versions, while the cheapest secondhand edition I found cost $3.98 with free shipping.

Beware Extra Print Book Costs

Used print-book prices can be deceiving (online at least). At first, they may seem significantly cheaper than both new print books and e-books. But tack on shipping costs, and used books can cost as much or more than their new counterparts.

This isn’t always true, though, so don’t rule out used books altogether. Just be careful.

Don’t Forget Your Library

Libraries are overlooked too often nowadays. Yes, they are limited in their selection of newest titles or they have long waiting lists, but you’d be surprised at what gems are available.

But I’m not talking about going to the actual library building. Chances are, your local library system offers resources like Hoopla, Project Gutenberg and Overdrive. Using Hoopla, which requires only your library card, you can rent “The Sun and Her Flowers,” for example, for free for 21 days.

So if you don’t have a library card already, get one!

I didn’t forget…

A woman holds a stack of books and a Kindle
Chris Zuppa/The Penny Hoarder

You’re probably wondering why I didn’t mention bargain sites and thrift stores, but here’s the thing: Their offerings and prices vary too much to pin down.

Instead, I’m going to suggest that if you choose the e-book route, you check out gold mines like the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library, Prime Reading, BookBub or the Bargain Bin at Better World Books.

Wherever you choose to get your books, scour the site, the app or the store for bargain sections.

Disclaimer: Like thrift stores, these online discount sections take some time and sweat to search through. The rewards are totally worth it, though. I promise.

Here’s the Bottom Line

Because the results are tied, I can’t say flat out that print books are cheaper than e-books, or vice versa. But what you can do is determine which route suits your reading preferences best.

If you read only the newest or oldest books on the market, e-books are the best deal for you. Since recent releases aren’t up for secondhand purchase right away, the competitive pricing of e-books will save your day. And those really old books in the public domain will do the same.

If you’re looking for anything in between, print books are the way to go. Whether online or in-store, you can find incredible deals on secondhand and discount books. E-books are more convenient, but with a little effort, print books can make your wallet smile.

If you’re an all-around bookworm who enjoys old, new and in-between books, use both methods. Invest in an e-reader or e-reader apps and start enjoying the best of both worlds (and deals).

The choice is yours. Which route will you take?

Sarah Dunlap is a freelance copy editor and all-around bookworm who is learning to love e-books as much as print books. When she’s not reading, she’s probably editing something in her favorite coffee shop or rewatching an episode of “Twin Peaks.”

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