What to do if you can’t afford to buy books…

Authors of all stripes will receive occasional messages from readers who ask for free copies of our books because they can’t afford them. While we can often sympathize, the truth is, writing is what pays our bills and what lets us keep writing. So today, I thought I’d share a few ways you might be able still read our books even if you’re a little short on cash…

For the first few years of our marriage, my husband and I lived on a combined income of approximately 15K/year (including our earned income tax credit). We did this, after the first year, while raising a child. Food was expensive. Rent was horrible. I was a coupon-clipping queen. (And still am, thank you very much, because they are magical slips of paper that save me hundreds of dollars per year.) And during this time, I read. A lot. One, because I was also a university student and I kinda had to for class (any humanities major requires an inhuman amount of reading). And two, because like you, I’m just a natural-born reader.
As you can imagine, I wasn’t running out to my local Borders every time one of my favorite authors dropped a new title to buy a $24.99 hardcover.$24.99 could buy two boxes of diapers (three if I had a good coupon.) But in a time before ebooks were a thing and I considered extra lean ground a luxury good, I still managed to tick a lot of titles of my TBR.
I totally get being at a place in life where affording books is difficult, but for those of you in this situation, I wanted to give you a few tips on how you can still read your favorite authors (hopefully I’m one) and not break the bank.
But first, let’s start off with the #1 thing NOT to do:


Yeah, just NO. You don’t have to be super tech-savvy to go out and find illegal books. They’re there in multitudes, almost any book and any author you’d ever want to read. But here’s a few pointers on why pirating books is bad:

  • The obvious: it’s illegal. I know, so is jaywalking and it’s not like anyone ever gets in trouble for pirating books. (Though actually, they sometimes do.)
  • On top of being illegal, it’s also UNETHICAL, because it’s STEALING. I mean, stealing is such a moral no-no it made the list of Top 10 Commandments. Seriously, do you want bad karma points for book snatching? You’ll come back as a sea cucumber or a reality show contestant or something.
  • It IMPAIRS an author’s ability to make a living. I know, Neil Gaiman says he’s cool with pirates stealing his books. I mean, not cool, but he sees the upside to it. But 99% of authors aren’t Neil Gaiman. Most of us don’t even earn enough selling tens of thousands of books a year to make a living off it, or just break even.
  • Sometimes pirates embed viruses in ebooks. Just like real life, immoral living carries a risk of disease. 
  • I’m pretty sure it destroys your sex life. I’m still collecting evidence to support this one, but I’m confident in my conclusion.

Now that’s out of the way, let me share the plenty of ways to get books for little or no cost. Here’s just a few:

  • Public libraries! If you’re fortunate enough to live in a country with these sacred temples, worship at them. Looking for a NYT Best Seller? Your library system probably has a few copies. Looking for an Indie title and pretty sure your library wouldn’t carry it? Well, that’s probably true, but it could still be possible. See, libraries are magical, and they have all kinds of ways to make things appear, it just requires a little extra effort and patience:
  • ILL or InterLIbrary Loan: Even if your library doesn’t carry a title, another system near you might. Check with your librarian to see if the title can be ordered via ILL. Basically, it lets different library systems, and by extension, their patrons, borrow from each other’s collections. Yes, it may take a few weeks for the book to arrive to your branch, but it’s worth it. I use this several times a year when looking for obscure nonfiction titles where the ebook is available for purchase but for what I consider an insane amount. 
  • Suggest your library stock a particular book or indie author. Public libraries are public entities, funded mostly by taxes. If patrons request something, they might just go out and get it. (Bonus if you can coordinate a few book buddies in your area to make the same request.) Not all indie titles are available for library purchasing, but many are. (Libraries also stock ebooks and audiobooks these days too!) Ask your librarian how to recommend a purchase.
  • Ask an author to donate a copy to your library system. This will depend upon an author’s ability to eat the price of a sale, and you should respect if one says they can’t afford to, but the worst thing you’ll hear if you ask is no.
  • Read a lot? Then review a lot! One thing indies need as much as book sales, especially in the beginning, are honest reviews on prominent sites. If you review fairly and consistently, you build up a certain level of clout that may make a potential review from you more valuable to an author than selling one more copy. Note: I’m not suggesting a quid pro quo here. Any author who offers you a review copy of a book in exchange for a POSITIVE review is doing it wrong. Your review should always be honest but respectful. (It’s okay to say negative things about books, just don’t be a dick while doing it.)
  • Ask to join an author’s ARC team. ARC means Advanced Reader Copy, and almost every author, particularly indies, has a team. Members receive a pre-publication copy of the book (it may still have some typos) with the agreement that they will post a review upon release and/or offer the author feedback on any minor changes that should be considered. 
  • If you read paperbacks, you can usually find used copies cheaper through sites like eBay and Amazon. Just be careful not to buy from the 3rd party services that list books for more than the actual list price. I recently found a used copy of one of my early books, A Love by Any Measure, listed on eBay for $3.93. That’s less than the ebook! Yes, an author earns nothing on these sales, but we did the first time the book was bought, so it’s cool.
  • You can borrow ebooks on Amazon from someone who’s already bought it. Yeah, did you know? If an author has made a book eligible for the program, Amazon allows anyone who’s bought it to lend it out to another reader free of charge one time for 14 days. More details on how that works here. Don’t have a bookworm friend who owns the book? Try Lendle. It lets people with books and looking for books find each other.
  • Keep an eye open for author promotions and sales. There are several ways to do this, including following an author on Facebook, Twitter, and/or subscribing to their mail list. But the best way to know when a title is discounted (sometimes even free) in the markets where you shop is to follow an author on Bookbub. Bookbub monitors the price changes and notifies readers if one of their followed author’s titles goes on sale. [You can, incidentally, go here to follow ME on Bookbub.] Sometimes “on sale” means free. Bookbub also offers daily lists of promoted titles in the genres you like to read via an email newsletter subscription. This is a great way to discover new authors as well with minimum risk. Are you an audiobook listener? Bookbub recently created a new service similar to its ebook newsletter but specifically for audio called Chirp
  • If you read a lot of books and you’re willing to exchange savings for selection, subscribe to a service like Kindle Unlimited or Scribd. For a monthly subscription fee (currently, KU is $9.99 and Scribd is $8.99), you can read an unlimited number of titles. With (and this is a huge caveat) the limitation that you can only read what’s included in each program’s library. Scribd also includes some audiobooks. An Audible subscription can also save you money on the cover price of audio, but even the top tier will only get you three audiobooks a month, so that’s a consideration to make if you decide to sign up.

Well, that’s just a few things I know. Know of anything I didn’t say? Let me know. Thanks!