Reading Hacks: How I Read 40% More Books in 2017

As I was reflecting on the past year, I noticed something different about my reading consumption. According to Goodreads, I read 33 books in 2017—a difference of about 40% over the 23 books I read in 2016.

While 33 books is not an especially high number for avid readers, for me (a technical writer who is also a father who also spends most of his limited spare time on creative writing) those 10 extra books represent a non-trivial increase. So I got to wondering: what did I do differently?

Below is a summary of my experience, followed by some analysis and disclaimers. Spoilers: 1. I used multiple book formats, including a lot more audio. 2. Though my overall book count was higher, the average page count per book was lower. 3. I built up some habits focused on quality reading time (which included TV and social media fasting), and in the end these habits were far more effective than aiming for a specific number.

Books-I-Read-In-2017
A randomized collage of the books I read in 2017.

1. Multiple formats.
Reading and listening across formats (e-books, print books, and audiobooks) is one of the biggest reasons I finished more books. If possible, I got a book in all three formats so that I could access it just about anywhere.

For example, I would read a digital or physical version of a book on the metro, and then switch to listening to it after reaching my car in the parking lot. I also made myself listen more while exercising and doing chores (rather than always listening to music, lectures, sermons, or podcasts). I would usually pick up where I left off that night using a physical copy or ebook.

Listening to a book while doing other things certainly has limits. Personally, I find that I listen best while doing tedious tasks. If a task starts to fracture my attention because it’s relatively complex (for example, cooking dinner), and I find myself rewinding to catch what I missed, I save the listening for later. Just don’t be duped into thinking that listening to a book is “cheating” somehow. There’s good evidence to show that it’s not.

Doesn’t this multi-format approach cost more money, though? No. That’s what my other hacks are about.

2. Bookbub.com.
Bookbub.com is a website that lets you follow specific authors, book titles, and genres, and then receive deal alerts when ebooks within those categories go on sale (usually anywhere from $0.99 to $3.99). With this service, I purchased over a dozen ebooks at an extremely low price and had at least one of my three book formats locked in.

The downside, naturally, is that whenever you see an ebook deal—especially for a book that’s rather pricey, or that you’ve had trouble borrowing or finding at the library—you’re tempted to buy it even if your stack of books is already high, and you know you don’t have time to read it. I now have so many ebooks in my queue that I’ve had to take a break from Bookbub while I play catch up.

Moreover, an over-reliance on Bookbub will incline you to develop a preference for ebooks, when I think there’s a case to be made for preferring print copies, or at least striving for a balance in the formats you use. One of the most compelling, research-backed arguments for this is that people who read physical books tend to comprehend the material more effectively than those who read the same material on a screen.

Nevertheless, I highly recommend Bookbub as a way to get personalized alerts about ebook deals. At the very least, it’s a great way to save money, and the functionality is useful and intuitive.

3. Following Bookbub sales to audiobook sales.
Whenever I was alerted to an ebook sale on Bookbub, I followed the link to Amazon and usually found the audio version on sale as well. For example, over the summer I received notice that Dan Simmons’ Hyperion was available for $2.99. Clicking through to Amazon, I saw that if I purchased the ebook, I could add the audiobook at a discounted price of $7.49. (Typically the audiobook runs for $25-30!) So I ended up getting two formats for almost as much as what the ebook would cost at regular price.

But as you can imagine, even with incredible sales, buying digital / audiobook combinations can add up quickly. Bookbub sends out weekly alerts (or daily, depending on your preferences), and even if you limit yourself to spending $10 a week on a digital-audio combo, that’s $40/month on Bookbub-related sales alone—a high number for tightwads like me who also like to have a budget for books that aren’t available on Bookbub yet. Besides, investing in multiple formats can seem excessive when you’re interested in short book of 100-200 pages. Which leads to my next pointer.

4. Overdrive.com.
Overdrive.com is a free online service and smartphone app that lets you borrow digital and audiobooks from your local libraries. It’s easy-to-use and well-integrated with Amazon. The only drawback is the limited selection. Your library’s digital collection is much more likely to contain bestsellers, classics, and critically acclaimed titles than more obscure ones that happen to pique your interest. You’ll have no trouble finding copies of George RR Martin’s A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms. You’ll have much less success finding every installment in a fantasy fiction series like Roger Zelazny’s The Chronicles of Amber, or a non-fiction historical work like The Crusades by Thomas Asbridge.

Here are some tips I have for becoming an Overdrive power user:

  • Connect multiple libraries to the service, since (obviously) not every library has the same collections. Yes, this will require you to sign up for cards at more than one library; but it’s a good idea to do that anyways, and if a book isn’t available through one library, you can always check another.
  • If a book is not available at any of the libraries you’ve connected, put a hold on it at every one of those libraries. You might speed through the queue faster in one library than in another. Or you might not finish the book in your allotted time at one library, in which case having borrowed a second copy from another library is a good backup.
  • Look up your next books on Overdrive as you’re nearing the end of what you’re currently reading, as you may need to wait a bit until either a digital or audio copy is available.
  • If there’s a book you want to borrow but the library doesn’t have it yet, you can use the app to recommend it. Just don’t expect instant results.

Analysis
As I mentioned in passing above, while the number of books I read in 2017 was higher than in 2016, the average number of pages I read in 2017 was only marginally higher. In 2017, I read a total of 11,313 pages (an average of ~340 pages per book). In 2016, I read a total of 9,988 pages (an average of ~434 pages per book). So part of the reason I read more books is that I read shorter books. This doesn’t surprise me too much. My interests are relatively diverse—ranging from fantasy and sci-fi to history, classics, and theology—and so the lengths of my books tend to vary widely, from just over 100 pages to upwards of 1,000 pages.

Obviously reading habits also play into it. I started the year off with two set reading times: on my commute to and from work, and at night before going to sleep. I have little time to read outside of those routines because, well, life. But by incorporating more audiobooks into my routines, I was able to sneak in more reading time. At some point this did lead to an unfortunate trade-off, namely, less time for podcasts, lectures, and sermons. I do miss those things, but when it comes to deeper forms of learning, reflection, and entertainment, I find books to be superior.

I also used less social media. I wouldn’t say this is because social media was weakening my delight in reading, but rather that I became increasingly convinced of its negative effects. So I implemented a simple rule: only check Facebook every other day. Once I got into that practice, it became easier to move away from social media in general.

Watching less TV helped, too. This was made simpler by the fact that I only have on-demand services, Netflix and Amazon Prime, and there’s only a small portion of these services which attract me anyways. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old. At any rate, for the year ahead, my plan is to watch even less. (My wife and I considered getting rid of our TV altogether, but I like my virtual fireplaces.)

As Bob on Books rightly points out, it’s better to set goals for reading time than reading quantity. Because the point isn’t to say you’ve read something (though there’s plenty of satisfaction in that), the point is that books are awesome and special, and it’s worth forming habits that favor reading over competing alternatives.

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