How to Minimize and Get Maximum Value from a Book Collection

My wife and I are both lifelong reading addicts. We have shelves and boxes full of books around our home, even after several “purges” of our collection, and we could easily pare it down quite a bit more if needed in order to free up space.

If you’re a book lover, the first thing you’re probably thinking to yourself is how on earth we were able to convince ourselves to downsize our book collection without serious heartache. A good book can be like an old friend, containing thoughts and ideas and memories that can feel almost as real as anything we experience. How can a person just get rid of that? And why would a person do that?

Well, the reasons why are obvious. A large book collection takes up space, which necessitates more living space to house it, which costs money. A large book collection also represents a sunk cost, meaning it cost money to acquire the collection and it also represents at least some value sitting there. And, let’s be honest, most of that book collection is just “sitting there.” You’re not actively reading the books and many of them really aren’t being used for decoration (unless you happen to live in a home with an entire wall that’s a bookshelf that basically turns it into decor).

I’ve minimized my book collection several times (many people like to give me books as gifts and I do have an occasional weakness for new ones, so it eventually re-inflates a little). Here’s the strategy I use for paring things down, along with some of the techniques I use for getting value out of the books I get rid of.

Four Key Questions

I pare down my collection by going through each book that I own and asking myself these four questions as honestly as I can.

Will I read this book again in the next year or two? If the answer is no, I get rid of it. The strong likelihood is that if I’m not going to re-read this book or even look at this book in the next year or two, then it deserves to be in the hands of someone who will read it in the next year or two. This ends up eliminating a lot of my collection.

Is this book rare enough that I won’t be able to easily get it from the library (or another legal, free source)? Even if it’s a book that I might re-read soon, if I can get it from the library with ease, I’ll get rid of it. This ends up eliminating a lot more of my collection.

Do I use it for regular reference? If the answer is yes, then I keep it around. This includes some of my favorite cookbooks, cooking references, tabletop gaming books, and books like Your Money or Your Life that I refer to in my professional work. This usually keeps some books in my collection that would have been discarded by the previous questions.

Is there a very clear and very exceptional sentimental reason to keep it? I have a few books that I want to keep for deep sentimental reasons that go beyond simply loving the experience of reading the book. I have books personally signed by authors. I have books that were given to me by loved ones and have these really wonderful personal notes on the inside cover. These books are kept for sentimental reasons, though I could downsize them at some point if it were really necessary.

Basically, I eliminate books I’ve already read and have no real reason to keep around for regular reference.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy

Quite often, book owners will fall into the “sunk cost fallacy” when it comes to their book collection. They’ll look at the MSRP of the books that they own, recognize that they probably won’t get that much value out of them (usually, they won’t get anything close to that), and use that as justification for keeping the books.

The reasoning is that if you have a book you bought for $10, selling it for $1 means that you’ve lost money on the deal, so it’s better to just hold onto the book. That’s a fallacy.

The truth is that once you’ve spent the $10 on the book, it’s gone. Books are not a financial investment (unless you’re talking about super-rare books that collectors might want). Books are items that you buy for personal enrichment and the item itself devalues significantly as soon as you pay money for it and walk out of the store with it. The initial amount you paid is already gone. You’re never getting it back. At best, you can recover a fraction of it.

Here’s the way I look at that sunk cost. I have a book on my shelf that I’ve already read. I have the possibility of selling it for $0.50 or $1 or something like that. If I saw this book for $0.50 or $1 at a used book sale, would I buy it given that I’ve already read it and given that I can probably get it from the library should I really want to read it again someday? The answer is almost always no. In that case, why am I keeping it on my shelf instead of having that $0.50 or $1 in my pocket that I would get from selling it?

You’ve already sunk that cost into the book. It’s not coming back. Instead, look at what gets you into the best position from where you’re at right now. That’s the best way to look at almost all of your non-investment possessions.

Getting Value Out of the Discarded Books

So, you’ve decided to get rid of a bunch of your books. Now what? How do you get value out of them?

Here are five things that I typically do with books when I’m clearing out my own book collection.

Have a book swap with friends. Many of my friends are voracious readers as well and we all accumulate books. Every once in a while, we’ll come together, each of us bringing a box of books, and do some one-for-one book swapping with no intention of ever getting the books back. At the end of the swap, all of us have a pile of new books to read, ones that our friends have usually read (so we can talk about these books with them).

Use Paperbackswap. This is essentially the same thing as a big book swap with friends, except it’s online, there are lots of friends, and it’s done via USPS Media Mail, meaning it costs a buck or two to do a swap. It’s also done asymmetrically, which means you trade a book for a “credit” and then you later use that “credit” for any of their listed books.

Have a yard sale with smart pricing. This is a great way to sell off a large bulk of books with minimal effort. Just put them all out on a table with a sign that says “$1 per book on Friday, $0.50 per book on Saturday, $0.25 per book on Sunday – first come, first served.” (You can adjust the prices a little if you wish.) You’d be surprised to find that most of the books sell on Friday or Saturday with a sale like that.

Use Craigslist or a community swap site. If you don’t have a full free weekend to have a book sale as with the above suggestion, you can do much the same on Craigslist. However, you’ll have to list all of the books individually and you may end up having to deliver (or having people stop by to pick up) many different bundles of books. If you do it this way, you may want to offer discounts to people who buy large bundles at once.

Use eBay for individual items with notable value. If you have specific books that are valuable on their own, like first editions or signed editions, you may be able to get a good price for such books on eBay or Amazon Marketplace. In general, this is a very inefficient way to sell individual used books, given the time involved and the costs of shipping and the relatively low bids most books will receive, but it’s a great avenue for individual books with high value.

Final Thoughts

I know quite well how challenging it can be for a book lover to pare down his or her book collection, but for me, the motivation to do so came from three places.

First, books sitting on my shelf unread could be enjoyed by others, including my friends. A book is meant to be read. It’s not meant to sit forever on a shelf.

Second, those books have value. Every book sitting on my shelf can get me at least a quarter, and some can get me quite a bit more than that, and I can put that money to work. Many can be traded for other books that I haven’t actually read.

Finally, shelves stuffed with books I probably won’t read again take up space in my home and require me to have more living space than I otherwise need. That means higher rent, higher insurance rates, and so on.

Add those together and it really does make sense to downsize, especially when considering the advantages of the local library.

If you’re a book lover, take a hard look at your collection and ask yourself why you’re holding onto many of the books. You might find a new motivation to clear out space, get some new books to read, and put a few dollars in your pocket.

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