How to buy books for a penny

how to find bargains at online bookshops

conrad_nostromo_2I’ve bought several books for a penny each in the last couple of weeks at Amazon. Yes – that’s one penny. And they were not tatty old paperbacks, but hardback reference works of 400 pages plus, in tip top condition, plus a couple of classic novels.

There are several factors that create this state of affairs:

  • new books drive down the value of old books
  • book sales are dropping in global terms
  • more people are buying eBooks
  • eCommerce is changing business practices

What type of books for a penny?

There are lots of junk books for a penny available – as you would expect. But there are just as many that have real intrinsic value in the hands of the right person:

  • dictionaries
  • reference books
  • classic novels
  • out of date text books
  • software and IT manuals

A copy of the classic reference book Whitaker’s Almanack for instance contains lots of valuable information, even if it’s a few years out of date.

You can bet that the capital city, the geography, and the principal imports and exports of Tasmania have not changed much in the last two or three years.

Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice hasn’t changed at all since it was first published nearly two hundred years ago. So you can safely buy a copy that happens to be fifty years old – especially if it’s a nice hardback edition, printed on good paper.

Say you were a student of mathematics. A textbook explaining algebra, geometry, or calculus can’t really be ‘out of date’ – because the rules and equations in maths are fixed as part of their very nature.

In the world of computer technology, developments are so rapid that both software and hardware are updated every few weeks. A guidance manual to a digital camera, an operating system, or a laptop computer has almost zero value after about twelve months. But it might be useful to you if it matches the age of your equipment.

Why do books for a penny exist?

Theese bargain books are available for two good reasons:

Reason one
The bookseller wants to get rid of books that aren’t selling and are taking up valuable storage space.

This makes room for books that are more popular and will make more money in terms of sales.

Reason two

The bookseller is getting valuable information in return for the sale – your name, postal address, email address, and your reading preferences.

The bookseller can make use of this information in any future marketing campaigns.

Hardback Vs paperback

Check the book descriptions carefully. You might find a hardback edition available for the same price as a paperback. Old paperbacks tend to disintegrate, and a hardback edition will be more durable, even if it is much older

A hardback might also have additional features – such as illustrations, photographs, and maps.

How to interpret descriptions

Here is a typical description from a bookseller’s advert – and on some sites you might get a photograph of the book as well.

Ex-Library Book. Has usual library markings and stamps inside. Has been read but remains in clean condition. All pages are intact and the cover is intact. The spine may show signs of wear. All orders are dispatched within 1 working day from our UK warehouse. Established in 2004, we are dedicated to recycling unwanted books on behalf of a number of UK charities who benefit from added revenue through the sale of their books plus huge savings in waste disposal. No quibble refund if not completely satisfied.

  • Ex-Library book – That’s OK: libraries often laminate their books, to make them more durable. The book might have tickets and coloured stamp markings inside.
  • Pages and cover inteact – Good. That means it’s in reasonable external condition.
  • Spine wear – That is perfectly normal on an old book.
  • Despatched within one day – Good! Order it in the morning: you might receive it next day.
  • Charity donation – You are helping a charity, and saving a book which would otherwise be pulped.
  • Money-back guarrantee – You can trust them to honour their promise – for reasons discussed below.

Can you trust the seller?

Almost all bookseller want to gain reputations for good service and prompt delivery. Amazon and AbeBooks have ratings systems in place. Customers can award good (or bad) marks to the online bookseller.

Believe me – these booksellers are very, very keen to keep their ratings as high as possible. They know that if they send you shoddy goods that are badly wrapped, they will lose credibility,


Of course, you’ve got to pay the postage for these books to be delivered to your front door. But with an average charge of £2.50 (or $4.00 – €3.00) ask yourself if it would cost you that much to travel to your nearest big bookshop.

You might have to wait two or three days (in the UK) for the book to arrive – but in some cases if you order early in the morning, it’s possible that the book could arrive next day.

However, some online booksellers have free delivery options.

Examples of books for a penny

I ran a test for our latest newsletter, and came up with the following examples. All were available for one penny.

These are the original book reviews on this site. Click through to Amazon, When you get there, be prepared to do a bit of clicking around.

books for a penny Roget’s Thesaurus [Reference – hardback]

books for a penny Portrait of a Marriage [Biography – hardback]

books for a penny Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable [Reference – hardback]

books for a penny iPhone UK The Missing Manual [Guidance manual – paperback]

books for a penny Style: ten lessons in clarity and grace [Style guide – paperback]

Online bookstores

books for a penny Amazon UK

books for a penny Oxfam

books for a penny Gumtree

books for a penny AbeBooks

books for a penny The Book Depository

books for a penny Books at eBay

© Roy Johnson 2013

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