Books are cheap

Jake Knapp
3 min readNov 23, 2018

My friend Stefan once said “Books are cheap” and I asked him what he meant. He said that even if you only get one idea or mental model from a book, it’s a great return on investment, and it’s pretty easy to get one idea from most books.

And I was like, huh. Yeah. I guess that’s true.

I thought about my own experience. I don’t like nonfiction books. That’s a weird thing to say, considering I’ve written a business book and a self-help book, but I don’t just totally love the genre. I’d much rather read fantasy or sci-fi, and usually I do.

But if I think back on the work-related books I’ve bought over the years, it’s been a pretty killer investment. Even though I didn’t read most of the books I bought! Like I said, I’m way more into fiction. And I’m lazy. Anyway…

I did some math on the business books I’ve read over the last ten years, just roughly making up most of the numbers. I probably bought 120 books over that span, costing roughly $2,400 (and 216 hours of reading time, figuring I read 10% cover-to-cover, skimmed 60%, and didn’t read 30% of the books I bought which is sad but true).

$2,400 is a lot of money. However, I got a lot of really valuable ideas and skills from those books.

Here’s one example: Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. I bought and read the book in 2007 (okay I know that’s more than 10 years ago whatever). Made to Stick made me at least 20% better at telling stories, maybe more. Turns out storytelling was everywhere in my career for the last ten years! I used ideas from that book in hundreds of presentations and most things I write. (Not counting this post which I just wrote super fast—don’t judge Made to Stick by my hack job!)

It’s impossible to quantify exactly what that skill was worth to me. But it is definitely safe to say, really extremely super conservatively, that over ten years it was worth enough to pay for all the other books.

That’s good, because to tell the truth, most of the books weren’t worth anything. But a few were really really valuable.

Those nonfiction business-y books were like really tiny, low-risk, high-reward investments. Before I bought the books, I couldn’t tell the valuable ones from the worthless ones. Sometimes I didn’t even know after I read them… it might take a few years for the value of a concept to really emerge. But wow, those valuable ones, like Made to Stick, were SUPER valuable. And there was a risk they would be worthless, sure… but at most I only lost $20 + 1 hour (I never bother reading a book cover-to-cover if I’m not way into it, and neither should you).

It’s funny because it often feels like I don’t have time or energy for books because I read so much online. There are soooo many posts (like this one) and they’re free and really easy to access, so they can displace books. But how often do I learn a game-changing concept from a post? Pretty much never. I’m so much more likely to get something good from a book.

When you buy a book, you get a condensed and synthesized download of somebody’s brain. For about $20. Sure, it might turn out to be a brain you don’t need, but if it is—wow! What a bargain!

Okay I’m pretty done with writing this post but I have a few more quick things to say in summary, etc:

  1. Books are cheap.
  2. Especially if you consider how much time and work goes into making them! Jeez!
  3. Free stuff on the web (like this) seems like a good deal, but if it displaces reading books (it totally does) it’s actually expensive because your time is limited.
  4. If you buy a book and it isn’t interesting to you, don’t give yourself a hard time about it. It’s just a low-cost high-risk investment that didn’t pan out. Give it away or sell it and move on… but keep buying books.
  5. By the way I am financially invested in you buying books so you shouldn’t trust me! Hahahaha!




Jake Knapp

Writer, designer, person. Author of SPRINT and MAKE TIME. Co-founder of More at