The economics of reading: Travel-hacking the cheapest reading material

I was on vacation in Mexico last week.  On the way there and back we had somewhat long layovers in Dallas…. and what’s a good trip to the airport without a stroll through the bookstore to load up on reading materials? The things is I love books but am not crazy about bookstore prices. It seems I’m inspired to buy a book at exactly the most expensive moment. I can’t stand the idea of paying full price for a hard cover book, particularly when I could have prepared by checking out a book from the library or buying from Amazon.

For some reason or another — perhaps the same reason that I write this blog — I became consumed with identifying the cheapest reading materials. I delved into the world of media statistics to help to uncover whether newspapers, magazines, or books stretch your budget the farthest.

Approaching the problem

The first way I looked at the problem was by researching the average number of words and price of each type of media and computed the subsequent cost per 1000 words.  It turns out that a newspaper is by far the cheapest thing to read per word, whereas hardback books are the most expensive.  But who reads every single word in a newspaper? That would take 5 hours, assuming you read at 250 words per minute.

Pages Words per Page Avg. Price $ per 1000  words Minutes to Read
Hardback 308 400 $26.43 0.21 493
Magazine 47 800 $4.86 0.13 151
Paperback 300 350 $8.30 0.08 420
Newspaper 39 2000 $0.99 0.01 312

A more sensible approach

I estimated how long it would truly take to read each option.  The only data point I could verify was that magazines take 43 minutes to read on average, according to a trade organization. If you look at the problem this way, a paperback is the cheapest, followed closely by hardbacks and newspapers.  Magazines are still the outlier and expensive compared to the rest.

Minutes Price Cost per Minute
Magazine 43 $4.86 $0.11
Hardback 1,200 $26.43 0.02
Paperback 900 $8.30 0.01
Newspaper 30 $0.99 0.03

The takeaway

As I suspected, we’re throwing our money away by buying magazines at airport news stands.  They are a lot more fun to read but you’re paying for all those glossy pages and full color pictures.  If you’re taking a short flight, buy a couple newspapers; if you’ve got a longer flight, perhaps buy a paperback as well.

A business idea

I have a business idea (or non-profit) that would be a real value add for travelers.  Imagine there were airport kiosks where you could exchange books and magazines that you’re finished reading.  Say you’re coming off your flight, you could swing by and drop off your reading material.  Got a connection — trade out your book for new ones.  Showed up at the airport without anything to read?  Donate $1 to get something to read.  The kiosks could also offer bottled water at distinctly non-airport prices. The operation would be mostly supported by voluntary donations.  Hopefully the donations would be enough to cover rent and one employee.  What do you think?

5 thoughts on “The economics of reading: Travel-hacking the cheapest reading material”

  1. Chris,

    As always, great idea! I’ve spent way too much time at the airport over the last eight weeks, and way too much money as I’ve been pulled (willingly) toward the airport bookstore. If Portland can make the yellow bicycle available at little or no cost, then someone should be able to implement your clever idea for the benefit of frequent fliers…if they’re reading, please start with the dreadful airport in Oakland and, perhaps, put up a kiosk in Phoenix, as well!

    🙂 K.

  2. Wonderful idea! I love reading and everytime I travel – books are “must-bring” for me and most of the time I ended up purchasing books in some airport bookshop which are much more expensive indeed. I’m sure a lot of people will enjoy and benefit from your kiosks.

  3. Hi, i think its a brilliant idea but a little difficult to implement, i mean it will need some infrasturcture to make sure that the books are dfinitely being returned. I end up buying books from the airport bookstands as well though i can find cheaper options online but its usually a way to spend the idle time at the airport either before or between flights. Another idea would be to develop an e-kiosk where we can load up our Kindles or ipads with e-books for a nominal price, this way we end up saving a lot of paper. what do you think?

  4. Hi,
    I think the reason why things are expensive at the airport is because rents to have a stall at the airport are highly priced as well. I don’t think your plan would be economically viable.

    I’m also not sure about your price/word or minute as an implementation method. All things being equal, I’d prefer to have quality ideas / entertaining stories said in the most succinct and direct way possible.

    You could solve your problem by having a Kindle. You could download ebooks electronically @ Amazon prices anywhere.

  5. I actually think the rent an airport book is a great idea. I even wonder if there is a way you could set it up like a Redbox type system. Where you rent a book/magazine from one airport or location then return it at the next. If it is returned within a certain number of days its only $1 otherwise it costs more on your credit card. That way if people ‘Stole’ of forgot to return a book they buy it.

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