My One-Third Rule for buying books online

When you think about it, books are awesome. They are distilled, flattened, structured knowledge. Passing on and archiving knowledge is what makes us human. And for roughly 1500 years, books have been the primary way we’ve done both.

Bookshops, too, are awesome. You can go into a bookshop on a rainy day, sit down on a comfy seat, and thumb through words and pictures from the best minds in human history – or the funniest comedians – or the best cooks.

Incidentally, I still have no idea how long you can politely sit in a bookshop, reading all their stock, without buying anything. But I’ve done it quite a bit and never been moved on. I think most bricks-and-mortar bookshops realise that the ability for customers to come feel the weight of the books in their hands, smell the print on the page, and try out a shelf of books without the obligation to buy, is their single biggest advantage over online book retailers like Amazon and TheBookPeople.

For years, I was Amazon through-and-through.

My Amazon purchase history is littered with books I’ve bought from the big warehouse in the sky. My BA and MSc degrees were almost entirely fuelled on Amazon purchases, and every Christmas sees me pile more new acquisitions onto my coffee table – almost all of which were purchased, by friends and family, from Amazon.

And while I’ve been spending hundreds of pounds on Amazon books, high street bookshops have been closing down. Those warm, friendly places with the comfy chairs, arcane shelf organisation, and book-loving staff. All gone. And I realised it was partly my fault.

I could take or leave most high street shops. But there is something lovely about bookshops. And I wanted to do my bit to save them.

So earlier this year I made a promise to myself.

I promised to only buy a book from an online retailer if it was less than a third of the price it would be at a high-street retailer.

It’s a deliberately drastic cut-off point, which immediately rules out the majority of books on Amazon – or any other cheap online book retailer.

There aren’t many rules. Buying via the website of a high-street store is allowed, but you get extra warm fuzzy points if you actually go into the building. Click-and-collect is fair game.

Indeed, there’s a Waterstones branch a few minutes’ walk from me, and I actually quite like the walk into town. Partly because it saves the time and petrol of shipping books the last mile to my door, and partly because, more often than not, I’ve ended up chatting to the checkout staff about the books I’ve ordered, and which other books they’d recommend.

And despite this rule, I don’t think I spent noticeably more on books in 2014 than in previous years. Sure, each one might be a pound or two more than on Amazon, but if you ask me, it’s worth it to keep the bookshop experience in business.

I’m not stupid. I know bookshops will eventually disappear – or change into something completely unrecognisable. And yes, if I were going to be super virtuous, I should probably buy from little local independent bookshops, rather than a national chain owned by a Russian oligarch.

But for now, I like my One-Third Rule, and I thought I’d share it in case you do too.