The ROI of Reading

An essay about whether reading books is always worth it, alternatives of books and my experience with crappy literature.

The ROI of Reading

Reading is useful. Almost everyone agrees with this, albeit for different reasons. Some people have experienced first-hand the positive effects of books on their lives and others simply don't want to confront people who use sophisticated words.

However, thinking about the benefits of reading simply does not important enough for most people to talk about it.

But let's take a step back and think: is reading always beneficial?

If we put it in competition with other activities, are you sure that reading is always the most rewarding activity?

If you've ever needed to convince stakeholders in work or get a budget for a project, you've come across the acronym ROI. The acronym stands for Return on Investment.

The Meaning of ROI

Return on investment (ROI) is a measure used to evaluate the effectiveness of an investment or to compare the effectiveness of several different investment options. ROI attempts to directly measure the amount of return on a given investment relative to the cost of it.

We can talk about the ROI on index funds, paid advertising, second-hand cars, as well as the return on investment on our own activities. After all, there is a cost to reading, which requires our two most important resources: our time and our attention.

I know it sounds very nerdy to talk about the ROI of reading.

People interested in self-improvement, or thinking of starting a business, can find more and more 'enticing programmes' online that promise to change their lives. These clubs, mastermind groups, and super-intuitive training gurus all have one poisonous thing in common: the unrealistically high promise of a return on reading.

Reading does not always pay off.

I say this having read 40-50 books a year and want to inspire others to make similar commitments. I have always loved to read. Reading is not a habit for me that I have had to force upon myself. I read a lot and a wide variety of books, especially business, marketing and non-fiction books.

But even these books do not always have a positive return on investment.

When is it not worth reading?

Let's turn the question around: when is it worth reading?

Perhaps when the energy, attention, time, or money invested in an area of equal value to us (productivity, career, finances, relationships, mental health) yields better results than any other activity.

However, a book alone will not make you effective, rich, or a better person. This brings us to the first case reading does not worth it:

When you expect too much from reading

You can read about anything in non-fiction books that is of significant interest. Whatever problem you encounter in life, you can probably find a book about it in your nearest bookshop.

Demand meets supply.

But as occasional readers, we often feel like a small cog in a well-oiled machine. This is particularly true for self-improvement books. We have a problem, and in a book which was written about us, we think we have found the solution.

The problem-solving potential of books, however, is clouded by several things.

First, reading non-fiction books without action is worthless. You don't want to be that guy in a group who literally repeats Warren Buffet's investment tips and then invites himself in for another round.

It's also worth thinking about the guru-book template.

"I did something that worked for me and now I'm teaching you to do the same."

These templates don't work for every challenge because there are as many different kinds of people as there are solutions. It doesn't matter if a palm-catching American salesman wrote 300 pages on the money-making potential of cold calling if you're horrified by the thought of phone calls.

And the concrete tips will simply be worn out by the time the book is in print. The fever of getting rich through real estate investments will create bubbles and push gullible readers into debt (Rich Dad, Poor Dad...), while the market will get used to the templates and messages of huge impact (Expert Secrets...).

When reading is procrastination

Because the perception of reading is fundamentally positive, no one will scold you if you read a book or two before conquering your chosen peak. Knowledge is power.
Better to learn from other people's mistakes...

Reading is also the perfect alibi for procrastination.

"This year I will launch my long-planned webshop, but first I will read a book on the development of the Levantine trade route."

Why not do both at the same time?

When you come across low-quality books

Bookshop shelves have become (or perhaps always were) marketplaces.

The books on the top of the bestseller lists are the ones that sell best, not necessarily the best books.

Quality is relative anyway, while the number of books sold is concrete.

If you rely on similar lists and vanity metrics, you could easily end up with a book adaptation of the screenplay of a hit Netflix series, or a biography of the week's celebrity and the self-cursing paid ghostwriter of the week. Take your time!
You can buy both books at 80% off in two months anyway.

Not all books are worth reading.

If a book is boring, or simply doesn't rise to your level of interest, then abandon it. Think about your time and the better books in the line!

The benefits of reading: when it worth to be a bookworm

American diplomat Benjamin Franklin worked as a young man in his brother James' printing shop. In addition to gaining an overrated experience, the future inventor credits books with instilling a love of reading and feeding his all-encompassing curiosity. At the age of 17, he sold all his books and used the money to try his luck in New York.

Who was Benjamin Franklin? The story behind Virtues and Inventions
America’s greatest diplomat, inventor, author, and business strategist. A well-known fugire with a lesser-known story.

But you don't have to sell the contents of your bookshelf to turn reading into a worthwhile hobby. Reading, especially reading books, is still the most rewarding activity of all, in addition to the myriad of nuances.

The ROI of books is higher than any other medium.

If we look not at our own time, but at the time spent by others to produce a given set of information, then books beat all alternatives by a wide margin.

A 1000-2000 word opinion piece takes 2-3 hours to write. Even a longer article of 4,000-5,000 words, requiring detailed research, will take at most 15-20 hours of the author's time. For a short article, we are usually talking about a one-person product, whereas for longer content, an editor or a professional proofreader is more likely to be involved.

A book, however, is a completely different category.

It is not uncommon that hundreds of articles lead a writer to the subject of a book, which he or she then works on for months or even years. Involving experienced collaborators in the process is no longer an option for a book. The volume you hold in your hand is the work of an industry selection.

It's even greater to think of the years of hard work behind books that comprise complete life's work. Daniel Kahnemann's Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow is a summary of more than 30 years of research with Amos Tversky.

Reading doesn't always pay off.

We can pick up the wrong book, read one at the wrong time. We can project our own problems onto the book of our choice, and then blame it for the incomplete answer it provides.

But the book is still the most fulfilling activity and the most ROI-positive medium. Nowhere else do you get the experience of thirty years of two researchers for 10 hours of reading. Nowhere else can you put yourself in the shoes of an American president, a teenage sorcerer's apprentice, or even a medieval polymath.

Or that's how I see it.

What do you think about the ROI of reading?