I love reading books.
Yet I finish most of my days with the regret I was not able to carve out enough time for reading. Between blogs, podcasts, chatting with friends, nowadays I’m getting so many recommendations for nonfiction books that my Kindle library grows way faster than what I can read.
I have another problem. Business books usually fall into three categories:
- Great ones: full of interesting ideas and enjoyable to read (like The Unicorn Project or Lost and founder)
- Boring ones: a lot of good ideas written in an extremely boring way
- Bad ones: few ideas lost in a plethora of useless and boring pages
I love books in the first category and they are usually the ones I review here in my blog. Unluckily, I hate the others.
I usually take me forever to get to the end of boring nonfiction books.
I give up within the first couple of chapters when I read a bad one. And that sucks because sometimes they still have some interesting concept I’d like to absorb.
That’s why other the weekend I came up with a new strategy: reading the entire book when it’s great. Fallback to book summaries for categories n. 2 and n. 3.
So I’ve spent the last couple of days testing out the 4 best book summary apps to see which one is worth subscribing to. And now I’ve decided to share my findings with you to save you some time should you be facing the same question.
The book summaries apps and websites I’ve tested are:
But before I declare the best book summary app in 2021…
Is it worth reading a book summary?
Yes and no.
But before we dive deeper, a quick premise. I’m considering only nonfiction books. It would be crazy to read the summary of a novel in my opinion. This also seems to be a consolidated trend in the industry. All the book summary apps I’ve reviewed focus on nonfiction books.
Now back to your question.
If I had enough time I’d probably avoid reading book summaries… it feels a bit like cheating.
But I have to admit it’s an effective way to learn the key concepts of an entire book, usually in less than 30 minutes. The big question mark is… will they stick?
The value-added of reading a full book is that you usually get a lot of examples, and repetition of the key concepts. This is useful to make it stick and to convince yourself it’s a good idea you should put into practice.
Reading the summary you get to the core concepts immediately but you lose a lot of contexts. It feels like eating meal replacement powders: you likely get all the nutrients. But you lose all the taste.
This problem can be big or small depending on the kind of book you’re reading.
If it’s a book about “HR best practices”, it’s likely fine to read the key ideas in 30 minutes.
If you’re reading personal development books or self-improvement books … well, my personal take here is that the key ideas are almost the same on all of these books. And you probably already know them. You’re lacking the motivation to implement them.
In this scenario, reading the original book could be better. The way the author communicates the message. The motivation examples he uses to reinforce it are what really matter and they’re likely gonna be missing in the summaries.
So, if you are the kind of person that could benefit from nonfiction book summaries, let’s find out what’s the best app for you.
My criteria to pick the best book summary apps in 2021
Before I started the free trial of all these book summary apps, I’ve defined some personal criteria to pick which one I would subscribe to and which will be canceled.
I defined four main categories to rank the apps:
- Book catalog: How many book summaries do they have? Do they have the books I want to read? This is a big one and a deal-breaker for me.
- Summary quality: Another critical factor. Is the summary good? Did they capture the core ideas? Is the quality consistent across multiple books?
- Original content: Do they also have their own original content on top of book summaries? Are they any good?
- Features: do they have a mobile app? Is the website or app easy to use? Do they have any interesting unique features?
As you can see I’ve not added price as a relevant category. That’s because, no matter what’s the cost, if I’ll read summaries in a consistent way, I’ll save a lot of money compared to buying each individual book.
I actually added the last two categories after I started testing the various apps. Seems like all of them are moving beyond just book summaries and are starting to produce their own original content. Often curated summaries of multiple books on a specific topic.
On the features side, most of them nowadays also do audio summaries of most books (but machine generated audio). I also find the usability of the app a very important factor given I’ll be using it every day.
Finally if you’re curious to know how I tested the catalog section, here’s the list of 12 books I’ve been looking for:
- Why we sleep
- Atomic Habits
- No Rules Rule
- The subtle art of not giving a f**k
- AI Superpowers
- Lost and Founder
- The revenue marketing book
- The unicorn project
- How to lie with statistics
- Traffic secrets
- The making of a manager
Ok, time to start reading some book summaries and pick a winner!
Blinkist is probably the most known summary app in the market and the one that really started this industry. It’s reasonably priced, starting at $14.99 per month or $89.99 per year and it works like a charm.
They divide book summaries into what they call blinks. It’s usually a good mapping to the book chapters or main ideas. Each Blink usually takes no more than 5 minutes to read (or listen). At the end of the book summary, there is always a final part that recaps all the core ideas of the book.
Being the oldest book summary service the quality and catalog are usually very good.
Catalog – Vote 8
In Blinkist I was able to find 8 out of the 12 titles I used for the test. Good but not crazy good. I was actually expecting something better from their 4,500+ book summaries catalog.
Clearly, they’re focusing more and more on their original productions. If a title is a bestseller, it’s 99% sure you’ll find it in Blinkist. When you look for more niche books, there’s a 50-50 chance of not finding them.
Quality – Vote 7
The good thing about Blinkist is their consistency. You can expect all the book summaries to have quite good quality. They summarize a lot. Sometimes I would have preferred some more info on specific details.
The average summary takes 15 minutes to read. I would have preferred to go up to 30 minutes and get more details.
Still, they did a pretty good job in identifying all the core concepts of each book and expressing it in a very compelling way.
Original Content – Vote 7
Most of their original content is in form of Shortcasts. You can think of them as mini podcasts where every episode is usually 10 minutes long. There’s also a written summary for each episode.
They are of good quality and with a good selection of authors. However, I’m not a super fan of the audio format so I ended up not consuming them a lot.
Features – Vote 7
Blinkist has a very good offer. You can read on a desktop through a browser, on mobile, and on tablets.
The quality is very good with very high readability of the book summaries.
The thing I didn’t like was the inconsistency of the user experience across devices.
I LOVE the fact that you can highlight text and save it for later. Going back through my highlights of a book is something I do often. Yet I was not able to understand how to do it on my iPad. And the sync between browser and iPad is odd.
On the browser, the main dashboard is focused on the books you’re reading. On iPad on the discovery of new contents. Overall their book summary app is good but not yet great.
One very nice feature that is worth mentioning is the capability to sync your highlights with Evernote and book summaries with Kindle to read them other there and keep under the same umbrella summaries and full books.
Shortform is relatively new to the game, as far as I know, still they have a decent catalog. Pricing is surprisingly higher than Blinkist even if the catalog is way smaller.
They charge $24 per month or $197 for the annual subscription. They offer a 5 days free trial where you can explore all the catalog for free.
Catalog – Vote 6
The catalog is a bit disappointing here as you can expect from a newcomer in the market. They claim 1000+ book summaries and as you can guess most of them are bestsellers.
I was able to find only 5 of the 12 books used for the tests. I was hoping for something more, to be honest. Most of the marketing books were missing and even in the bestsellers, there were some gaps.
The upside is that they seem to be adding new titles at a good pace.
Quality – Vote 7.5
Even tho’ I’ve spotted some inconsistencies here and there, I liked the overall quality of each book summary and the structure.
They a generous 1-page summary to get started with. It’s comparable to the Blinkist summary and often good enough to stop there.
But if you want to go more in-depth they also offer a more detailed summary chapter by chapter. When it makes sense they also have exercises at the end of some chapters.
ShortForm has the best book summaries of the apps reviewed here. Good job!
Original Content – Vote 5
They don’t offer original content but they feature summaries of top articles from the US press. The selection is still fairly limited with around 500 articles in the catalog. Nothing to go crazy for.
There’s an audio version for all the summaries but it’s not human narrated, it’s actually an AI voice which I would not listen to for 30 minutes.
Features – Vote 7
Good web and mobile version so avid readers will enjoy their summaries everywhere.
The experience is consistent across devices and there’s full support for highlighting text or adding notes which, unlike Blinkist, works very well also on mobile.
A nice touch is the support for dark mode in the reader to enjoy your summaries also at night.
The mobile app could be faster. It feels like the web version embedded in a mobile app but I might be wrong.
A big one for Shortform is the possibility to download a book summary as a PDF. Way more flexible than the Kindle integration found in Blinkist.
Overall it’s a good book summary app from a software standpoint.
GetAbstract has a very unique approach. They’ve been in the book summary apps space forever with a strong focus on enterprise offerings.
Looking at their website it’s clear that their main focus is selling to companies to give multiuser access to their employees. Still, they also have subscription plans for private users with a $29.90 per month price tag. It goes up to $290 for yearly subscriptions.
Oddly enough if you connect from Europe there’s also a cheaper plan which gives you access to a more limited catalog.
Their approach is different from all the other players. While everyone is playing in a grey area from a copyright standpoint, GetAbstract acquires the rights from the publisher before writing a book summary.
Catalog – Vote 4
Even tho’ they have the largest catalog with 20,000+ book summaries, they also have the worst catalog.
Since they try to acquire rights to summarize books, you’ll find a lot of niche books but very few best sellers. I found none of the 12 books I was looking for which is shocking.
For some of them, a review was available. For others, they said they had selected the book as interesting and were trying to secure rights. For many nothing could be found.
Clearly, the focus of this book summary service is different from the others. If you’re looking for random books to read or some very niche stuff it could be a fit. Otherwise, I’d stay away.
Quality – Vote 6
Given their unique approach, I was expecting really high-quality summaries. I was disappointed.
Don’t get me wrong they are good. But not mind-blowing. They are also quite short, in a way comparable to Blinkist. Audio summaries are available for most books and are usually 8-12 minutes long.
Unique Content – Vote 0
They don’t seem to have any unique content added to their offer. It’s not a big issue for me as I’m mainly looking for book summaries.
My take here is that other players recognize there’s a copyright threat to their core offer. So they started differentiating with more and more unique content. GetAbstract secure legal rights before writing a review so they didn’t feel the need to diversify their offer.
Features – Vote 6
Everything works smoothly both on the website and the mobile app.
They support highlighting and they have the concept of channels where you can create (or consume) curated collections of books.
I don’t like the reading experience on browsers. A lot of distracting elements in the interface and small fonts make them look more like regular blog posts than the interface of an ebook reader. On the iPad app the experience is way better.
On the bright side, you can download a PDF version of all their summaries. Overall it’s not among my favorite book summary apps.
Another consolidated player in the book summary apps space. Instaread‘s unique take on book summary apps is to produce a lot of high-quality unique content on top of summaries.
Pricing is relatively cheap, they start at $8.99 per month or $89 if you go yearly. They also have a nice lifetime deal where you can get unlimited access forever at $299. Not bad at all if you are planning to read book summaries as a life habit.
The free trial lasts 7 days.
Catalog – Vote 5.5
Instaread has 1,000+ book summaries like Shortform but in my selection of 12 books, I was able to find only 4 of them, the big hits. All the more niche books I was looking for, were not available.
This may also be due to the fact that within the 1,000 plus books, they also list a lot of fiction.
Quality – Vote 6
When it comes to the quality of the content… it’s ok but not my favorite one. It’s basically a collection of chapter summaries with the key takeaways of each chapter.
Everything is very condensed and schematic with a bullet-point approach. I don’t love it but that’s a matter of personal taste. I have to admit it’s well done.
I missed the one-pager introduction that ShortForm has.
An audio version is available for every book. Like the other apps, it’s not human read, but it’s a generated voice.
Unique Content – Vote 8
Instaread clearly bets heavily on original content.
First of all (even tho’ it’s not unique), they have a large collection of article summaries from top publishers they’ve partnered with. This includes articles from The New York Times, Harvard Business Reviews, and many others.
On top of this, they have a lot of Instaread Originals. Short-form books on almost any subject. A strong area of attention seems to be biographies. They cover anyone from Kamala Harris to Jack Dorsey. They are usually well done and insightful. Reading time for their originals averages on the 15 minutes mark.
Features – 6
They support both web and mobile with a pretty good app.
The reading experience is ok even tho’ moving from one chapter summary to the next could be better.
A unique feature of the mobile app is the Cards section, where you can read through cards, each containing a key takeaway from the book.
It’s not possible to save highlights from the summaries… this, for me, is a real deal-breaker.
Other Book Summary Websites
All of these websites offer their own take in the book summary space. I don’t think it’s worth mentioning them in this comparison because of their catalog size.
It’s gonna be interesting to revisit them in a year (yes, I promise I’ll keep this updated at least yearly) and see which one increased its catalog the most to become more appealing.
What’s gonna happen to the book summaries space?
My personal take is that this space is too crowded with very little differentiation between players.
Adding more books, of course, is the best way to get more customers. On the other side once all the best-sellers are covered, scaling up the number of summaries for niche books might be too expensive compared to the number of potential customers they could bring in.
This might also open opportunities for smaller players that focus on a specific niche. As an example, I’d be 100% happy to signup even at a premium price to a service specialized in marketing books.
The other question mark is legal. I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know if book summaries are legal or not. For sure, things are changing. A few years ago, all the services were using original covers of the books. Nowadays, no one does.
For sure, there’s a level of risk involved in this business, and should the space become big enough, publishers could partner with these apps or go hard against them and keep all the pie for themselves.
Finally, another potential disruption to this industry could be AI and specifically GPT-3. This new system has already proven to be able to write books… it’s gonna be relatively simple to use it to write book summaries at scale and with good consistency.
The Best Book Summary App in 2021
Guess it’s time to declare a winner.
Let’s go by exclusion!
getAbstract … sorry not my cup of tea. I loved the fact that you were the only ones not forcing me to insert the credit card to join the trial… but your catalog is just not a good fit for my interests.
Instaread… well played with original contents and article summaries, but you didn’t excel in the catalog or the summary quality so I don’t see a reason to signup, I’m canceling my trial, but you could be a good fit for many.
ShortForm… you get an honorable 2nd place. The catalog is not where I’d love it to be but the app works well, you let me download PDF versions of the summaries and the quality of the summary was the best in my personal opinion. On the other hand, you’re expensive guys! I’ll likely buy a yearly subscription and whenever they have a book, I’ll read it on Shortform instead of…
Blinkist…size does matter. And when it comes to the books that I care about, they have the largest database. They don’t have the best mobile App. They often don’t have the summaries I prefer. But they have a large catalog with an ok UX and ok, consistent quality. It’s also reasonably priced.
Taking everything into account, Blinkist is the winner of my roundup of the best book summary websites in 2021.
It’s been a lot of fun to write this review. I hoped until the end that the space had changed since the last time I’ve checked and I could find more valid alternatives to Blinkist.
Shortform came close but they need to work hard on increasing the catalog.
I hope I helped you save some time and money picking the best tool among all the book summary sites.
Now it’s up to you to decide if reading book summaries is good enough for you. I still have mixed feelings about it and wish I had more time to read the full-length books. Unluckily I don’t and I found these summaries to be useful when there’s something I know I would not love to read, but would still be valuable for my personal growth.
Did I forget some Apps in this roundup? If there’s any service worth testing that I didn’t mention just let me know in the comments below and I’ll be happy to add it.
Bonus Tip: Book Summary Apps coupon code
Nah, I’m just kidding, I don’t have any coupon code. BUT…
I have a couple of tips to save some money when subscribing to most of these apps.
First of all, wait the full length of your trial. Some of them might send you a 10% discount if you upgrade to paid earlier.
Second, signup through their websites, not the mobile app. This is for a couple of reasons:
- Some websites have popups that offer a 10% discount if you signup for a trial
- Some Apps actually have different pricing if you subscribe on browser or on mobile. Mobile is usually expensive (because of % they have to pay Apple and Google)
Finally, even if you should not do it, if you live in Europe with the current crazy EUR/USD exchange rate, you might want to use a VPN and signup in $ masking your connection as a US resident. I use TunnelBear for this usually.