A recent conversation with my spouse inspired this post. I came home with a new book and I mentioned how much it cost. He was surprised to discover a simple paperback, a 90-page novella at that, cost $10. When I informed him that many of the paperbacks in my library cost on average $15 he was shocked. Over the course of my lifetime books have become rather expensive, and not just hardcovers which have always been pricey. Why is this?
Like everything else in life, books cost money to produce. There’s the time spent not only writing and editing the book, but the cost of physically printing the book. The cover designer needs to be paid. The author’s agent cuts a cut. If one is lucky, the publisher will help with marketing the book. Also, the bookstores want to make money which factors into the price. People need to be paid and people want to make money. Nothing wrong with that.
Note: For the sake of discussion I’ll be keeping this post about print books. Ebooks are a different beast altogether when it comes to pricing.
In looking through my own library, which is a combination of older books and new releases, it is quite clear the prices have risen dramatically. For example, a paperback version of Ken Follett’s Triple from 1980 has a list price of $4.50. A bit high for that time, especially for a paperback, but Follett is a well-known author. Another book I own, Last Ditch by Ngaio Marsh, has a list price of $1.75 when published in 1978. Pretty reasonable for a known mystery writer.
Now, let’s fast forward to some newer releases. The paperback version of Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown costs $15. While the book is a good, Cho is not a household name, yet, and this book was her debut. Compare this was one of Ken Follett’s most recent books, Edge of Eternity, which is listed at $9.99 for an 1100-page paperback. Susan Crandall’s excellent Whistling Past the Graveyard is $16 for a 300-page book. Why such a disparity?
The answer is complex. There’s simple economics like supply and demand and inflation. Certainly, it costs more to print a book today. Pricing is also determined by how well-known the author is and their track record. I suspect awards won by the author factors in. There is also the delicate balance between pricing for physical copies of a book and ebooks. With more and more people with Kindles, Nooks, and reading on their phones and computers, pricing clearly has been affected.
With the cost of books so high, does this mean authors are rolling dough? Only if they are well-known and are prolific. From researching the matter, the best royalty rate an author can hope for is 15% of the list price. And that is a rate for well-known, best-selling author writing books with broad appeal. For example, a book has a list price of $10. If the author has a royalty rate of 15%, the most they could hope to make off that book is $1.50. That leaves the remaining $8.50 to cover costs and make a profit for both the publisher and the book seller. One would have to sell a lot of books to make money.
Does the increasing price of books mean publishers are rolling in dough? If it’s one of the big publishers then probably. Small to medium size publishers struggle to make it just like their authors.
Are book stores raking in the money? Look at how many large book stores have closed over the last couple of decades and you’ll get your answer.
As an avid book buyer it makes me anxious to see the price of books so high. My favorite places to buy books has always been used bookstores. Much of that stems from growing up poor so the library and used bookstores were great for someone like me. But even I remember buying books at places like Kmart and Wal-Mart and paying the full list price for it. When I was growing up, paying $5 for a paperback wasn’t too out of reach for a person like me. Today, though, I wouldn’t be able to afford as many books as I could as a kid. There are still plenty of used bookstores and the library for people, but it is a distressing to see how expensive books have gotten.
As an aspiring author, it gives me pause about the cost. Should I be fortunate enough to have novels published, I don’t know if I’ll feel comfortable seeing $10 to $15 or more being charged for a paperback. I understand it’s a business and yes, I do want to make money doing what I love, but I do not want to see books becoming a luxury good. There’s too many other basics of life that have become that. Books are meant to educate or inspire or entertain. Putting a high price tag on that signals only a select group is allowed to enjoy it.