Skip to Content

Do Books Cost Too Much?

9 December 2002

A recent article in has raised once again the vexed question of book prices. The feeling is that consumers are resisting the ever-upward spiral of book prices, but because of discounting and the high proportion of a book's price paid to the retailer, publishers' margins are also increasingly under pressure.

In some ways discounting has just made things worse, as the book trade is now suffering from the expectation that books will be discounted and is struggling to fund the discount. But the real pressure comes from an over-competitive market-place, where there are simply too many books being published and too many big publishers fighting for market share - both of which trends should bring prices down. But what is really happening?

Robert Sahr, associate professor of political science at Oregon State University, has done some interesting work on RR Bowker's figures for the increase in US book prices. Once inflation has been factored in, American hardcover prices have remained about the same in the quarter-century from 1975 to 2000. Non-fiction prices have actually gone down by 27%. What has changed is that mass-market paperback fiction, adjusted for inflation, has gone up nearly 40%. The other key change is the rise of the trade paperback, which is now the way most backlist titles are published, so an inexpensive mass-market edition no longer exists. The book-buyer has no choice as regards a particular book. For instance, John Updike's Rabbit Run cost 65 cents in the 60s (about $4 today), but now it is only available in an (admittedly much nicer) trade paperback edition for $14.

In the US, the UK and many other good book markets, consumer purchasing has held up remarkably well over the last year in spite of the weak economy. But books are a discretionary purchase and, in spite of the old adage that books do well in a recession, any downturn in consumer spending is likely to hit the book business hard. Many heavy purchasers may feel that books are actually a necessity for them, but lighter purchasers may well cut back on their book purchases if times get tough. Even heavy purchasers usually have plenty of books stockpiled at home and can cut back for a while without running any risk of not having anything to read.