04 September 2007

The Price of Books

Levi Asher is on a quest to find out why books are so expensive. He's just posted a fascinating series of short interviews with publisher Richard Nash, novelist and blogger Mark Sarvas, and agent Scott Hoffman.

As Mark points out, in comparison to going out to see a movie, buying a book is not a horrendously expensive activity. And in comparison to going to the theatre, it's downright cheap.

But, as Colleen can attest, I had a strong reaction when I grabbed the new Best American Poetry, a wee 192 pages, and saw the price was $16. It went right back onto the table from which I picked it up. I haven't bought a BAP since Lyn Heijinian's 2004 volume, which was also $16 (for 288 pages), but I ordered that one online and for a sharp discount, which is probably what I'll do for the new edition (the editor, Heather McHugh, is a poet I like quite a bit -- I buy BAPs for the guest editors, not the contents, really).

Later, I asked myself what price I would have been willing to pay for the book, and thought that probably $13.95 was about the threshold between, "Wow, a book!" and "Wow, that price!" If the new BAP had been priced at that, I would have left the store with it.

In some ways, this makes little sense -- $13.95 is only $2.05 less than the actual price, and $2.05, particularly here in the region of NYC, ain't a lot of money. But there is a psychological barrier -- $16 feels like a rip-off for a 192-page paperback, even though I don't make it a practice of buying books based on weight.

Interestingly, the list price for The Best American Poetry 1999 is $17.95, which in 2007 dollars would be about $22.44, so the price of the books has gone down over the years. Really, though, the lesson here is patience: that 1999 edition is available used for $0.01 (plus shipping) from Amazon.


  1. It's true - it was as though he'd burned his hand when he saw the price. And he shrieked like a little girl, too. ;-)

  2. It could be worse. US publishers seem to think the Canadian dollar is trading at $.65 when really its around $.94. Funny how prices haven't moved.

  3. Hm ... perhaps I'll wait till BAF costs $0.01 too.

  4. Weird. I thought I posted here the other day and it came through then...but now it's gone.
    YA books are a lot cheaper than adult books. Don't know why.
    Ellen Datlow

  5. Thanks for posting again Ellen -- your comment might have been eaten by the word verification thingy, which is occasionally temperamental. I have to feed it regularly, or else it starts picking on innocent people.

    I've often wondered why YA books are less expensive, myself. It's played into my perhaps odd psychology, too, in that I've bought YA books in hardcover that had far less of a hold on me than other hardcover books, but because they were a few dollars less, I felt like I was getting a deal. (Yes, now publishers know I'm a sucker. But they knew that anyway...)

  6. not exactly true (although I agree with your general point).

    The 1999 anthology is available for 1 cent plus $3.99 shipping fees (i.e. Amazon profit).

    (See my thing about the wrong way to reward a musician ).

    Ebooks will change all that of course. What excuse will Amazon.com have to jack up the price?

  7. Fun. I like that Ellen's a reader here, too. A genre forum doesn't feel complete unless she's got a toe in it somewhere.
    This years BAP is worth picking up, and not only because McHugh is great (she put out a translation of Celan fer chrissakes). Maybe, because it's so slim, the higher price per word will lead you to chew them over that much more, and you'll get more out of each poem.