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.