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December 21, 2011 12:53 PM   Subscribe


 
"How Much More Do Books Cost Today?"...is a pretty interesting question that we have barely, almost, started to investigate in this article.
posted by Kwine at 12:59 PM on December 21, 2011 [8 favorites]


The costs of books aside, the real story here is that $3.95 in 1951 money is worth more than $30 today. That said, I'm surprised that they didn't even touch on the fact that a couple of thousand bits of data in an e-book still somehow costs sometimes more than $20.
posted by crunchland at 1:00 PM on December 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Interesting... I gave it a try with some of my favorite books:

The 2009-2014 Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats in Greater China: $495 in 2011.
The 1984-1989 Outlook for Wood Toilet Seats in Communist China: $865 in 1986.

If you do the math and adjust for CPI, that's a threefold decrease. Doubtless this has something to do with Pirate Bay having a PDF of Jane's All The World's Toilet Seats.
posted by crapmatic at 1:01 PM on December 21, 2011 [13 favorites]


The costs of books aside, the real story here is that $3.95 in 1951 money is worth more than $30 today.

That's really not too surprising. This represents about three doublings, corresponding to a doubling period of 20 years, which is an average inflation rate of about 3.5%. This is all quite reasonable.
posted by mr_roboto at 1:05 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


The point not raised however is that approx. zero books were sold at list price this year. Big box retailers, online bookstores, even independents have deeply discounted the top sellers. The actual selling price is far less than this article assumes.
posted by Keith Talent at 1:11 PM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]


That spike in the 70s is surprising. Why the hell did the price of books more than double?
posted by LN at 1:13 PM on December 21, 2011


Now someone do the same thing, but for text books.
posted by fings at 1:16 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Steve Jobs bio at $35 doesn't seem typical. Most of the non-fiction list is under $30.

The point not raised however is that approx. zero books were sold at list price this year..

Surprisingly, Barnes & Noble has been selling New York Times bestsellers at 40% off since 1975.
posted by smackfu at 1:18 PM on December 21, 2011


The real tragedy is that I can't even buy a decent used book for under $7 anymore, and most literary fiction is more like $9 and up.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:21 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]




That spike in the 70s is surprising. Why the hell did the price of books more than double?
posted by LN at 1:13 PM on December 21 [+] [!]


His data sample is too small to mean anything. It's one book from the NYT best seller list.

Some spikes are to be expected. I have to agree with other posters, there's not enough data there to conclude anything at all.
posted by Stagger Lee at 1:22 PM on December 21, 2011


That spike in the 70s is surprising. Why the hell did the price of books more than double?

Probably because there was enormous inflation in the 70s (see also: the housing market), and the prices of everything else increased at least as rapidly.
posted by orange swan at 1:22 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


That is very poorly researched and irritatingly written. If you think the price of a Shel Silverstein book of poems, a Bill O'Reilly book, and the jobs biography make a tidy baseline for comparison, I'm not much impressed with your grasp on the economics of publishing.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 1:23 PM on December 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Meanwhile, in the land of eBook pricing...
posted by Artw at 1:23 PM on December 21, 2011


This was relatively lightweight but I still learned something. Books seem pretty expensive to me (especially list price books!), and I was surprised to find that they have gotten slightly cheaper over the decades. (If books today are sold at higher discounts, then they've gotten much cheaper, which is great.)
posted by grobstein at 1:23 PM on December 21, 2011


That spike in the 70s is surprising. Why the hell did the price of books more than double?

There's a fundamental issue with using average inflation figures to adjust the price of one specific item. Further, the CPI doesn't include books and such in its basket of goods.
posted by smackfu at 1:27 PM on December 21, 2011


My impression, though, is that mass market paperbacks are less common than they used to be, and trade paperback more common. So the price of being a hardcore read-all-the-time person has gone up.
posted by madcaptenor at 1:28 PM on December 21, 2011


Another consideration is the quality of the book you're getting for the money. A hardcover you bought in 1991 for 25 adjusted dollars would probably have a sewn binding and decent paper; in 2011, your 25 bucks are more likely to purchase a glue binding and cheap, acidic stock.

You see the worst attrition of quality in the trade paperbacks, which are quickly becoming indistinguishable from mass market disposables. When Penguin and the Oxford University Press redesigned their Classics lines a couple of years ago, they swapped in flimsy cover stock and cheap paper to keep the price point stable. It's the bookseller's equivalent of silently decreasing the number of potato chips per bag while trumpeting bold new look, same low price.
posted by Iridic at 1:29 PM on December 21, 2011 [21 favorites]


Preach it, Iridic! Preach it!

Publishers who use glued bindings and special super acid paper will be first against the wall come the revolution.
posted by Justinian at 1:31 PM on December 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


Sample size may be small, but I doubt it doesn't reflect reality. One of the more interesting things to do is go through an old Sears catalog and drop the prices into an inflation calculator for comparison. I'm typically surprised to find which (and how many) things tend to be relatively inexpensive (and sometimes better made) today, and curious about the things that cost more.
posted by 2N2222 at 1:32 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


30 bucks, same as in all time.
posted by vidur at 1:43 PM on December 21, 2011


Was looking at a 1969 Pop Sci, featuring the "Cheapest Color TV Set Yet!" at 11", reviewed as having poor colour, and costing $250. In today's dollars, around $1600 or so, which will buy you a 60" TV, a blu-ray player and an X-Box.

Perusing these old magazines will reveal a wide swath of things which are better made now and a lower, adjusted, prices. They are almost all made offshore though; that 11" TV's money had more of it staying home, and definitely a lot more of it going to 'regular' Americans.

But yah, the article was kinda lacking. It could have been much better.
posted by Bovine Love at 1:53 PM on December 21, 2011


...60" TV, a blu-ray player and an X-Box...

Or, you know, the console that didn't lose the format war.
posted by griphus at 1:54 PM on December 21, 2011


... that was a small troll ..
posted by Bovine Love at 1:55 PM on December 21, 2011


Tangentially, with the rise in e-books we're eventually going to mostly lose the secondary market of used book sales, which might rather dramatically raise the average price of books even if the price of new books drops substantially. I guess it depends how big the second-hand market is. I suspect when you include friends of the public library sales it is pretty huge. I'm not sure if the loss of revenue to public libraries will be offset completely by the shift to digital collections or not.
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:57 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


<hugs gigapedia>
posted by jeffburdges at 1:57 PM on December 21, 2011


Don't get me started, Justinian. My least favorite offender is the NYRB Press. The goddamn necromancers bring back fantastic, neglected authors in editions that look great but can't survive two readings; editions that warp, dent, wilt, and stain at the lightest pressure of the fingers.

It's a crime, really. If you're only in business to make ephemeral copies of data, then stop kidding yourself and go digital. But if you're in the business of making books (and no matter how what anyone says, there's still honor in that), then for god's sake, make them worth the deaths of trees.
posted by Iridic at 2:00 PM on December 21, 2011 [10 favorites]


A paperback has always cost about the price of a fast food lunch. Skip one meal and you can read for a day.
posted by cjorgensen at 2:16 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


That's no small troll. This is a small troll
posted by griphus at 2:16 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


That spike in the 70s is surprising. Why the hell did the price of books more than double?

Probably because there was enormous inflation in the 70s (see also: the housing market), and the prices of everything else increased at least as rapidly.


I grabbed the CPI-U for all urban consumers, excluding food, shelter, and energy (this is basically a weighted average of the general prices you paid. I excluded food, shelter, and energy because these three categories fluctuate wildly and also are a big component of everyone's expenditure so they influence the index too much to make it meaningful).

Then I grabbed the CPI-U for reading materials. This subcategory wasn't available before the late 80's. These series are seasonally adjusted to take out any weird holiday patterns.

The growth rate of these two series is here.

Using my advanced technique of ocular regression, it looks like prices for books were higher than everything else in the mid-90's and also around 2008-2009 (??). For additional background on why this could be the case I found these articles:

Nation article behind a paywall
New Yorker article behind a paywall
Publisher's weekly archives behind a paywall

Of course I couldn't read them because they're behind a paywall.

Conclusion: This article says nothing badly.
posted by The Ted at 2:41 PM on December 21, 2011


edit:

Using my advanced technique of ocular regression, it looks like prices for books grew more than everything else in the mid-90's and also around 2008-2009 (??). For additional background on why this could be the case I found these articles:
posted by The Ted at 2:42 PM on December 21, 2011


with the rise in e-books we're eventually going to mostly lose the secondary market of used book sales, --- Maybe in the long term, but in the short term... I'm actually now selling off all of the books worth enough to sell, and I'll probably donate the rest. As I get older, and after dealing with getting rid of most of the books that my parents and their parents collected, I just can't see keeping all of these dust collectors. I may be jumping the gun a little, and I'm risking the chance that I'll regret it in 10 or 20 years, but I'm buying into the e-book revolution in a major way. I predict that there's no better time to buy used books than right now.
posted by crunchland at 2:47 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Now someone do the same thing, but for text books.

I included educational books and supplies since the 60's here.

The inflation rate for educational books and supplies outstrips overall inflation generally all the time. In particular, it looks like there is some downward rigidity - when overall prices don't grow so much (mid-80's, mid-90's), the prices for educational books and services keep climbing.
posted by The Ted at 3:16 PM on December 21, 2011


Unlike The Ted, I don't have a fancy Flickr account, but I can also grab CPI data as well.

The reading materials CPI series is split into two, with data going back to December 1997. (Not seasonally adjusted, but it doesn't seem important.)

The CPI-U for all items is 140.1, setting December 1997=100; i.e. the price of stuff has gone up 40.1% in the last 14 years.

For recreation items, the CPI-U is 113.2, i.e. slower than across all items.
For reading materials specifically, the CPI-U is 122.4, faster than recreation items in general, but lower than all goods and services.

But lo! Reading materials is split; for newspapers and magazines, the CPI-U is 138.7, very close to the all item CPI-U.
For recreational books, though, the CPI-U is 102.2; almost no change at all (although prices have gone up overall). The trend is interesting: the price of books went up five percent in 01-03, then declined very gradually a percent or two until 2007; it the rose up again through 07-09 peaking at 107.3 in fall 2009. The price of recreational books plummeted in 2011; from 105.3 in January to 102.2 today. I'm guessing that this is the result of the e-book market; whether the dead-tree market is collapsing as books move to tablets, or whether the BLS is now counting e-books in the CPI-U.

The interesting books are college textbooks, where the CPI-U is 181.6; double the cost of inflation. The BLS uses a hedonic quality adjustment here to take into account the fact that textbooks include discs or CDs, and to consider that they are available more cheaply electronically.

So to summarize, relative to inflation, recreational reading books are much cheaper than they were 14 years ago, newspapers are the same price, and textbooks have increased twice as fast as inflation. That is adjusting for the new technologies in textbooks, but not for, per Iridic, the poorer quality of recreational books or the increasingly shitty quality of articles like this one.

(I see there's actually a series of these; I suppose someone should break the news to the writer that the US government is actually tracking these things with some precision, rather than using this as a springboard to write the blog equivalent of We Didn't Start The Fire.)
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 3:20 PM on December 21, 2011 [4 favorites]


If I want to see Mission Impossible 4 right now, which runs two hours and 13 minutes (and features at least 30 minutes of highly annoying commercials and previews which play at deafening volumes), it will cost me $13.50 for a Fandago ticket. I won't include the funds one might allocate for babysitting, parking, and the cost of an additional friend or loved one accompanying the primary ticket holder. Let's just deal with that $13.50 for 133 minutes of entertainment. I'm paying $6.12/hour to see this, bare minimum.

If I want to buy the latest Fleet Foxes CD (at around $12) or I want to digitally invest in every single track off Helplessness Blues (99 cents a pop, at twelve tracks = around $12), at least I have the option of listening to the album again. But assuming that I only have time to listen to the 49 minute, 57 second Helplessness Blues once, I'm paying out $14.40/hour for less than an hour of my time. Which is more of a ripoff than Mission Impossible 4 -- despite the fact that I really dig the Fleet Foxes. And I haven't even factored in the likelihood that I'd want to see them live -- assuming that they're touring in my area.

But if I want to own a book -- such as the 656-page Steve Jobs biography written by Walter Isaacson, containing no ads -- I'd be hard-pressed to find a better use of my dollars. If I read at the rate of 50 pages/hour, that's a 13.12 hour investment. And what am I getting for my $35? A reading experience in which I only have to pay out $2.66/hour that lasts much longer than a movie or a CD. And if I buy that hardcover, I don't have to worry about DRM. I can swap the book with a friend, pass it on to a friend or loved one, and so forth.

From a time and budget efficiency standpoint, there are few mediums as efficient as the book to not only giving you your money's worth, but also providing you with something a bit smarter than some aging actor scaling the Dubai Tower to demonstrate some declining virility. Which is not to say that I'm against populist spectacle. I love to see violent action scenes and explosions as much as the next guy. But shouldn't spectacle be valued less than the more considered possibilities contained between two covers?
posted by ed at 3:50 PM on December 21, 2011 [5 favorites]


Wheels by Arthur Hailey, on sale for $12.95 (or $72.34 adjusted)

What the Hell. This just cannot be right. There is no way that in 1971 you would pay that much for a crappy novel. I really think there is something amiss with the adjustment for inflation, because while I was a few years away from purchasing a lot of books by 1973 or so my dad was regularly giving me the gift of a Book a month for a year as my Christmas present-- there is absolutely no way he could have afforded that kind of money.

with the rise in e-books we're eventually going to mostly lose the secondary market of used book sales, --- Maybe in the long term, but in the short term...

I am definitely living in the golden age of book collecting-- there are so many books on the used market now as people are dumping their collections that I cannot believe the prices and selection. I have to stop myself from buying ore than 5 books a month because we have already run out of bookshelf space.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:53 PM on December 21, 2011


The Popular Science cover price in 1971 was 60 cents, which puts the $13 hardcover price in some perspective.
posted by smackfu at 4:15 PM on December 21, 2011


The Steve Jobs book is one of a handful of high-ticket books that come out with big names attached that can sell for $35 in hardcover for a while. People who aren't willing to pay that much will wait to get 'em 'til they're in paperback. The new Vonnegut biography and the most recent Game of Thrones are in the same category. It's mostly those gigantic nonfiction doorstoppers that go for that much, unless it's a series; I think that series like Game of Thrones and Harry Potter are a little bit like drugs as far as price elasticity is concerned: people will drop big bucks for 'em because they need to find out what happens right now.
posted by NoraReed at 4:23 PM on December 21, 2011


A paperback has always cost about the price of a fast food lunch. Skip one meal and you can read for a day.

Oh man. Maybe in the US. You lucky, lucky bastards.
posted by markr at 4:33 PM on December 21, 2011


The thing about book prices is, they're a terrible way to track inflation. For one thing, the price is printed right on the jacket. It's not like potatoes, where the price can be and is adjusted on a daily basis. And in times of rapid inflation, like the early seventies, it would be expected to find different goods responding to that more or less rapidly, depending on a zillion factors. Book prices were skyrocketing. The inflation-adusted price would fluctuate wildly over the years.

In fact, you won't find hardly any consumer good that really tracks the CPI exactly, for the simple reason that the CPI is a composite of a zillion different goods. In the real world, some things go up, some things go down. If you look at your 1971 Sears catalog, you will see that virtually every electronic item, and every high-tech good (like cameras), and indeed almost every durable good, such as furniture, cost far, far more then than now after adjusting for CPI, while other things like houses cost far, far more. A cheap TV cost as much as a (crummy) used car back then.
posted by Fnarf at 5:13 PM on December 21, 2011


Using my advanced technique of ocular regression, it looks like prices for books were higher than everything else in the mid-90's and also around 2008-2009 (??).

I have no clue why prices would spike in 2008-2009 (unless the runaway success of the three Stieg Larsson books, which I seem to recall being fairly hefty in their hardcover incarnations, had something to do with it), but I do remember a theory widely held among independent booksellers in the 1990s. The feeling was that, as Barnes & Noble and Borders expanded pell-mell across the country and discounted many titles (not just best-sellers) by 30 or 40 percent off cover price, the publishers had seen an opening to raise list prices across the board, since the deep discounts were bringing any increase in MSRP back in line with what consumers expected to pay for their books. This riled the independents, who generally bought their books at wholesale prices that were much closer to MSRP than those of the big chains.

Assuming the CPI-U tracks list prices, and not the actual price charged at point of sale, this would line up pretty well. And the prices would have come back down as the independents cried bloody murder (and filed lawsuits against the biggest publishers) and also as the chains rolled back their discount policies to focus only on the best-sellers after that initial period of expansion.
posted by Joey Bagels at 5:58 PM on December 21, 2011


If I want to see Mission Impossible 4 right now [...]

Believe it or not, that's pretty much how I calculate the value of anything. People do look at me strange when I'm like, "A hundred dollars?! That's ten books right there. Is [Thing] really gonna give you as much pleasure as ten books? TEN???".

My fatal flaw is assuming that everyone gets the same amount of pleasure from ten books as I do, I suppose.
posted by smoke at 6:27 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]


NoraReed:

"The Steve Jobs book is one of a handful of high-ticket books that come out with big names attached that can sell for $35 in hardcover for a while."

Yes. My most recent hardcover had a $25 cover list price, which is rather more a standard price for fiction hardcovers. Likewise, it's very rare for anyone to actually spend $25 for the book; my local indie bookstore sells it for $22; B&N will sell it for $18 - $20, and on Amazon it's $16.50. If you buy the eBook version, it's $12.

From a practical point of view, the actual cost of a new hardcover book (or first-pass e-Book) these days is probably less than it was two or three decades ago.
posted by jscalzi at 6:39 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]


Assuming the CPI-U tracks list prices, and not the actual price charged at point of sale,

The CPI-U is based on urban consumers, so essentially there are semi-anonymous dudes scattered around the US whose job includes walking into bookstores (and the other sorts of places books are bought; a lot of mass-market bestseller paperbacks are sold at convenience stores, supermarkets, etc.) and writing down how much it would cost for them to walk out of the store with a book, every month.

In general, a series of representative items is chosen (so this reflects the price of a Nora Roberts paperback than a Taschen contemporary architecture book or something). I'm actually a little interested in what books are in the CPI (the list of specific items is not made known to the public). My guess is it would have to be primarily "bestselling paperback" or the like, although they could use certain very prominent books -- a nonillustrated, large print copy of the Bible, for instance.

Like most things economics-related, Planet Money had a good podcast on the CPI, from the perspective of one semi-anonymous dude.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 7:48 PM on December 21, 2011


1971: A peculiar shade of burnt orange.
posted by Taft at 9:02 PM on December 21, 2011


I paid $7 to see MI4 in Imax format yesterday. I will see anything Brad Bird directs.

That said, I use movies as my basis for value. $10 for 2 hours, I say. So I'm like you, I guess.

I paid $19.99 for Fallout 3 + all DLC and I have spent 184 hours playing it. (Apparently my RPG OCD requires me to check out every rock.) Value!
posted by CarlRossi at 10:09 PM on December 21, 2011


Here in France they still publish books on non-acidic paper, with sewn bindings and covers that don't look like you've read them even when you have, several times. They cost between 20-30 euros, though, so I try to wait until they come out in the slightly-lower-quality, but still non-acidic "pocket" versions. (Depending on the publisher. Some are going the crappy route too.) Sometimes I splurge, though, and I've noticed I love those editions the most over time. The paper just feels so lovely in hand.

I have noticed a huge discrepancy in changes of paper quality between France, UK, and (it seems like) the rest of the world. Background: I used the same fountain pen every day (with few exceptions) for 14 years, until it finally died last year and I got a new one. French paper has always been high-quality, non-acidic, and smooth – my nib would never get clogged with pulp. UK paper of similar quality is easy enough to find as well. American paper used to be decent enough, though it would suck up ink more than French stuff. But starting a few years ago, I've noticed a startling change. Even Japanese writing paper now (the kind sold here, anyway) is like American paper. It practically falls apart in your fingers. I refuse to use my fountain pen on any of it now. It seems to have been the cause of my original fountain pen's death, even, since that pen was writing fine three years ago, but with the latest American and Japanese writing papers, it started clogging in ways it never had before.

Back to books.
I am definitely living in the golden age of book collecting-- there are so many books on the used market now as people are dumping their collections that I cannot believe the prices and selection. I have to stop myself from buying ore than 5 books a month because we have already run out of bookshelf space.

No kidding. I've had rarer books on my wishlist for 5-8 years that I'm seeing pop up for less than 10 bucks now, and I can't resist buying them. Thankfully I'm nearly through my wishlist, because I'm starting to run out of room as well.

I won't go e-book... one of my greatest pleasures is turning off everything electronic in the house except the lights and my stereo system, listening to music and thumbing through books. Bonus: I can use the paperbacks as makeshift drink holders whenever I need to go tell one of my cats to please stop sitting on the flowers.
posted by fraula at 12:45 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


Amazingly, through all those times, the cost of going to the library has remained the same. And the selection gets better and better.

Libraries. The Best Deal in All of Democracy.
posted by Twang at 2:17 AM on December 22, 2011 [6 favorites]


From a time and budget efficiency standpoint, there are few mediums as efficient as the book to not only giving you your money's worth,

You didn't mention TV series on DVD, which are definitely up there with books. You can buy 20 hours of excellent TV for $15.
posted by smackfu at 7:36 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]


[Sidebar: I went to work last week and was like "Guess who talked to me about book prices on the internet yesterday! I'll give you a hint, it's JOHN FUCKING SCALZI" and then I pointed out the Scalzi books we have to the coworker who had no idea who Scalzi was.]
posted by NoraReed at 5:50 PM on December 27, 2011


From a time and budget efficiency standpoint, there are few mediums as efficient as the book to not only giving you your money's worth

Four year old + PC games provide the most hours of entertainment per dollar spent up to a point (the catalog is not as deep as for books).
posted by BrotherCaine at 1:52 PM on December 28, 2011


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