UPDATE: This post has now seen an update to reflect 2023 changes in inflation. You can see that post—with updated graphs—here. Link will also be at the middle and bottom of the article.
Honestly, I was going to hold off on a second post this week until Thursday (I’m blitzing through edits on Jungle right now) but this post had already been on my mind, and then a discussion yesterday online regarding MacMillan’s continued crusade against libraries basically poured gasoline over the spark and, well … Here we are.
Look, something that I see brought up constantly online, including in the very post that kicked this whole chain of thoughts off, is the price of books. It’s a hot topic anywhere. There are a lot of people who see them as too expensive, too overpriced, whether digital or not.
And you know what? I think they’re wrong.
Mostly. Sort of. A better way to say it might be that I feel a lot of the people arguing for lower prices are coming at the issue from the wrong angle. They’re, for lack of a better term, stuck in the past.
Let me explain. The real kick-off for this post was an online comment by a redditor who was arguing that a paperback should be $7.99 at most. No more.
Now, it wasn’t hard for me to make a good guess at their chain of thought. See, I was buying books in the 90s, even as a kid. Even at the age of eight, when at the grocery store, I would go peruse their tiny comic section which was next to the tiny section of paperbacks, and I’d look at paperbacks to see if there were any I was interested in (not that I could afford them for a few more years).
And I remember the prices. I remember the era of the $4.99 uber-cheap paperback, with pages that would fall out as you were reading it due to the low print quality. The $5.99 paperback was more standard, but many were in the $6.99-$7.99, the latter being near the top of things for the nicer quality paperbacks that were fairly thick.
But that was the price for those books. And that was the price that, as a kid, I grew to expect to pay for the longest time. There’s just one problem.
That pricing was in 1994. Today, we’re twenty-five years later, in 2019. That’s right, those prices are 25 years gone.
But … not in the heads of a lot of readers. To them, I feel as though they’ve got the idea of “this is what I paid for a book when I was young, it’s what I should pay for a book now.” Just as this one redditor seemed to be arguing, one of their points being that no book should ever be more than $7.99 paperback and $15 hardcover.
And you know what? I remember when a hardcover was $15. Yeah, back in 1994. Obviously, they’re not that price anymore. But is that wrong? Well …
Here’s the thing I think a lot of people are missing: Inflation. The value of the US dollar, over time, changes. That’s why prices for the same item, like a ballpoint pen, continue to rise with times, despite the original price of a pack of ten when they came out being only a few pennies. The value of money changes over time.
So I got on a site that is a US Inflation Adjustment Calculator. This allows you to use records of how the value of a US dollar has changed to punch in a year, a dollar value, and then see what that dollar value would be adjusted to the current 2019 value of a dollar.
So, for example, if I punch in 1994 as the year, and have a single dollar in the adjustment calculator, we see that adjusted exactly for inflation, if something that was a dollar in 1994 were to be given the same value today, it would be $1.73 instead of a dollar.
That’s right. If it had cost you $1 in 1994, and the seller wanted the same value out of it, you’d have to pay $1.73 in 2019.
Now, a caveat: Prices don’t fluctuate 1:1 with the market. No, like most things, the fluctuate in jumps. Basically, you start selling something, and you keep the price the same for a few years before giving it a “bump” to account for inflation. Or maybe you don’t, because other elements made the manufacturing cheaper (that happens a lot with tech because it’s constantly advancing).
Some things, though, like basic Bic ballpoint pens tend to stay pretty standard (they don’t see much refinement or change). So the price just sort of flows with the value of the dollar.
Okay, so those brief explanations aside, a dollar in 1994 would be worth $1.73 today. So, what does that mean for those book prices I used to peruse (and sometimes buy)?
Well, let’s start with the cheapest of the cheap. The $4.99 paperback whose pages would fall out as you read it. Today, that same paperback, adjusted for inflation, would be …
$8.64. That’s right. $8.64.
Okay, what about the next price tier? The $5.99 paperback?
$10.37. Yikes. We’ll do the next few prices real quick here. $6.99 becomes $12.10 in 2019. And $7.99? The very nice paperbacks that were the most costly in 1994? Adjusted to 2019, they cost …
$13.83. Fifteen bucks once you’ve tacked taxes on there.
Suddenly a lot of modern book prices don’t look that insane. Here’s the full thing in a nice little chart:
Paperback Prices from 1994 Adjusted to 2019 Values
So hold up then, what does this mean? Well … it’s not a meaning most people will like, especially readers, but it means that if the publisher of the cheapest of cheap paperbacks in 1994, the $4.99 ones, is still making them today and wants to make the same return off of them, they need to price them at $8.64. If they make them $7.99, they’re taking a loss, and if they’re selling them at $8.99 they’re making a little more.
But that’s for the cheapest of the cheap paperbacks, with the pages falling out. If you want a higher-quality book, well .. check the chart.
Now, what this poster said, about a paperback being $7.99 at most? Well … if we dive back using our tool and do some more calculating … The closest we can get is a book that would have cost $4.61 in 1994. Cheaper than any book I saw in the store as a kid.
Here’s the problem I suspect this reader has, and sands, even I’ve had it a few times: That price from my youth is fixed in my mind as the “price” books should be at, but as the years have gone by I’ve sort of ignored the rising costs and lessening value of the US dollar … and that’s thrown it out of whack. Simply put, it’s impossible to sell the $7.99 paperback of 1994 today without suffering massive losses. It’s not financially viable at the same costs and manufacturing. If a book that sold in 1994 for $7.99 were to still have that price today, the publisher would be losing an additional $5.84 atop whatever their normal loss on a $7.99 book was … which would also have adjusted for the times.
Okay, let me rephrase that. If that book in 1994 cost 50% of its price to make, or $4, leaving the publisher and store to split the remaining $3.99, in 2019 that cost of production would be $6.92 for a book still being sold at $7.99. And that production cost can’t be done away with. The remaining dollar, split between the retailer and the publisher, would mean that they would need to sell four copies of the book in 2019 instead of one to make the same profit as one book in 1994. Except that they’d then have the costs of four manufactured books atop that. So where four books in 1994 would have cost them $16 to make for $16 profit, in 2019 it would cost them $27.68 for a profit of $4.
Yeah … starting to see why this is a little impossible and book prices do have to go up at some point?
Now, before we get into a few caveats that throw more wrenches into these numbers, I followed this up with another experiment. One of the chief complaints of this poster was that ebooks should be even cheaper than paperbacks ever were. So I decided to see what the current prices of my ebooks would have been adjusted for 1994, had 1994 me found them on a bookshelf.
Sands and storms. You know how young me would have reacted to seeing some of these on shelves for those prices? Even Shadow of an Empire is still cheaper than the cheapest, lowest rate paperback I could have bought in 1994. You know, the one with the pages falling out of it? I’d have gone nuts.
You know what this chart tells me? My ebooks are priced perfectly. They’re cheaper than any paperback from the 90s would have been.
Ultimately, I feel that this adjustment both ways really puts the modern pricing of books in perspective. They haven’t gotten more expensive. If anything, they’ve actually gotten cheaper over the years. The average paperback price I see in stores these days starts at $9.99, or $5.77 in 1994’s dollars. Young me would have seen no problem in paying for that paperback with his hard-earned money.
But because so many have latched onto those prices from their youth or the golden days of the 90s, they don’t mentally “kick” those prices to the modern era. Those prices are from 25 years ago. Those prices could order a drink at a bar.
Those prices are old. They aren’t sustainable to a modern paperback. They just aren’t. And ebooks? They are cheaper than those paperbacks of memory. By quite a bit. Even the my costliest (and newest), Shadow of an Empire is still cheaper than the one-read-and-half-the-pages-are-gone paperbacks I would acquire as a kid.
Okay, with all this said, time for some caveats, some of which were brought up in that online thread. With the angry exclamation marks for drama!
UPDATE: These graphs and values have been updated for 2023! Find that post here!
Yeah, well ebooks didn’t exist in 1994!
So? They were on the way. I read my first ebook in 1997. It came with a game I had borrowed from a friend (Outpost 2). I used up my “daily allotment” of “computer time” (still a dumb idea) for a week to read it. Baen launched their ebook service a few years later in 1999.
And even if no, they didn’t exist in 1994, that’s the whole point of a price adjustment.
Well, books have gotten cheaper to make since then!
This one is a good point, but also a misfire. Yes, books have gotten cheaper to make and manufacture. Print on demand continues to grow, storage is less a problem or concern than ever (I still remember the days of new stories of books being stolen from storage warehouses that don’t exist anymore save in rare occasions). And quality has gone up.
But that can’t simply hand-wave away inflation. And prices have dropped in-line with those technologies. Those $9.99 paperbacks I get today are still nicer than the $5.99 paperbacks of 1994, and as pointed out above, $9.99 was $5.77 in 1994. You’re getting more bang for your buck than ever for a lower price.
But what about those paperbacks that are $15 or more, and the ebooks are $15 or more?
Well now, I’m not defending that. We call that greed. See MacMillan for a prime example. Cutting author payouts while selling some of the priciest ebooks in the country on the top-seller lists but still whining?
Yeah, here’s the thing: Don’t buy books from those guys. They’re already on my ban list. They’re skags. Parasites on author’s backs who are abusing their position in my opinion. Spend your money elsewhere, on other authors and publishers!
Well, with stagnant wages even if a book is cheaper by comparison, it’s still more expensive because people don’t have as much money.
This one is actually true. Like it or not, wages in the US have been dropping compared to inflation for the majority of people (only rising for those who already have a lot of money, like CEOs of places like … Hey, MacMillan rears its head once more!). This isn’t an opinion, but a simple fact. Sands, even Fox News has reported on it in passing, though they don’t like to dwell on it. But for Fox to get something right, it’s kind of impossible to ignore.
And yeah, this person isn’t wrong. For a variety of causes, wages in the US are low. Most people just aren’t making as much money as they once did. And with costs like housing spiraling out of control in many places, even if a book is technically cheaper than it was in say, 1994, when the would-be buyer is earning far less than they would have in 1994, realistically it costs more.
There’s not much an author can do about that. Or some pubs. Some (I’m looking at you MacMillan. How much does your CEO make annually? Or your shareholders? While you complain about libraries or being unable to pay authors what they’re “worth?”). Honestly, I think it sucks and it’s not doing the US any good.
But hey, you know what? My family was pretty poor in 1994. I remember cutting toothpaste tubes in half to get all the toothpaste out, after we ran them through a wringer. We hit up the library every week. But I’d still scrimp and save my change to buy a book where I could (and the book fair every year was the event to save money for).
I’m not saying it’s right at all. Wage Stagnation is a serious issue in the US. Sands, a similar problem in the latter days of the Roman Empire was one of the contributing causes to the fall of Rome. Yeah … not good.
But as an author, I can’t really do much about that save vote, be vocal about it, and still sell my books. What it really means is that you need to prioritize. I’m pretty poor right now, even with writing and my other job. I’d really like to get this new game coming out later this year. It’s $60. So … I’ve been setting aside $10 with every paycheck I’ve collected and grabbing for extra hours here and there to make up for it. It’s a priority to me, so I’m sacrificing for it.
Maybe you have to choose between eating out for lunch two days in a row and a book, eating a lunch packed from home instead. It’s up to you. Times are tough, but how much do you really want to own a thing?
Libraries are a great resource. Request your library to get a copy of the book you want. Unless it’s from one of those unfriendly publishers blocking libraries from having their books, odds are they’ll be able to get it for you. And the author still got paid in that scenario.
Well, I’ll just pirate it!
No. That only makes things worse. There isn’t a dearth of good books out there at friendly prices. At this point, with indies booming year after year, if you’re pirating you’re really just doing so because you’re a lazy entitled skag, not because you can’t “afford” a book. Go to a library.
But ebooks are just ones and zeros! They don’t cost anything! They should be really cheap!
Yeah what!? Excuse me, internet person, but have you ever written a book? The digital file may be nothing more than binary, but it still had a cover, hundreds or thousands of hours of labor poured into it, etc. You might as well argue that bands should just make all their music free because “It’s just sound waves in the air!” It’s a dumb argument that doesn’t hold water or respect the work that went into the creation of the product.
Colony took me six months to write, working 8-10 hours a day, five days a week. Then editing it took another five months, same hours or more. So let’s say a month is four weeks, so that’s eleven months, that’s between 1,760 and 2,200 hours. Honestly that’s low, because I was putting in 14-hour days near the end of writing and editing it.
At minimum wage (which is, a pointed out above, part of this whole wage stagnation issue) that’s still between thirteen to fifteen thousand dollars of labor. At minimum.
Yeah … if a successful book for a big publisher sells 2000 copies, and a successful book from an indie author 5000 … how many more copies at nothing does an ebook have to sell to be worth the time?
Way. Too. Many. If you don’t like the scarcity write your own books. But stop trying to say ebooks should be free or priced at quarters.
But not all items rise or fall by the value of inflation. Some things are more expensive, while others are scarcer.
This is actually a good point, if a little loose with things. Yes, it’s true that prices fluctuate based on availability and markets as well. Which is why I brought up Bic ballpoints above. They’re remarkedly sturdy. Not much changes in the ballpoint world.
The cost of making a book has gone down slightly in the last 25 years. I acknowledged this when I pointed out that a $9.99 paperback is cheaper and better than those $5.99 paperback I would buy as a kid. Prices of materials haven’t shifted too much.
But since those prices (material) haven’t shifted much, the inflation adjustment is still a valid comparison, personally. Books and stories are a product of the resource-type “author” and their time. And that … hasn’t changed much in the last twenty-five years. It still takes the same amount of effort to finish a book draft today as it did twenty-five years ago. Where it is cheaper and quicker, in places like editing and formatting with modern tools, prices have dropped, even as inflation has risen.
Okay, that’s it for this. I am out of time, and desperately need to get back to work editing Jungle. I hope you found this post interesting, informative, and most of all, maybe a little eye-opening to the way you look at book prices.
UPDATE: This is the same link as above. This post was updated for 2023. Find those new values here.
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