Sunday, October 11, 2009

How Much does that Book Cost?

At the moment the Government is considering the case of reducing the restriction on the parallel importing of books. Essentially this would allow overseas publishers to import books into Australia (currently Australian publishers get 30 days after release to publish any book produced anywhere in the world, and once that is done overseas publishers can’t sell that book in Australia). The Productivity Commission has produced a report recommending this be dropped. I won’t be commenting on whether or not they should be or not, because, to be honest I’m not sure. The economist in me says yes, the realist in me says book prices probably won’t come down much anyway (except the latest Dan Brown and Stephanie Meyer perhaps), and I also can see reason in the arguments that the Australian fiction sector will be slaughtered.

What I do want to look at is the actual price of books now in this country, not compared with those overseas, but with those in the same shop.

Now I love books; this has been made pretty clear in a number of posts I have done on the topic, but I don’t buy a hell of a lot of new books anymore – they are just far too expensive. Yesterday I bought an as-new second hand copy of DeLillio’s Underworld for $9.99. In my local Borders shop, this would have cost me $27.99. As I say, maybe this will come down if parallel import restrictions are dropped, but I have my doubts, if only because on it is now going for US$24.99 (Hardcover admittedly, but the only softcover version is going for US$34.69).

But the main reason I hate buying new books is that there is such a disconnect between what it costs to produce the product and what it costs to buy it – to the point where I could hold up two books by the same author and you would be lucky to first guess how much they would cost to buy, or second work out which of the two costs more or less (let alone why, and let alone compared to any other book in the store).

We don’t have this problem with DVDs or CDs. When I go into JB Hi Fi, I know the latest release DVDs will be going for $29.98, some of the older ones will be going for $19.98, $15, 98, $12.98, or in the bargain bin of $9.98 and $6.98. Now that sounds like a lot of different prices, but in reality it’s not. For example, the Pixar DVDs released in the last 5 years or so will cost the same - $15.98; the most recent one will cost more - $29.98 if it’s just out, or maybe $19.98 if it’s been out for a year or so. The older ones such as Toy Story 1 & 2 will be $12.98. Similarly Madagascar 2 is $15.98, Madagascar is $12.98. Daniel Craig’s latest movie, Defiance (a war film), is $29.98, Breaker Morant (an old war film) is $6.98. It makes sense; the consumer feels happy knowing they’re getting what they pay for – you want something new or with special features, you’ll pay more.

CDs are the same. The latest releases will usually be around $24.99 (though generally all dropped to $19.99) The older ones are a mixture of $12.99 or $9.99. And once again there’s logic. Michael Buble’s latest CD costs $19.99, whereas his first two albums are $12.99. It makes sense. Would you expect to pay the same for U2’s Achtung Baby that came out in 1991, as you would for its latest CD, No Line on the Horizon? Of course not. And if Achtung Baby was, for example, more expensive would you buy it? I wouldn’t, it wouldn’t make sense.

But let us now walk out of JB HiFi and into the local Borders and pick up Tim Winton’s latest novel Breath (came out last year – same as U2’s latest CD). It will cost $27.50. Right next to it is Cloudstreet, which Winton brought out in 1991 (the same year that Achtung Baby was released). How much less does Cloudstreet cost? Err less??? How about $2.50 more. Yep, Cloudstreet would cost you $29.50. His novel Dirt Music, which came out in 2001, costs the same as Breath - $27.50. Why is this so, I have no idea – Cloudstreet is massively more popular than Dirt Music, and yet costs more? So much for the theory of supply and demand…

Now look, I know I could try and buy them at an Angus and Robertson store, or some other shop and find all three cheaper, but I am not interested in finding the cheapest book, I am looking for some logic of why a book costs what it does. Yeah I could find some cheaper DVDs in Target or Big W than in JB Hi-Fi (and vice versa), but within each store, the price of DVDs and CDs always makes sense. I could go into any bookstore in Australia and be found grasping for logic.

I decided to focus on Penguin Classics – as these all involve out of copyright authors, and are the same format, so production costs would be pretty similar. Let’s look at Dickens:


Now this is not all his books (just the ones in the store). I own all of them except two. Guess which ones. Yep, Barnaby Rudge and Our Mutual Friend. Barnaby Rudge comes in at $18.99, almost twice that of Oliver Twist and A Tale of Two Cities. Now obviously demand comes into play here – Oliver, and Two Cities are more popular than Barnaby Rudge, and in effect what we have here is a virtual demand curve of Dickens’ novels, but even still, why is David Copperfield $11.99, and Great Expectations $10.99?

Perhaps the difference in demand is that finite, but I doubt it – and the difference in the cost of production would not be that great (if there is any). And I doubt Bleak House, which came out as a mini series a couple years ago, is less popular than Nicholas Nickleby, and yet the first costs $16.50, and the latter $15.99. And why the 5o cent difference? You never see such small differences between the prices of DVDs and CDs. Pink’s M!sunderstood CD won’t cost $10.50 and her I’m Not Dead won’t cost $9.99 – no they’ll both cost the same.

And yet when we have a look at Jane Austen, all of her novels sell for $10.99, and there is no way in hell you can tell me Mansfield Park or Persuasion are as popular as Pride and Prejudice and Emma. While we’re talking popularity (given Pride and Prejudice just came first in the Border’s Top 100 Books of all time contest), why does P&P cost a dollar more than Oliver Twist, or Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (which also sells for $9.99)?

Here’s a graph of forty five 19th Century novels(and a couple from the early 20th century) from Penguin Classics for sale in Borders:


There’s bugger all logic. Hardy’s Tess can be yours for $8.99, but his Far from the Madding Crowd is $9.99, and his Return of the Native will set you back $16.50. Why? OK, Tess may be popular and thus is cheaper, but why cheaper than Pride and Prejudice or Jane Eyre, or Oliver Twist. Anyone here think Dostoyevsky’s deep psychological novel, Crime and Punishment, is more popular than Dumas’ all time favourite The Three Musketeers? And yet to spend 630 pages in the mind of Raskolnikov will cost only $10.99, but 720 pages with Athos Porthos and Aramis will require $16.50. Surely those extra 90 pages aren’t worth $5.50?

And pages seemingly mean nothing. The leviathan Moby Dick (650 pages) is $12.99, the skinny Cranford (250 pages) is $13.50. In fact if we look at a selection of “big-fat-19th century novels” we still see no logic:


Perhaps there is a reason why Les Mis costs $27.50, War and Peace $24.99 and The Brothers Karamazov $20.99, but it’s beyond me.

Trollope’s The Prime Minister is the fifth of his “Palliser” novels. It costs $25.50. Phineas Finn is the second novel in the series – it costs $21.99. Why????

Why would I buy either of these? How on earth is a book buyer able to feel like they are getting value for money, and not being totally screwed over by the publishers and the book seller?

What is the mark up of these novels? You don’t need to have read much of Das Kapital to know that if you buy Middlemarch for $14.50 and Our Mutual Friend for $18.99 you’re not exactly paying a standard rate above the cost of producing the actual item.

In short, the booksellers seem to be screwing book buyers every which way because book buyers have no idea what they should be paying, and so booksellers can maximise their profits to their hearts content – asymmetric information economics in its purest form (the seller has all the knowledge, the buyer has none). 

And it’s not just adult literary books. Have a look at kids books – say Roald Dahl. image

His most popular book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was selling for $18.99, three dollars more than The BFG and The Fantastic Mr Fox. Sure Fox is a bit shorter, but the BFG isn’t.

Why are these all differently priced, and yet all of the 21 books in the Famous Five series are $14.50? All the Mr Men books are $3.99. All the Asterix comics are $32.99 (scandalously expensive).

In the Harry Potter series we do see logic. The first three all cost $18.99, then the Goblet of Fire is $21.99, followed by the Order of the Phoenix and the Half Blood Prince for $23.99 (they’re a good deal bigger). Now that all makes sense – the most recent, and bigger ones cost more. Rather oddly though, the hardcover copy of the latest Deathly Hollows, was selling for $9.99. Why was it this price? I have no idea – it certainly didn’t have “on sale” stickers on it.

Even more confusing was when I saw the 2010 version of Leonard Maltin’s movie guide selling for $27.99, and yet a 2009 version sitting right next to it was priced at $45.95! Perhaps Borders thinks there’s a collectors value in an out of date movie guide…

What that last example shows is that the price of books means nothing. You have no idea if it is good value for money. So few places sell lots of classics, or more literary works – you aren’t going to find Balzac in Big W – so you can’t really compare. But even in stores that do sell a wide selection of books you still have no idea what you should be paying. You hold an Austen novel, it will cost you $10.99, you also hold a Dostoyevsky novel, it is longer and would have required the publisher paying a translator, and yet it costs the same. You grab another Dostoyevsky and it costs $16 dollars more. Why?

You get some classics of the 20th century – On the Road (25.50), The Catcher in the Rye ($24.99), The Grapes of Wrath ($21.99), Nineteen Eighty Four (24.99), Animal Farm ($16.50), Of Mice and Men ($20.99), One Hundred Years of Solitude ($26.99), A Suitable Boy ($32.99), Underworld ($27.99), Naked and the Dead ($27.50), To Kill a Mockingbird ($23.99). Do you know which ones are good value? Do you know what they would be likely to cost in other shops? I have no idea, and unless you work in a book store, or in the publishing game, I bet you wouldn’t either

Now maybe the dropping of parallel import restrictions will bring some logic to the prices of books, I don’t know. It would be nice to be able to get to the point such as is the case with DVDs, where I can walk into a store, see some 1950s John Wayne western priced at $19.99, and know that I will be able to get that for $9.99 elsewhere, because at the moment I could be in a book store, pick up a copy of a Dickens novel and not know whether it is cheap or expensive. At the moment you would need to carry around a notebook with various prices of novels written down. Think how much better it would be if you knew Penguin Classics will usually cost you $9.99 or, for some of the longer ones, $12.99, and for some of the translated ones $15.99, and for the more less known versions $21.99. But we don’t know this, we don’t even know what each of Dickens’ novels should cost, let alone if one of them should be cheaper or dearer than a Jane Austen novel.

That may be nice capitalism, but for me, as a book lover, all it does is send me to the second hand book store, knowing I’ll always be getting value there.


Anonymous said...

I was involved at the periphery of the book industry in some Supply chain stuff.

What was apparent to me was that the book publishers and distributors control the market and the book seller, your local bookshop, basically at their mercy in terms of pricing.

The APA appeared, to me, to be a closed club of people who don't compete too hard, and who would like nothing more than to keep the door closed on 'real' competition.

One more thing, a look at the technical book market is compelling. What a book retails for on Amazon is often 2 to 3 times more than what it costs in a bookstore in Australia - that's about a $70.00 difference.

This is why I'm in favour of the removal of the import restrictions. Is our literature any more of a national asset than our textiles industries? Is the royalty cheque of an author worth more than the job of seamstress in Dapto? Apparently so.

Grog said...

cheers - as I have said, I don't know much about the actual book industry - just am a poor bewildered book buyer!

Anonymous said...

I can solveone mystery for you - the reason for price discrepencies at Borders and A&R is due to their erratic pricing standards, not the publisher's RRP. Booksellers often offer discount pricing to lure in customers, but lately Borders and A&R (merged as Red Group) have started bumping up the prices of many of their bestselling titles, sometimes as much as $5 a book. Dirt Music by Tim Winton has an RRP of $22.99 - at Borders it is $27.99.

Most publishers have standard pricing for each book type - eg B format fiction, trade paperback fiction, etc. The Australian public is at the mercy of the booksellers when it comes to pricing - unless you buy direct from the publisher, which is possible from several Aust publisher's websites. I recommend you try this in future.

Grog said...

Yep - we definately are at the bookseller's mercy.

Anonymous said...

And will be even more so at the mercy of the booksellers if the restrictions are lifted. Fingers crossed they stay in place, for the sake of the Aust book industry and the book buying public!

Anonymous said...

what bullshit... we are not at booksellers mercy. Publishers set the rrp at a level that ensures they make a profit, if Borders charge 10% above RRP because they can't get enough margin out of the publisher how is this differnet from the publisher setting the RRP too high to maximise their take??????

Yeah I sell books.... bet I make less money than a clothes shop or a publisher too

Grog said...

And yet when I go to a clothes shop I know what is a good price for a pair of jeans. And I can grasp why one pair might cost more than another.

The same cannot be said for books.

The RRP is no help - anyone out their paid the RRP for Dan Brown's latest?

I don't know the RRP of DVDs and CDs, but I can tell you if you are paying too much for one.

Someone gives me a copy of Dickens and says it's $16.50. I have no idea if that is a bargain or about right, especially when next to it is another Dickens going for $10.99 and one for $18.99.

Anonymous said...

and yet you miss the point again... book prices 90% of the time are at a RRP set by the publisher.

us shopkeeps cop the collateral damage it's why we are all so rude

apart from your gripe with pricing at borders who imho ignore rrp on 90%of titles...

And how do you know what a pair of jeans are worth? I would have no f'n idea why my levis cost half what a pair of gap jeans does... brand perhaps... actually.. maybe that's it.

the lesser classics drag the price down... austens mansfield park should of course be free with this rationale.

did mean to point out I enjoyed your analysis though... while i was being rude

Grog said...

fair enough - the RRP make no sense either.

I know why the Gap jeans cost double levis - they're niche and they're a fashion "label". Some economists would also argue the fact that they cost so much is part of their appeal - you have to be of a certain wealth to afford them. Are they "worth" double, of course not, but the same niche thing doesn't apply with most of the novels I looked at.

Tim Winton is not a "niche" author, and yet Cloudstreet was going for almost a third more than say Ulysses.

The fashion and niche thing would apply with different publishers - like the fact that Penguin Classics cost shirt loads more than the "Wordsworth Edition" versions, which is why I only compared Penguin Classics (but yeah, Balzac is more niche than Austen, I get that).

My gripe isn't only with Borders (and certainly isn't only with booksellers - I have no doubt publishers carry a lot of the blame as well, and I have no doubt booksellers are not roling in profits - though I'm not about to cry tears for Borders, Dymocks or Angus and Robertson).

My arguement is that compared with DVDs and CD (which I would argue is the closest competition for the book entertainment dollar) books are badly sold.

Is this due to the publishers (I'd say yes), the booksellers (I'd say yes), the paralel import restrictions (that I don't know - probably).

JB HiFi have $10 bargain bins with pretty bloody good CDs in there (ie not just old Shirley Bassey Greatest Hits Vol 3).

Why don't any book shops have similar sales? The best you get is a 3 for 2 deal, or perhaps a 15% off weekend.

I understand book shops may want to do this, but that publishers won't let them.

As I say, I'm not trying to blame either party - more I am just commenting that the current system of selling books seems (to me) pretty stupid.

And it's why I only buy second hand novels now.

And don't worry - I'm very interested in your comments, no need to apologise.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to post this so late... and after the legislation has been rejected! Your comments on the pricing of books really made me think, I am as bewildered as you! Plus, I do resent spending beaucoup bucks on a novel that isn't even paying its author royalties.

However, on the subject of parallel importation (I'll call it PI), I opposed it because firstly I don't believe that it would bring cheaper books (it certainly did not in NZ), and secondly it would be bad for writers. We would be one of the few countries on the planet to cede our territorial rights. The push for PI came from booksellers, the ones who have the most profit to make if PI restrictions are lifted--don't be naive in believing the 'savings' would be passed on for any but the Dan Brown novels of the world.

I notice 'Anonymous' made a comment that our literature is not much of an asset, I cannot agree. When a work is published in a foreign market, that market can (and often does) require changes to be made. These are changes that ensure the book is 'meaningful' to their local market. Most Australian authors who have published in the US have had to change their work, ranging from petty (like changing a character's backstory) to huge (like changing to a happy ending). Published authors protesting PI spoke about the changes they have been required to make to their US versions. If the Australian publishers fold, there will be no Australian versions.

While I love American culture, I don't want to read about sidewalks, garbage, and fries instead of footpaths, rubbish, and chips, always have a happy ending, and have to endure US spelling, in an Australian book. The price we pay to live in this fabulous country, a huge continent with a small population, is that, lacking critical mass, certain things will ALWAYS be more expensive here. If you don't like it, there are already viable alternatives--go secondhand, or buy the foreign version online.

PS I am not the same Anonymous!