A romantic anecdote from 1980 that leads to some insights about book prices today:
That year, I was a young editor doing historical novels and learning the business. I found myself in a great little bookstore in Brookline, Massachusetts, that I used to frequent. The owners had a very good sense of the market and I used to run ideas past them as I attempted to figure out what the hell I was doing.
One day I was looking at the best-seller table and struggling with whether to buy a new book that was the talk of the town. I didn't have much interest in it, but I felt I SHOULD read it. (You know the feeling.) A young woman next standing near me caught my eye as I flipped through the first couple of pages. "Buying into the hype?" she asked. "Or struggling against it?"
As she had a copy of the same book in her hand, I replied "And I might ask you the same question."
She replied that she was on a limited budget and the waiting list for the book was a mile long at the library. Ultimately she gave me a smile, put the book down, and went on her merry way to explore other parts of the store. Though money was tight, her smile was more powerful than a simple slip of green paper, so I took two copies of the book to the front of the store and purchased them. I asked the owner for two bags, a sheet of paper, and a pen. I wrote a note: "I would love to discuss the hype and whether or not the book lives up to it. If you'd like to talk, maybe meet me here a month from today around 7 p.m.? Agatho." I then put the book and note in the bag, handed it to owner, and asked him to give it to the young lady before she left the store. Then I ran out as fast as my cowardly little legs would take me.
The young lady has now been my wife for 33 years.
So as not to keep you in suspense, the book was Jean M. Auel's THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR, and the cover price was $12.95. As I mentioned, the year was 1980.
I used CPI (Consumer Price Index) inflation rate to calculate what $12.95 in 1980 would be worth now, in 2015. The answer: $37.45.
So, if book prices had kept up with inflation, the way groceries, and houses, and everything else has, we'd now be paying in the area of $40 for a hardcover book. But do we pay anywhere near that? No, we do not. To use the stellar books from last week's post as examples, I am going to list their current price on Amazon. In parentheses are what you would have paid for these books in 1980:
THE DEVIL'S SHARE, by Wallace Stroby
Today's price in hardcover: $19.25 ($6.66)
Today's ebook price: $12.99 ($4.49)
GREEN HELL, by Ken Bruen
Today's price in hardcover: $18.63 ($6.44)
Today's ebook price: $9.00 ($3.11)
NEVER KILL A FRIEND, by Martin Hill
Today's price in hardcover: $20.45 ($7.07)
Today's price in ebook: $4.99 ($1.73)
TAKING PITY, by David Mark
Today's price in hardcover: $17.31 ($5.99)
Today's price in ebook: $5.99 ($2.19)
So, please take a close look at the (1980) prices. In 1980 I paid $12.95 for a copy of CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR. That same year, I could have bought THE DEVIL'S SHARE for $6.66, TAKING PITY for $5.99, or GREEN HELL for $6.44. In other words, hardcover books are HALF the price today that they were in 1980.
But let's not stop there. Let's also look at ebooks, which are insanely cheap. Today, in 2015, you have the chance to get a HARDCOVER original (traditionally a sign of top quality) for about a sixth of what you would have paid for THE CLAN OF THE CAVE BEAR in 1980. NEVER KILL A FRIEND would have cost you a mere $1.73 in 1980.
Is it any wonder why we in the industry get so frustrated at the number of book grubbers who never want to spend a dime for books, who grab as many free books at conventions as possible (with the goal of reselling them as soon as possible), and who complain about us greedy publishers who just want to shake money out of the poor, unsuspecting public? (I hasten to add that I am not including library patrons in any of this. Libraries buy books. Publishers get revenue and authors get royalties. Those on limited budgets get to read good books. Everyone wins.)
The Internet Age has much to recommend it, but with it has come this bizarre expectation that all entertainment should be free. The number of illegal PDF's of my company's books all over the Web is sickening -- even more sickening is the number of people who have no compunction about downloading these books because, after all, they deserve free books, and why not stick it to the greedy publishers?
Madonna recently said that anyone who downloads any of her songs illegally is raping her. Her metaphor is not inappropriate.