The high cost of reading…

April 8, 2014

Yesterday’s post about translation also got me thinking about the cost of books here and abroad. The Mars Bar test of the relative costs of articles is quite interesting in this case. When I first bought paperbacks, as a child, with birthday or Christmas money, paperback books cost 2/6d, 3/-, or 3/6d, which is 5,6 or 7 Mars Bars respectively. If you take today’s Mars Bar at about 60p, then 5,6 or 7 Mars Bars equates to £3, £3.60 or £4.20, none of which amounts would buy you a new paperback book. New books start at £6.99 and up. And what’s with the 99p business? who are they fooling? So the price of books increases in £1 jumps.

Thinking about France, whose book market I’m reasonably familiar with: book prices there increase in 10cent jumps, which is a lot more reasonable. Equally, paperbacks start at 5€ and 6€, which is rather cheaper than here in Britain. And in France they pay VAT on books! I have long had the impression of being ripped off by greedy British (or multinational) publishers, and looking at the maths does nothing to dispel this…

I’ve also long been peeved by the poor quality of books sold here. Hardbacks (starting at around £20) are often printed on cheap paper which browns quite quickly, the spines are often glued rather than sewn, and the covers are thin, paper-covered cardboard. Paperbacks have improved a little since the 1980s when they were bound with dreadful glue that splintered and cracked, with whole sections falling out: I’ve lost count of the number of treasured books I’ve had to re-bind. But we seem to have been royally ripped-off by the shift to the ‘B format’ paperback (larger than the old ‘A format’), which seems to have been nothing other than an excuse for whacking prices up further. It’s interesting that the US market still produces some A format mass-market paperbacks, and also produces hardbacks to a much higher standard. They do have a bigger potential market, of course, and the related economies of scale.

I think publishers here have been greedy. They lost the battle over the Net Book Agreement, so seem to have marked prices up in order to safeguard the bottom line in the era of price-cutting. They didn’t see the huge shift to internet sales coming, and don’t really seem to have a plan.

I think it’s a great shame that so many bookshops have gone out of business, but when over-priced books of relatively poor quality are available at a realistic (i.e. discounted) rather than extortionate (i.e. full) price online, I’d be daft not to go that way. Of course, in France they have a law that restricts discounting to 5% only, in order to protect bookshops. I don’t know how successful it has been.

Basically, I’m getting old…

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