Why are books so bloody expensive?


I have to say I really hate it when I see a blog post with an interesting title that concerns a complicated subject, only to find - on going to all that trouble of moving my fingers, clicking on the link, and waiting all of three or so seconds for the page to load - that the author has played the dumbass, and has instead reeled you in with a whole one line of text, or a picture, or something equally lame. Yes, I really, really hate that.

On an unrelated subject, do books really have to be so ~ucking expensive? I mean, seriously, who sets the prices? I'm going through a phase of buying reptile and amphibian field guides. It's ok if the books are less than about £20 ($32 US, â¬23), but if they're more than this, and if you're on an, err, limited budget, forget it.

Take Alan Channing and Kim Howell's Amphibians of East Africa, for example. Invaluable, but you can't get it for less than about $50 US (or £30 or so). And what about Frank Glaw and Miguel Vences's A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Madagascar: well, you either need to be rich (comparatively speaking), or to take out a second mortgage, as it's a whopping £79 ($131 US or â¬93). I mean, seriously... come on. There are lots of other examples.


Can someone seriously tell me that books - even lavishly illustrated, high quality ones like these - really need to be this expensive? I know that profits need to be made, authors and photographers and designers and editors need to be paid and so on (I'm not entirely naive: I've authored several books myself, and have a few in the pipeline, all by highly respectable, mainstream publishers), but - purely from the point of view of disseminating knowledge and promoting education - how can high prices be justified? Or.. is it really, really the wrong time to be asking this? Oh, and I'm not just ranting or picking a fight - I really want to know the answer.

Maybe I should ask my friends in publishing, but this seemed easier and involved less effort.

More like this

Or you can talk very, very nicely to your parents and get them to buy you 'A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Madagascar' for Christmas. Specialist books are too expensive though, my Amazon wishlist is filled with books I would love but cannot afford.

By Mary Blanchard (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

My lovely parents are of the opinion that I own too many books, and they refuse to buy me new ones. It's been that way for the past 15 years or so. Harrumph.

It's the low volume, I reckon - I recently picked up Rachel Bromwich's Trioedd Ynys Prydein: Triads of the Island of Britain (Third Edition) on sale, reduced from £65 to £45... And it's got no photos. But it will probably only sell a few thousand copies (at most), mostly to university libraries. On the other hand, I bought Chapman's complete Homer for the princely sum of £1.99, brand new...

I'd always assumed it was due to the cost of paying us photographers for all the photos in question and limit print runs (the former being part of the reason I'm such a soft touch when someone says "we'd love to use one of your photos in our book but we're on such a limited budget.......").

When its hugely expensive and not lavishly illustrated my sympathy is very limited.

The same is true for medical literature. Any respectable textbook (Harrison's, or Cecil, or Mandell) will set you back at least 200-300 euros. Even paperbacks usually are around 50 euros. Let us not even discuss sheet music which is ridiculously expensive.

By Tsutsugamushi (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

Books I can't afford I try and get hold of through Uni libraries,but yes they are expensive, I assumed it is to do with small market, lavish illustrations and photographs and they expect Universities and Libraries to buy them rather than just interested parties.
World Cat is useful for finding books http://www.oclc.org/worldcat/

Bangot might have some of them, I think they have a Herp specialist in their Zoology dept. (Bernd Wueste)

Lots of academic publishing companies make a profit on the production of books, not the sales; i.e. they receive subsidies for producing a title, and are not always interested in sales. Moreover, they try to squeeze the last ounce of money out of university libraries, who are more or less forced to buy specialist titles, thus leaving us poor sods having to pay library prices. Usually, things become a bit more reasonable after a while. I remember my Ph.D. supervisor co-authoring a book which had to cost a massive 300 euros; on 'sale', it still is about 90. It's a big book (600 pages or so), but not lavishly produced, with hardly any pictures at all and using low-grade paper.
Unfortunately, they still have us by the b*lls. Still more reason to resort to open access publishing.

What is even worse with academic titles, they never get cheaper - even after 50 years in print Bird-Steward-Lightfoot's "Transport Phenomena" it's still going for $125. And no, no fancy artwork and pictures.
Do the biology titles at least come with a recipe section?

Well, being a zoology-and paleontology blogger myself I have to say that I really would like to write more about interesting photos, but often I don´t have the time for longer posts. So I try in general to post better nice photos than nothing...But at least you see always the complete posts on my blog, and not only teaser photos and headlines. When I started my blog, I wrote a lot of long and detailed posts, because I had comparably much time, but time has become more scarce, and I often just have no time for long posts. But in two weeks my semester will be finished, and I hope to have again more time to blog.
But to come to the main topic. Yes, it is really often nearly criminal how expensive some books are. I am in general willed to buy even a more expensive book when its content makes it worth enough, but a lot of books are just highly overprized. There are of course exceptions, books like the "Enceclopedia of Marine Mammals" which are better than 10 other books together and where the price is reasonable (but I won´t still buy a book for 130 Euro, especially when I can read it also at the university library). The most expensive book I ever bought was a huge biochemistry book which did cost about 80 Euros, but only because I really needed it for a semester when I had a biochemistry course. I still not managed it to publish one of my several own book projects, but I think also even economically more sense to make the pices not too high, because a whole lot of people won´t buy it.

Because they are sold to university libraries. How many people might be interested in, say "Wildlife of islands of Tristan da Cunha"?

On the other hand, they are impossible to sell. We spent like EUR150 on bird and mammal books and recodings on Venezuelan trip and cannot sell them back. Anyone going to Venezuela? Never was interested how a bearded bellbird sounds like or how to tell puma from jaguar footprints?

BTW - you CAN find wildlife books extremely cheaply on amazon & the like of them.

I remember that I tried to find Schaller's "Wildlife of Tibetan Steppe" and couldn't find less than say EUR100 or similar outrageous sum. Few months later I casualy looked at amazon and bought one of several used-as-new ones for a normal price.

Simple answer is that these books are only expected to sell a limited number of copies. In order for the publisher to realize some amount of profit, the price is jacked up. And then quite often the publisher doesn't sell the amount needed to break even. That for some reason signals the publisher to make the price even more ridiculous on future titles.

Note that I very deliberately wrote that the publisher is looking to realize a profit.

By Bruce J. Mohn (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

At this age (31 :/ ) I've noticed that the books I really need are either wikkid expensive or dirt cheap. I could easily tell you my tale of woe; how there used to be three lovely used/discount/surplus and salvage bookstores within a quick bus ride of my house and now they're all gone. Some of the coolest nonfiction books I own were from those stores, and I found loads and loads of imaginative fantastic fiction novels that I otherwise would have never heard of. I'm much less likely to buy a book I've never heard of and potentially discover a hidden gem if the book in question costs up to ten bucks than if it costs only fifty cents.
On the flipside, there was the time when I had to have the Gregory S. Paul book I hadn't heard of before but which had to be a beautifully illustrated follow-up to Predatory Dinosaurs of the World (one of my favorite nonfiction books ever); a forty dollar brick named Dinosaurs of the Air.
Turns out it's a textbook...

And the above should read:
"At this age (31) I've noticed that the books I really need are either wikkid expensive or dirt cheap. ect. ect."
Have no idea what happened there.

Yeah - I just edited your comment because the platform didn't like the emoticon you used...

Funny, I just pre-ordered the " The Great Dinosaur Discoveries" HC thru Amazon.com.for $19.77. Release date Oct 2009. Publisher Univ of Calif Press,AUTHOR Darren Naish. I just happen to be on a number Of University Mailing Lists for specific Natural History Puiblications and I belong to the Sci American Book Club.I look for discounts and sales at Border`s and Barnes& Noble.
I am retired and limit my purchaes to quality books that i can pass on.

By Bob Michaels (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

Hear, hear
I spend more on these books than on beer and whiskey in my student days.
And trust Elysian and Walhalla didn't come cheap.

Ha ha - good to see that I'm not a hypocrite, as $19.77 is pretty cheap. Thanks for your support Bob :)

Purely for the sake of interest, I want to add at this point that I own some horrendously expensive books: the most disgustingly expensive being Evolution of Tertiary Mammals of North America, Vol. 2: Small Mammals, Xenarthrans, and Marine Mammals. An unbelievable $270, or £120 on Amazon.co.uk. Mine's a review copy, of course.

I suspect that if the price of a $50 book on amphibians was lowered to $20, only a relative handful of increased sales would result. Most of the people who want or need these books have such specialized needs that they are going to buy them almost regardless of cost, and dropping the price isn't going to tempt some random person in a book store to suddenly get interested in the amphibians of East Africa.

The answer is that academic/specialized books sell low volume but that most publishers want to maintain a large profit. Even in more mainstream science writing I have heard that selling 10 000 copies would be considered a best seller. And you can be sure that "Birds of the Upper Montane Forests of Costa Rica (I made that up) isn't going to sell 10 000 copies. But the ultimate problem is that many academic publishers--ahem, Elsevier, Springer, ahem--exploit authors and the reading public by charging ridiculous prices so that they make bucket loads of money and maintain their multinational stranglehold on the publishing and academic library world. On the other hand, there are publishers such as UC Press which charge more reasonable prices even for their large, academic titles (e.g. Oceanic Anglerfishes for about $85, and they sell at discount to Amazon so you can often get it cheaper) so we should do what we can to support them.

By Ben Speers-Roesch (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

You know, I wanted to have my own Handbook of mammals of the World for 110EUR but thought it will be unacceptable opulence.


Low volume, definitely. Most of these very expensive books are smaller publishers, so their production costs are higher than the big guys to begin with. Also, sadly for smaller libraries with small budgets, they mostly cater to academic libraries/departments with big budgets. If you want to do a good deed though, buy the books from the smaller publishers who are further afield, and get all the Elsevier/Blackwell/Wiley big pub books from the library.

Low volume, low expected readership...the science books that I buy are sometimes cost-prohibitive. Example: I'm not sure where I'm going to find the spare change to shell out for the upcoming ceratopsid volume ($110!). Granted, it's well over 700 pages of horned dinosaur goodness, but yeesh--that's-a pricey a-meat-a-ball!

It doesn't help that copyright terms are as long as they are. If they were the same as patents, these books would become public domain after 15 years or so. Still a long time for authors to make profits, but not so long that monopolies can keep a 50 year old reference prohibitively expensive.

If everyone who reads Darren's blog would just click on the "Donate Button" concealed artfully, way, way down the page under the Isle of Wight, Darren could buy the books he needs to regale us with the details we all crave.

By Nathan Myers (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

Even in more 'mainstream' areas, reference/nonfiction books are pricey. For instance, I want to buy "Domain Driven Design" by Eric Evans (ISBN 978-0321125217), but even Amazon wants $52 for it. And it's the kind of book that every programmer should read, not something limited to a handful of specialists.

And don't get me started on textbooks. Trigonometry hasn't changed in centuries, and calculus in decades... why do we need a new $150 book every four years?

While I agree with Darren in general here, I stumped up for a copy of Vences and Glaw when I went to Madagascar a few years back and it was worth every penny. I spent as much time as possible in the back country and would have had to lug along a library in order to identify what I was seeing if I hadn't had this field guide. It was a low-budget trip but this one luxury purchase made such a difference in how much I got out of it.

There is one publisher whose bird field guides seem very much more expensive than comparable guides from other publishers. Even at the annual 20% sale at the local Audubon society bookshop the books are just so expensive.

I haven't bought a high-quality natural history book for almost a decade now because of the price of any decent ones around - and it is even worse for historical literature, which as a recent Medieval History graduate I needed to buy quite often. One primary source which I honestly needed my own copy of would have cost me £500, whereas if I were able to order from abroad (which at the time I couldn't) it would have cost me the lesser price (but still far too much) of $75

The last natural history book I purchased, incidentally, was The New Encyclopedia of Mammals by David W. Macdonald and Sasha Norris (Hardcover - 27 Sep 2001)

By Dave Howlett (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

One of my other interests is military history. The original German editions of the volumes of the magisterial 'Germany and the Second World War' go for about $60 US, which is not unreasonable considering their bulk and that they come with a reasonable number of maps. If I read German, I'd get them all (they're up to about 9 volumes now). Unfortunately, Oxford University Press which publishes the English translations charges well north of $200 US for the same volume. They're not original, they generally use the German maps and yet they are far more costly. The best guess anyone has is that OUP reckons nobody but libraries would buy them at any price so they do a short print run at a ridiculous price. Grumble, grumble, grumble.

On the other hand, news of forthcoming 'The Great Dinosaur Discoveries' is most welcome.

By Mike from Ottawa (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

You want expensive books? Try Art History. Used books often run over $100, if you can find them. I was paying $200 + in Grad School 15 years ago.

At least sometimes you have really luck. I have a lot of books which I bought for a VERY moderate price, for example Nelson´s "Fishes of the World" which costs new at amazon 114 Euro. I think I bought my copy for 20 or so. Just this morning I found also a copy of Karl Shuker´s "In Search of Prehistoric Survivors", a book which is among the most expensive but most interesting publications in cryptozoology. I have it seen very often for well over than 100 Euros, but know I found a copy for just 10Euros including shipping from the UK(!!!). Sometimes you just have to wait some time, untill suddenly a merchant will offer a good price.

I totally agree, Darren.

Also, in response to the cover of "Amphibians and Reptiles of Madagascar", all I can say is "All hail the hypno-toad!"

By Tim Morris (not verified) on 14 Jul 2009 #permalink

You've highlighted yet another reason why traditional publishing is going to be flushed down the sewers of history as more and more people publish electronically.

So, I see this message has a great reaction from the side of readers. You see, that's why in Russia some people just scan and convert books into PDF, DjVU and other formats and load them into Internet for free using. Yes, I know, there are some kinds of copyrights and copylefts, but all the same, there are variuos free libraries for loading of books. I also make it, but my own library is very small compared to some giant ones like this:
http://zoometod.narod.ru/ - Russian and English books about animals and plants.
http://herba.msu.ru/shipunov/school/sch-ru.htm - great botanical library (Russian)

Yes, copyright is good thing... for author's benefit. But I think most of readers may agree that knowledge must belong to everybody.

By Pavel I. Volkov (not verified) on 15 Jul 2009 #permalink

Maybe I should ask my friends in publishing, but this seemed easier and involved less effort.

LOL! Darren, are you feeding the legend of your 'laziness'?

By Graham King (not verified) on 15 Jul 2009 #permalink

I recently tried to see about what is apparently the only book with a thorough analysis of solifugids - until I realized that is was $250+ and only a couple hundred pages.

By Chris Wellems (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

You think just the buying of expensive books is annoying.

$170 textbooks that I only need for class and when I use the buyback system I get $30 back. The Hofstra bookstore stinks with prices. It's a gyp but we all use it anyway.

While we are on the subject of books does any one know any good books on Synapsid evolution or animal behavior.

If everyone who reads Darren's blog would just click on the "Donate Button" concealed artfully, way, way down the page under the Isle of Wight, Darren could buy the books he needs to regale us with the details we all crave.

Problem is, as far as I can tell, most readers aren't any richer than Darren himself. I'm not even only talking about my fellow grad students. Scientists in general tend not to be rich, except the best and luckiest ones, and even those only in late stages of their careers.

By David MarjanoviÄ (not verified) on 19 Jul 2009 #permalink

It's true. Speaking as someone who has worked in the drinks industry, in retail, and in the media (where the amount of money kicking around is insane), my feelings are that the wages typically available to scientists are (comparatively speaking) a joke. Becoming a scientist is - financially - a poor decision. Maybe if I were a tenured professor I might have a different take on things...

I always thought that some titles were so high because university libraries were well funded. It is tough to get what you want when you are a non- academic naturalist who lives far from any university. But somehow I usually find the money for ones I "need" like Johnson and Janiga's Feral Pigeons or books on the evolution of birds. Books are my highest priority!

If you want to actually ask a publisher, Krieger Publishing is a small publisher with a heavy herpetological bias, there's a good chance that the person answering the phone is the owner (or you can ask for him; there aren't many staff) and he'd probably be happy to explain the numbers to you.

But basically, even with zero author advance, and assuming that the illustrations are all provided by the author too (i.e. no technical artist to pay), a publisher has to pay, up front, for editing, typesetting (has come down a lot lately), advertising (not a lot, but there is some), making printing plates, doing a print run of a few thousand copies, warehousing overhead, and distribution.

All before any actual sales are made. Which is a bit of a crap-shoot. I know Krieger generally starts offering discounts when a book has made its own production costs back. Which usually takes a couple of years.

Now, admittedly, the above is all a matter of what the minimum is a book can cost without bankrupting the publisher.

The actual price computation is finding the maximum of (wholesale price â variable cost of sale) Ã (copies sold). With appropriate time amortization. So a publisher is not interested in halving the price unless it will more than double the sales. For an esoteric and specialized book, the market just isn't that big.

In fact, the main thing holding the price down is competition from similar books from other publishers. If you're publishing a generic Category Romance (Harlequin, Silhouette, etc.) novel, which are highly interchangeable, then a $0.50 increase in price is going to result in all your readers defecting to Mills & Boon.

Buy the more specialized a subject is, the less interchangeable the books are. And the less price competition there is to worry about.

Have any of you read Feynman's story about the time he was on a high school textbook review committee? After a lengthy period of despairing about the quality, the committee had two evenly-matched books, and the choice was to be made based on cost. So they called the salesmen in and started talking about price. Now, this was a situation where there was a high-volume sale that would be made or broken based on prices which were normally not considered by textbook review committees. Oh, how the prices did fall! Every time they asked for a change like earlier delivery (which normally is used as an excuse to jack the price), the salesmen would use it as an excuse to undercut each other.

A Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Madagascar is available at this site, newly set up to raise awareness of the endangered frogs of Madagascar.

Pity it's only available in the local Malagasy language. But there is Threatened frogs of Madagascar.