What is a Book Worth?

Here’s a story.

A friend of mine happened to be browsing online when the news of JK Rowling’s pseudonymously published crime novel hit Twitter. Being in kind of a prime position to take advantage of this, he and a couple of friends bought the final copies of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling. The books probably cost them somewhere between £12 – £16.

Then they put them on E-bay.

I don’t know the exact amounts each person got for their books, one I think was around £200, another, sightly higher. And my friend? Well my friend managed to get a lot more than that for his copy. An astonishing amount to be fair. Let’s not forget, these guys only paid £16 at the most for their copies, and suddenly they’re worth over ten times that much.

On Saturday I went into two different stores from the same chain to find two different prices for the new Margaret Atwood book. Apparently if you were so inclined, you could walk ten minutes down the road and get it for £2 cheaper.

Which got me thinking, how much is a book worth?

It used to be fairly straightforward. A book would be for sale in any of your wonderful bookshops. The price would be clear on the back, or the inside cover and sometimes you’d get an offer, a three for two or something. You’d pay what, £7.99 for a new paperback? Maybe a couple of quid for a used copy from a charity shop. Sure, old first editions would go for a bit, but that’s just the nature of collectors. And yes, I know I’m massively oversimplifying this, and I’m sure it was never like that at all anyway but bear with me here.

Then came Amazon. Then came the supermarkets. Then came competitive business mindedness.

Supermarkets

Nowadays, your average paperback can sell in a supermarket for £3.99, even on the day of release. Hardbacks, £7.99. It’s a scary world, because those books will be shifted, and why? Because of the price. Because of impulse. Because they are there and they are cheap. And so the publisher will churn out more, and the supermarket will stock their shelves high with Dan Browns and John Grishams and Stephanie Meyers and all of them.

Supermarket

Of course, this is a) a different article altogether about commercial books and the danger of cheap selling of mainstream titles further straining the chances of emerging authors getting a chance and b) easily solvable by buying from somewhere else.

Online

Lets look at a proper real life example of how ridiculous this all is.

Gone Girl seems to be doing pretty well, Gillian Flynn has apparently written a pretty damn good book there, although I’ve yet to read it.

On Amazon, you can buy the paperback for £3.85 or the Kindle edition £2.99 direct from the business. That’s pretty close to the supermarket prices, right? Well, look at the used copies. The cheapest I found was £3.00, and the most expensive? £29.99. £30 for the same version of the book you can buy for just £3.

DanBrown

When I put the question out online, I got some really interesting responses.

Holloway

Chenson

So how do we judge a the value of a book? Obviously first editions have and always will be a valuable commodity, something that is worth something simply by being the first. That’s neither here nor there really, what intrigues me is how people value your garden variety paperback.

So, I’m putting the question out to you. What is a book worth?

Pop your comments below!

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14 thoughts on “What is a Book Worth?

  1. It depends on the book and why you want it. We collect books and my wife binds them, so we often spend a great deal at an auction. It’s also about availability. We were looking for an autobiography by a diplomat who served on the same ship as my father in law and was sunk then rescued by the Japanese. It was very expensive, but worth the price. I’m currently assembling a collection of famous people I’ve known. One biography is very rare and will cost a great deal. Sometimes you find such a book for a fortune and then find a copy for ninepence in the Oxfam shop. Such are the joys of book collecting.

  2. It’s quite a strange concept.

    You could argue that all books (of the same format) should go for the same price, kind of like a new DVD being about a tenner, except that some are twice are long as others, or better researched…so how do you value the authors inputs, as well as the artistic outcomes? Once a book has sold a certain amount you could say that the author has made their money and now it’s time to open it up to a wider audience (The supermarket shopper Michael Buble buying audience for example) by reducing it to 4 quid at Tesco or giving it away with Cosmopolitan at the airport.

    Obviously some books change personal value to you after you’ve read them. For example I’d pay through the nose for a copy of Use of Weapons or Stamping Butterflies, but you’d have to pay me to take away a Jeffrey Archer novel. Some people may feel the opposite. Some books, such as that One hundred Year Old man who… and Life of Pi I bought from the Amazon store on my Kindle for 20p. I’d say they were both worth more than that. Although I already had Life of Pi in paperback, but I’d forgotten it so I thought I’d re-read it and at 20p I thought, now is my chance.

    I remember in my youth buying CDs from Japan for double the price of the UK pressing just to get the one bonus track that wasn’t available over here, and now the e-book means that literature is also open to piracy just like music and cinema were.

    …but I digress… I think what I’m trying to say is…damned if I know.

    • G, that’s a really great response. I know exactly what you mean about paying more for something rarer.

      With comics, you tend to get variant covers with some issues and the prices of those issues tend to increase depending on how rare those covers are.

      But really, the interior: it’s the same.

      The CD example is really interesting (I used to do the same, but Spotify has kind of ruined all that now). I can see e-books applying a similar logic, giving the reader those “bonus tracks” etc…without having to cost more.

  3. Do you think the e-book has been able to quantify the value of the physical product? By that logic, according to Amazon my book is £1.08 more valuable than just downloading a file. I rarely pay the full price for anything, precisely because we’re shown how cheap books can be – not just by the supermarkets and the internet, but places like Fopp and HMV, who have sold half-decent but low cost works for a long time now. You go into the high street chains and see the same books at closer to their RRP, which leaves you with the feeling that it’s merely the shop that is profiteering. That’s why I’m rarely compelled to pay full price for a book, unless it’s from one of my absolute favourite authors. The same applies for hard back books – I read a lot when in transit, so not only are hardbacks more expensive, they’re an extra weight to lug around.

    • To be honest, the only e-books I have bought are the ones on offer, either free or a couple of quid. I’ve bought a fair few digital comics, but again those are either discounted heavily, or designed to be only read digitally.

      I think publishers are struggling to work out what to do with e-books. For me, just releasing something directly online and expecting an audience to read it in the same way they would read a book, isn’t working. I know other people do it, and have transitioned fine, but I need a physical thing to make it feel like I’ve achieved something.

      It’s the same with the pricing, I don’t feel like paying £10 for a digital file of something because when I look at my shelf – I have nothing to show for it.

      • With regards to e-books and printed media I don’t think we’ll see a split to fully digital in our lifetime, because there’ll always be that thing of wanting a hard copy to put on your bookshelf, then there’s the ridiculous yet widespread concept of ‘I love the way a book smells’. I wouldn’t pay as much for an e-file as 1, you could lose your kindle (or whatever) 2, it cost less to produce, and 3, not having something to show for it (See Dan’s comment above^)

        Trawling bookshops for particular copies or a cheap read is a big hobby, kind of like DJs who go to record shops and people who deal in antiques. The high street bookshop may have it’s time when the publishers realise that they are pouring more money into printing presses, paper, distribution and fighting Greenpeace than they are earning from hard copy sales just to satisfy the whims of a few old die hard book fans. As today’s on-line digital children become tomorrow’s readers demand is clearly going to wane. But the second hand bookshop will live on. IN 300 years time a copy of some dire chick-lit or SAS novel bought from the top of a Waterstone’s 3 for 2 pile could eclipse even the rarest of first pressings available today.

        …keep your books safe

  4. e-books are still a strange beast to me.

    but, have been on both sides of the vendor table for big stores, the cheapo prices at supermarkets are a combination of a few obvious factors: they are buying in bulk, pallets of the same title at time and publishers love it; they may be using these books as loss leaders or low margin items; they know people will buy them as impulse or convenience items items (some wants a thriller. they don’t care whose name is on it), handful of other reasons.

    I try to buy through independent booksellers, even if it through ABE or an independent seller on Amazon. I know I’m paying more. but often I’m getting personalized service, and i’m helping to keep someone’s business alive, you know?

    • I try and do the same thing (buying from independent booksellers), but then Manchester is a bit empty of those. We have second hand bookshops, charity shops, and then the two big bookshops (Waterstones and Blackwell). There isn’t, unless you leave the city, a proper independent bookshop, which is a huge shame.

      So, like you, I go to Amazon and make sure I buy from indie sellers on there. But I still worry about the cut Amazon are getting out of that.

  5. Good article. The range of prices of individual new titles is an oddity these days. The closeness in price of Ebooks to real books is also strange. Surely an ebook should be a lot cheaper than a proper book based on the fact that an ebook amounts to renting the content while you can share or eventually pass on or sell a proper book (sometimes for amounts far exceeding the initial cost).

    • You know what I find completely bizarre: I got an e-mail from Amazon the other week asking me if I wanted to pre-order the Doctor Sleep e-book.

      Why on Earth would you want to pre-order an e-book?

      Some publishers are completely approaching e-readers/e-books as just “a way for people to read like they always do” and it’s not right at all for me.

  6. Another thought on price… I’ve been to reader events at litfests etc (for which I’ve paid entrance) and there has been a Waterstones or similar supplier in attendance, selling the author’s books at cover price. When the same book is available online for several pounds less, that seems a tad exploitative. Yes, you can get your copy personally signed, but then most authors will happily sign a copy that a reader has brought with them.

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