The Price of a Book – Why Does $20 Feel Expensive for a Book but not a Shirt?

I was recently at a used book store. A delightful used book store, I should amend, with a Norwegian Forest cat on duty and a charming selection of familiar and off the beaten path titles. I plopped myself down in front of the YA selection and came away with two books – Poison Study (late to the game on this one – it came out in 2006!) and Dreams and Shadows (The cover is pretty and featured a blurb that likened it to The Magicians, a favorite among my favorite books) – for the princely sums of $6 and $13.


Pretty covers, amirite? They worked. I caved. I purchased them. …at a used bookstore, but it’s the thought that counts.

My dad was shocked. “$13 for a book?? Is it made of gold?” My dad is a book lover too, and not adverse to paying bank for hard to find or rare books. But I had to agree, $13 for paperback feels on the edge of ridiculous. I expect paperbacks to be $9.99 at their highest, with $5.99 being an acceptable price. I often won’t even consider a hardback, because a) I happen to just prefer paperbacks and b) with list prices between $15.95 and $24.95, not even counting crazily priced literary fiction that can be up to $34.99, I simply cannot pay that much for a book.

Of course, when you break these list prices down between the publisher’s cut, the distributor, DRM and the the author. The author’s cut is usually 10-15%, and that could even be considered generous. So in order to make money, the price remains pretty high. Even if this makes sense, paying more than $15 for one books still feels like highway robbery.

So I purchased my books, paying the $20 and feeling somewhat cheated, when I realized that I was wearing a shirt I’s bought at Forever21 for $22.80. Two book for the price of one poor quality sweatshop-made blouse, I shouldn’t feel cheated. This was the written word! The worlds a book could and would transport me to during the years of my owning it are surely worth the cover price. In fact, $20 for a book?? That seems downright cheap for the escapism and entertainment I’m getting! A book should DEFINITELY be worth more than my cheap shirt.

But do I believe this? Yes…in theory….but in practice? Absolutely not. If your average book was $20+, even for a paperback and with the requisite automatic 30% off book distributors give, I would buy maaaany fewer books. I already buy most of my books via thrift stores, where book prices top out around $1.75 and ebooks, where even $2.99 can feel steep. Even though my brain knows that thinking paying $25 for a dress that I’ll wear twice is a bargain is illogical, it doesn’t mean I’ll suddenly become a person who’ll pay $29.95 for a hardback.