The Price of Books

Everyone loves to complain about the price of things without really thinking about what it costs to make it happen. How can a book cost R200, wails the consumer (nearly always while spending the same amount on silly cocktails).  How dare the bookstore charge this! How disgusting, knowledge and stories should be free to all!

This happens to me at so many dinner parties and similar arbitrary gatherings that I thought it would be best to set my thoughts down once and for all on the matter. I am tired of people complaining about how their latest copy of some tawdry romance cost them more than a meal, and then focusing that petty anger on me as some convenient representative of the book industry as a whole. I know I’m not the only one to get it in the neck; book reps get asked why the covers are so shit (and therefore drastically reducing the book’s chances of success) and store managers get scolded for painting the store the wrong colour. (I shit you not, this has happened.)

So, this is a handy guide to why books cost what they do, and why one should be grateful they don’t cost more.

The Birth of the Book

Of course, books don’t fall from the sky into the laps of publishers. First, a story must be written. Once that’s been done (in anything from six months to ten years), it gets picked up by a literary agent and/or a publishing house. If the book is pitched at a major book fair, there may be an auction for it. Sometimes these auctions run into 6-figure sums. A page hasn’t been printed and the publisher is already in debt. Usually though, the manuscript is selected and the author is usually paid an advance, and will get royalties once the money spent on the book’s production has been paid back. This seems to average around $15,000, but it can go much higher. Or lower. If the author is a megastar, then they draw a regular salary that needs to be paid. Ultimately, publishing companies need to charge just for the text to defray publishing costs.

This is just for raw product; words on paper. The words then need to be edited, covers must be designed and galleys must be printed. Now there are more people involved, and who need to be paid for their services. Marketing must be done. PR must be paid. Printing must begin! The price of printing books doubled last year, by the way. My contacts at Penguin tell me that an average-length book averages about R60 just to print and bind. It was R30 in 2009. A print run can be anything between 500 to 5 million copies. The opening print run of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was 750,000 copies, for example. Victor: My Journey has a print run of 34,000 copies. And that’s just for a rugby biography. And if the book has colour, then that price is going to double. This is why cookbooks are so expensive.

Now the book, and all its attendant finery of flyers, decals and posters, is ready to go. This is just a top-list book, never mind mid and bottom list books that don’t even get flyers. Ag shame.

Oh, the places this book will go!

 Unless the book is locally produced either by a local publishing house or a local arm of one of the Big Six, it must travel here. Now, the only books that get air-freighted to meet worldwide release dates are books like Harry Potter. Otherwise, everything is shipped to South Africa over the course of several weeks. This is why we always get books late. But before they can even get on a boat here, those books have to be paid for somewhere. The publishers pay to have them printed and shipped; this gets worked into the price that distributors buy them for. And, you guessed it; those prices are negotiated according to the exchange rate. So, if the Rand has been somewhat slapped about by the big boy currencies, then those books aren’t coming in cheap. Since we get about 60% of our books from the UK, we have to trade in the almighty Sterling. Yay.

And that’s before they’ve even gotten to our shores and airports. Our friends at Customs continue to slap an import tax on the books. You know, as punishment for bringing them here and the audacity of teaching children to read. (This is partly why textbooks are so expensive.) From the ports, those books go to warehouses by truck. Add on transport fees, and then feel free to work out how much it costs to get thousands of books all over the country, including hellholes like Kimberly. (On a sidenote, apparently Kimberly is the only place that could sell its stock of that awful Jock of the Bushveld gaffe.) If the price of petrol has gone up like the hemline of a teenage girl’s miniskirt, then add that onto the price too.

Adoption and Home

Finally! The book has arrived at the store after birth and travel. The boxes are opened, the booksellers reverently arrange the bestsellers at the front of the store in the hopes of snaring in customers. The ones with pretty covers glisten in the windows, and the big names are piled high. But the floors and tables don’t come cheap.

Rent has becoming an increasingly bigger nightmare for all store owners, but few get hit worse than stores with lots of shopliftable product and cheap-ass customers who will read an entire book and then leave it behind. Rent inJohannesburg, for example, averages between R700 to R1000 a square metre in the big shopping centres. When you extrapolate the size of your favourite bookstore, and start factoring in rent, it starts to look a bit more sensible. Now that the book has come to its first temporary home, its shelter costs a fair bit. Electricity, staff pay, music licences (it is illegal to play music without a licence from SAMA), stock purchases, banking fees with each credit card swipe, theft and insurance are all built into that price. Add to this the plastic bags that keep your book safe until it gets home. What about general upkeep and maintenance? Then there are book launches, where people often drink and eat free without buying a single book to ease off some of the costs.

So, when you pay for that book, you are paying the author, the publishers, the printers, the transport companies, the South African government for customs and VAT, the bookstore’s rent, Eskom, the banks, the salaries of the people that work there AND for the thoughtlessness of those who thieve books each and every day.

Suddenly, R180 for a novel doesn’t seem quite so outrageous, does it?

7 thoughts on “The Price of Books

  1. Liza says:

    We’re book people Zoe, so I guess we’re always happy to pay for books 🙂 I must say, however, I don’t know where SA puts on the major extra costs that make book buying so expensive in South Africa (Maybe import tax??). In South Korea I’m paying half the price I used to pay in SA.

    Moral of the story, visit me Zoe and buy your books here 😉

  2. Darryl Fleming says:

    Hence the reason E-Books are becoming more popular…

    No printing costs
    No rent costs
    No customs cost
    No Tax
    Low Transport costs
    Marketing costs vary at the authors expense

    Looking at all these low costs E-books should be like R 10 each.

    What I always find weird is that there is all this PR and marketing that I hear the publishers do but I barely ever see any marketing or PR for books.

    I’m being blasted every day to buy cars, music, movie tickets etc but everything is quite on the book front. Exclusive is the only company that actually does advertising campaigns but I never hear any campaigns coming from the publishers.

    PS: That Terry Pratchett competition was an AMAZING idea! Although I didn’t get to participate I thought that it was brilliant!

    1. Zoe Kara Hinis says:

      The publishers make a pretty penny off the eBooks, especially since they charge about the same price as a new hardback because they can claim ‘convenience’. (Look at the size of the Steve Jobs book, its like *Long Walk To Freedom*, but probably filled with wanktastic stuff.) But if Amazon does start publishing their own eBooks, the publishers will be in some trouble.

      There have been ads on streetpoles in Joburg for books, but rarely so. And its usually for a mega-author like John Grisham. I suspect that the cost of advertising is why books don’t get such. I mean, two Astons will pay for the ad campaign, but since the double-page spread in the Sunday Times costs about R120k, that’s a lot of books to sell. The marketing is usually in the stores, though it should probably move outwards. But again, advertising space is expensive.

      Haha, glad you liked the Pratchett campaign! You should have joined, the number machine might have picked you. I love coming up with book competitions and giving stuff away.

  3. Pingback: The Book Armada

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