My 30 year-old copy of the Colour of Magic.

Are Books Value For Money?

Value for money. That’s about as subjective a topic as it’s possible to get, as everyone has their own opinion as to what constitutes good or bad value. When it comes to books, where do you sit on the subject? Are you happy to pay for a hardback of the new novel from your favourite author, as soon as it comes out? Or do you wait for the paperback, look out for the special offers or trawl through charity shops to get your literary fix? Maybe you’ve converted to the joys of the e-reader, and get all of your books in electronic format, taking advantage of the proliferation online of free or 99p ebooks. There is even a final option, of course…the library!

While fundamentally everyone who buys a book is usually doing so in order to read it, we each have our own thoughts on why we want to read it, and what we hope to gain from doing so. It could be for the purposes of escapism, to cheer ourselves up, to gain inspiration, to learn something new or increase our knowledge, to give ourselves a good scare…it could be any one or more of those things (and many, many more), and the exact purpose will almost certainly vary on a book by book basis. A crime novel is likely to offer the reader something completely different to a history book, for example. Based on this though, we can assign a nominal value to what a book gives us; I doubt many people think about it in concrete terms and actually set a price that they’re willing to pay, but any time we think about buying a book and look at its price, that’s what we’re doing in our heads. Consciously or otherwise we’re asking ourselves the question “am I prepared to pay this price for this book?” The answer to that question will be informed by the reason(s) for wanting to read it, but it will also be affected by factors such as who the author is, whether it’s part of a series, the size and weight of the book (assuming it’s a physical book), how urgent the need to read it right away is, and so on. The value of a book then is judged against all of these factors, as we weigh up the reasons for wanting to read it against how much it’s going to cost us.

In the end, it does usually come down to price. These days the average RRP for Mass Market paperbacks (the small paperbacks that will fit in a pocket) is maybe £7.99 while what I think of as QPs (Quality Paperback, i.e. the slightly taller and wider editions that a lot of modern fiction books use) tend to be more like £8.99 or even £9.99. For hardbacks you’re unlikely to get much change from £20. Sure, Waterstones usually has a few books in a promotion, but the vast majority of books in the stores retail at full price. Let’s compare these prices with what they used to be; just about the oldest paperback I’ve got on my shelves is my copy of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic, and a quick check of the back cover tells me that this cost the princely sum of £2.50. To be fair though, that was published in 1983 (I can only assume my mother bought that one). Skip forward ten years and let’s keep with the Discworld theme – Lords and Ladies, this (Corgi) edition published in 1993, RRP £6.99. Another ten years gets us to The Science of Discworld II, published in 2003 with an RRP of…ah, interesting. £6.99. Let’s look at hardbacks now – Pratchett’s Jingo, published in hardback in 1997, retailed at £16.99. Ten years later, Making Money retailed at £18.99, as did The Long Mars, released this year. In Amazon’s Kindle store, the highest-priced Pratchett ebook (in English, other languages are pricier) is currently the just-released A Slip of the Keyboard, at £6.99, while large chunks of the Discworld series are available for £3.49.

Book formats

MM, QP and Hardback

So while it’s easy to complain about rising book prices, in actual fact they haven’t really changed that much on a like for like basis, and with the option of ebooks it’s possible to get hold of many titles far cheaper than ever before. What have changed more are our buying habits and our desire for bigger, prettier books. It wasn’t so long ago that the majority of fiction and ‘genre’ books were released in mass market format, while the QPs were generally non-fiction or more of the ‘literary fiction’ style. These days a quick look at the bestsellers or new release tables in the shops shows a proliferation of sleek, glossy, beautiful QPs with maybe the odd MM on the fringes, making up space. It makes for a pretty display and QPs certainly look lovely on the shelf, but they’re inevitably more expensive. What does that say about us then, the general book-buying public? Bookshops work on supply and demand the same way that any other business does, so the safe assumption is that people want to buy the nicer, larger QPs. Does that mean that we’re happy to pay more for a book that looks nice than one that isn’t as aesthetically pleasing?

Personally I find that it’s not a black and white question; a quick look at my bookshelves shows me books that I bought in hardback the minute they came out and others that I picked up in sales or in charity shops, paperbacks that I bought in endless 3 for 2 promotions and others that I bought on a whim for full price, just because I fancied something different to read on the train home. For some reason I often remember where I bought books, and from where I’m sitting I can see books bought from Waterstones, Borders, Foyles, Amazon, WH Smith, independent bookshops, Oxfam, direct from the publisher…all sorts. Regular book buyers will be familiar with which of those retailers tend to charge full price and which regularly discount…but it’s a fairly even spread. I find it does usually come down to the specific book, as to how much I’m prepared to pay. As my all time favourite author I always go out and buy the new Terry Pratchett book as soon as I hear about its release, so I’ve got them all in hardback (except, strangely, the first two Science of Discworld books) since Jingo, which was published in 1997! That being said, these days I sadly tend to buy these from Amazon as the price is usually vastly lower than in the shops and if I can get a good price then I would be foolish not to. As far as everything else is concerned, well…it depends. These days I spend what is in reality an excessive amount of money on lovely hardback and collector’s edition novels from Black Library, while I’m a bit more thrifty with most other books and usually hold off until I can find them at a discount or in a promotion. That being said, the temptation to impulse buy as soon as I see something that catches my eye is usually pretty strong…

Most of us, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, probably acknowledge that the library is actually the best place to get books from, given that it doesn’t cost us anything for a library book. That being said, it’s not always convenient to get to a library or to get books read and back in time, there’s always going to be competition for the newest and most popular titles, and you can’t add a library book to your collection on the shelf. For me, that’s a big part of why I still buy books, and why I still prefer physical books over ebooks – I enjoy having them on the shelves in my flat. I like the look of full bookshelves, and I like being able to pick a book up at any time and read or re-read even just a little bit of it. So for me, it boils down to this – you’ll never know if a book is good value or not until you read it. If you make the right choices regarding what you buy (based on what you’re looking for with each book) and as long as you do enjoy each book, then whatever you pay is good value. After all, you can’t really put a price on the enjoyment gained from a truly great book, can you?

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