I have often shouted that publishers were foolish, having failed to raise book prices enough when they were able to make savings in the cost of typesetting and printing as a result of technological developments. Seems I was wrong.

Here’s an inflation-converter from The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. So if you know that that book cost $1.25 in 1965 (as H.D.F. Kitto: The Greeks from Penguin Books did) then you can say that allowing for inflation it should cost $9.38 today. Amazon tells me it’s out of print (only available 2nd hand) but their cover image shows that the book was priced at $13.95 when it went OP, whenever that was. On the other hand Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy in the Oxford University Press (US) Galaxy paperback edition of 1970, cost $2.50. Today that would inflate to $15.28. However Amazon shows it (the imported UK Penguin edition), at $10.19 — a bargain — or a comment about pricing policies from two different houses. Cambridge University Press’s Poems of Goethe, German text with notes, edited by Ronald Gray was published in 1966 at $2.45. The Inflation calculator would raise that to $17.93. It is actually still available (print on demand) from CUP but at $28.99. Wrong again with a 288pp Tirso de Molina from the Laurel Language Library — if any publisher was rash enough now to publish two plays in the original Spanish with Introduction and Notes for American Students they’d certainly charge more than $3.75, the inflation-adjusted price corresponding to 50¢ in 1965. Of course these were relatively early days in the paperback revolution, and maybe two effects were at work: 1. people would buy almost anything so print runs could be larger (?), and 2. publishers were feeling their way. Just as today most publishers would loose a bundle on the Tirso de Molina project, so then maybe Dell was actually charging too little, and took a bath on this one. In other words, just because those were the prices, doesn’t mean those were the right prices.

Robert Darnton tells us in The New York Review of Books 22 May 2014 issue, that the average price of an annual subscription to a chemistry journal is now $4,044. In 1970 it was $33. The inflation calculator says it should be $200.97 now. We’ve all gotten used to the idea that there’s more than inflation going on with journal prices though. The article is a wide-ranging discussion of open access, journal pricing, access to information, and The Digital Public Library of America, with which he is closely involved. (My earlier post on DPLA had links)

Scott William Carter’s blog is the route via which I became aware of the inflation calculator. He’s mainly focussing on what self publishers should charge for their e-books. Strategic pricing looks like a better bet these days (especially with e-books) than the way we used to do it, increasing the retail price every year by something like the inflation rate, so that the book was in theory always selling at a price which would yield you replacement cost when you needed to reprint.

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