How Much Have Book Prices Increased Since 2019?
It isn't just a feeling. Books are getting more expensive.
Several times while looking at publisher catalogs or on book retailer sites, I’ve found myself pausing and wondering if I was reading the price correctly. YA paperback releases are now coming in at almost $16 a pop from some publishers, and more than one recent YA hardcover came with a $25 price tag. One of the many reasons YA became so popular a decade ago was because its price point was more accessible than similar titles published for adults: you’d anticipate paying between $10 and $12 for a paperback and between $16 and $18 for a hardcover, as opposed to $16 to $18 for an adult paperback (that was not mass market) and somewhere between $25 and $27 for hardcover.
To say there’s been sticker shock this year would be an understatement.
It is no secret that the cost to produce books has gone up. In 2018, a deep dive into the paper crisis for publishers suggested prices might need to increase to accommodate this. But it’s not just the cost of the supplies that have gone up. So, too, have costs associated with the staffing that keeps publishing going. How much is unknown, given how little open discussion of salary happens in the publishing world.
It’s probably doubtful that book price increases have made any meaningful difference to those who create the product or bring it into its final form.
What we can know is that those doing the work at the bottom of the publishing houses–the editorial staff, the marketing and publicity staff, copy editors, and the rest who have their hands on the books themselves–certainly aren’t making enough money for the work they do nor the requirement they often have of living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. This is, of course, why the HarperCollins Union went on strike last year. They were able to negotiate a starting salary for incoming staff to $50,000, which is just above a living wage for a single working adult in New York City (that clocks in at about $46,800). We also know that the authors themselves have not seen any meaningful increase in what they earn as an advance. It’s probably doubtful that book price increases have made any meaningful difference to those who create the product or bring it into its final form.
Let’s get back to the question at hand, though. Have book prices actually increased or is it all a perception, given the cost increases in every other area of life?
To find out, I’ve crunched some numbers.
First, a methodological note. It is impossible to find an average cost of every book published by every publisher. Initially, I thought to look at the top tier authors at every publisher and look at the increases in the cost of those books over a five year period. While most of those big authors published a new title every year, not all did. That made consistency difficult. It was also not the best representation of an array of publishers, each of whom has a different pricing scheme. Instead, I pulled the top 10 titles from Publisher’s Weekly’s Adult Fiction Hardcover Bestseller List in fiction for the past five years. I used a mid-August list date to keep the data consistent, as it is unlikely we’d see a price change in the middle of the year. It also ensured a wide range of publishers were represented in the data.
Each of those titles was dropped into a spreadsheet, and then I looked up the cover cost of the book. There was no rounding here: if a book was $29.99, that is the number added. Every single book on this list was easy to find a cover price for via Amazon.
In the image above, the yellow bar indicates the average price of a hardcover book. Indeed, the cost of hardcover books has gone up incrementally every year since 2018–you could expect to pay a little over $28 for a hardcover then and now, you can expect to spend a little over $30. That is a 7.7% increase.
If you’re looking at the above and wondering what’s going on in 2021, when the average price went down, that is pretty easily explained: a hardcover manga title was on the top ten bestsellers that week. Those tend to be a little bit less expensive than the traditional narrative fiction. Even removing that title, though, the average for 2020 was $27.90.
So yes, book prices have gone up. It’s been a slow movement, but it is there.
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What about in children’s books? Have those gone up? Given this is where I initially found myself asking the question, I had to look at those numbers as well.
The data for children's books is harder to sort out, as I wanted to use the same methodology I did for adult fiction hardcovers. Publisher’s Weekly, however, does not separate out the different categories of children’s fiction by age. I decided to use this set of titles anyway for several reasons, including the fact that it is very likely price increases have not just hit YA. I know they have hit middle grade books, too. Publisher’s Weekly also does not separate out children’s bestsellers by hardcover and paperback the way they do with adult titles. To accommodate for that, I noted where a title was only available in paperback; it was not used in calculating the averages.
Indeed, prices have increased for children’s books over the last five years. We’ve gone from an average of $15.55 to $20.28. That is an increase of 30%.
Unfortunately, this data set is not especially great. It is accurate, but it also includes two major outliers: the two YA titles which each appear two different times on the list, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and Midnight Sun. Both of these YA books were priced outside of the traditional YA bracket and instead given $27.99 cover costs, more in line with the price of an adult hardcover. Removing them from the average changes things quite a bit: for 2023, the average price without Ballad drops to $18.99, indicating a 22% increase in price since 2019.
It is maybe more interesting in the children’s list to look at the increases across titles, though. Unlike adult books where this is a bigger range of authors represented, in children’s books, there are some stalwarts, including Dog Man.
It’s not just your perception. The costs have gone up.
Dog Man #6, which published in 2019, came with a $12.99 price tag. In 2023, the latest installment was $14.99. That’s a 15% increase in costs for a book that reaches elementary school readers–the audience whose allowance has likely not increased 15% in that same time frame.
We can also look at a single author in Karen M. McManus, whose One Of Us Is Lying and One Of Us Is Back both grace the August 2023 list. The first book published in 2017, so it’s a little beyond the five year range, but its cover price is $17.99. The final book in the series published in July 2023 and has a $19.99 price tag. That comes out to an 11% increase.
The children’s data may not be useful for getting a holistic view of YA price increases, given how few titles have been on these lists and those which have been tend to be significant outliers, but looking at the price points of individual titles in context with the overall increases is eye-opening. I know my budget has not increased 22% over the past five years, and I suspect the same can not only be said about other adults–both those who read children’s books and those who buy children’s books for others (parents, guardians, family members, educators, librarians, etc.)–but for young people themselves. No wonder book sales are down. Those incremental increases are beyond what can be reasonably accommodated by the average consumer.
It’s not just your perception. The costs have gone up, and even at the slow rate of increase, if the choice is between buying the new hardcover or waiting to get it at the library, there should be fewer people surprised that many of us are choosing to hang tight for the library copy to hit the holds shelf for us.