Books, in and of themselves, aren’t usually expensive.
Rather, it’s the words inside of them that really matter.
Every now and then when perusing a specialty bookshop or a public book collection, you may encounter a book, unlike the books you typically see at your local bookstore.
What makes these books so darn expensive, and why do people actually buy them?
We cover the top 10 reasons that some books are so expensive.
Why Are Some Books So Expensive? (Top 10 Reasons)
1. First Editions
First editions cost more than books printed later, especially when considering classic books.
A new paperback version of As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner on Amazon costs $10, and as little as $1.28 if used.
Sellers of verified first editions (second printing) are asking for anything between $742.00 and $1,750.00.
What Is A First Edition Book?
A first edition book refers to the book’s design and content exactly as it was the first time a publisher mass-produced it.
A first edition may have multiple runs.
Early runs tend to fetch more than second or third runs.
An author may produce a second edition if they notice an error in the first edition or simply want to make style or content changes.
Despite maybe a new cover or typo corrections, most books don’t change much from one edition to the next.
Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule.
One notable book that changed drastically from the first edition to the second edition is The Hobbit.
The original version of The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien was published in 1937 before Tolkien completed The Lord of the Rings.
As with many authors, Tolkien found himself going in a much different direction than anticipated.
When he finished The Lord of the Rings, he realized that the cheery children’s book he wrote before needed major edits, so he completely rewrote chapters and reconfigured major characters, such as Gollum, to coincide with the darker direction he had gone with The Lord of the Rings.
Most people don’t even know a vastly different version of The Hobbit exists.
Those who do probably can’t afford it.
A first edition of The Hobbit complete with elaborate pictures and an Elvish inscription written by Tolkien himself, sold for $210,500 in 2015.
How Do I Know If A Book Is A First Edition?
Try these three methods to determine if your book is a first edition:
- Look for the phrase “first print” or “first edition” on the copyright page.
- Search for a “1” in any position in the number line.
- Match the date on the title page to the date on the copyright page.
- Get the book assessed by an expert.
Some historic books cost more not because they are a first edition but because they are the only remaining edition.
Whether only one copy existed to begin with or people discarded most copies not knowing the value the book would hold later, some books remain the last of their kind.
While some titles may be deceptively mundane, these old books teach us about people and society at the time of their publication and sometimes dive into a smaller community not often talked about in textbooks and history documentaries.
The University of Illinois contains the last version of a pamphlet titled “An oration on the oppression of jailors” that informed citizens of the horrors of prison by an inmate who then passed the pamphlet around London to increase the power of his voice.
When the book is destroyed, the prisoner’s voice is destroyed with it.
When governments and institutions ban books, people tend to want them even more, earning such books more notoriety (which is fabulous).
Think of Cuban cigars.
People think they’re the best and charge many times the price of other cigars due to the United States prohibiting the importation of Cuban goods.
In reality, the cigars are about the same quality as other popular cigars.
The price (and desire) goes up thanks to the forbidden nature of the item.
The same concept applies to books.
While we Americans have the luxury of freedom of speech, many schools and private institutions want to ban certain books, and many countries forbid certain books for lewdness or political reasons.
Not only will the book cost more money, but you may end up paying consequences in the form of fines or jail time.
4. Historical Impact
Attach a concept such as “freedom” or “rebellion” to a book, and the emotional value allows the publisher to add a couple of dollars to the price.
What’s a slight upcharge, though, when you get the chance to read the words that actually helped shape histories, such as The Communist Manifesto or Common Sense?
Reading the book takes you back in time to the era it describes in a way that textbooks can’t describe.
Ancient historical texts hold even more value as their numbers inevitably dwindle over time, leaving us with even less information about the past than before.
You can read about ancient Greece in a history textbook and look at pictures of artifacts in between a chronological history of wars and alliances and the people behind them.
Alternatively, you can read The Iliad to learn about ancient Greek culture.
While not an accurate portrayal of a real war (we don’t think), you can still learn more about ancient Greek culture by reading the stories they told at that time.
You learn about relationships and social structure as well as the people’s religious beliefs and war techniques.
(Just don’t rely on the movie Troy for accuracy if you don’t want to read the book.)
Most Influential Books In History
Some texts stand out as especially important when it comes to shaping our view of history.
In addition to The Iliad, check out the following historical books for people who want to read about history (and its impact on us today):
- The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer: Experience the humor and wit of the late 14th century in England. Read it in its original Middle English for an additional challenge.
- The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli: Learn about the social structure of Italy during the Renaissance and the people’s frustration with the aristocracy.
- Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes: Read the first modern novel about an explorer during the height of world exploration in the 16th century in English or its original Spanish.
- First Folio by William Shakespeare: Experience modern English in its original form as well as the talent that captured the attention of Queen Elizabeth the First.
- Common Sense by Thomas Paine: Learn why the American colonies had to revolt against Britain in this influential pamphlet that explained how independence just made common sense.
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: Understand feminine issues and classic courtship/relationships in England in the 1800s.
- A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Empathize with Tiny Tim as his father works during Christmas and learn about the social classes and values of England in the 1800s.
- Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: Read for yourself the book that started it all so that you’re educated on the theory of communism, no matter where you stand politically.
- Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe: Familiarize yourself with the book that started the Civil War in this book about the atrocities of slavery (written by a rich white woman).
- Ulysses by James Joyce: Immerse yourself in the chaos that is the stream of consciousness as Joyce artistically dwells on his youth in revolutionary Ireland.
- 1984 by George Orwell: Fall into a world of large government control written in 1949 about a dystopian society that takes place in 1984 that is so close to reality in 2022, it’s eerie.
5. Reprints Lacking Same Appeal As Original
Sometimes, a book can’t transfer to a different format and still evoke the same emotion and wisdom the readers connected to in the original copy.
A copy of a book in its original language better communicates its mission and artistry compared to a translated version.
Furthermore, you run into problems regarding cultural interpretations.
One culture may consider taping a friend’s show insulting while another culture may find it helpful.
The meaning changes without proper regard for the author’s intentions.
Translation of ancient texts gets particularly dicey as publishers admittedly have to sometimes make unsubstantiated choices that can have a big impact.
For example, a lot of the subtle humor in the dialogue of the Spanish version of Don Quixote is lost on English readers.
It may cost more and take longer to find the book in its original Spanish, though.
Another example comes from literature from the East.
Many Eastern languages read right to left instead of left to right.
You’d be surprised just how much of an impact that can have on the way you experience the book.
Some Eastern books also rely on the calligraphy and beauty of their written language to enhance the aesthetic appeal of reading the book.
6. Educational Value
Textbooks generally cost more than books of fiction.
Not only do they have a lot of valuable information in them, but the schools often require you to buy them.
You don’t have a choice.
Without the books, the students can’t pass the class.
The college bookstores can charge what they want, and the other bookstores will follow suit (at maybe a minor discount).
The average cost of books and supplies for a college student is $1,240.00 a year.
7. High Quality Materials
Paperback books deteriorate over time.
Hardcover books last longer, but the material used for the cover also costs more.
Some fancy books even have special paper and ornate designs.
In some cases, the author even takes the time to illustrate the book or handwrite it personally.
These high-quality characteristics that make the book a great conversation piece also increase the price dramatically.
For example, J. K. Rowling released six copies of a hand-written and personally illustrated book, Tales of Beedle the Bard that also has a high-quality leather cover decorated with semi-precious stones.
One of the six copies fetched just under $4 million at auction.
You can buy a paperback version on Amazon for about $6.
Book Paper Options
You probably never paid a lot of attention to the different types of paper options authors and publishers have when publishing a book.
Many authors choose to use cost-effective paper that will keep the price of the book down.
However, other authors want to exude professionalism and luxury as part of their brand, so they opt for the more expensive paper options.
Most paper stock options vary based on the thickness of the paper.
Common paper stock thickness includes:
- 70gsm (Uncoated)
- 80gsm (Uncoated)
- 100gsm (Uncoated)
- 115gsm (Gloss or Silk)
- 120gsm (Uncoated)
- 135gsm (Gloss or Silk)
- 170gsm (Gloss or Silk)
The thicker paper feels more luxurious, but it also costs more and causes the book to weigh more, which can increase shipping costs as well.
8. Rising Cost Of Production
People don’t read like they used to, and publishers are feeling the impact of the diminishing interest.
To make up for lost profits, many publishers now have to charge more to print books.
It’s not only the demand, though.
Material costs have increased, too.
The cost of printing and the cost of paper has increased faster than the rate of inflation.
Since rates are increasing higher than the rate of inflation, the price increase becomes noticeable.
Unfortunately, readers—and society in general—end up paying the price.
To reduce production costs, many authors and publishers utilize the benefits of digital publishing that doesn’t cost much but also doesn’t appeal to all audiences as some prefer books with curves.
9. High Demand
Some readers highly anticipate a new book in a series or a new book by a popular author.
Consider the hype on the day bookstores released a new Harry Potter book at the height of the popularity of the series.
Stores couldn’t carry enough books.
Customers probably paid a substantial percentage higher than if they would have waited six months or a year, but who could wait that long?
The seventh Harry Potter book sold 8.3 million copies in 24 hours at $20.99 to $34.99 each.
10. Personal Attachment
Sometimes a book’s value doesn’t necessarily make sense in the consumer market.
A book that impacted your life may cause you to overpay at an auction if someone feels the same passion for the book as you do.
A seemingly average book can end up costing a lot of money when someone wants it badly enough.
Before getting excited about a particular book, objectively analyze its value and decide on your top dollar before the bidding starts (and stick to it).
People tend to overpay at auctions, so you shouldn’t buy books at an auction unless it is extraordinarily rare.
A copy of a Gutenberg Bible actually printed on Gutenberg’s printing press sold for $4.9 million in 1987.
Seems like a lot of money for a book you can swipe from the motel room desk drawer or borrow from a nearby church for free.
Some adolescents happily spent their spare money on books at the Scholastic bookfair instead of buying junk food or going to the movies.
Some friends may have teased them for their poor financial choices.
However, without those books, those children would end up paying a lot more than just their allowance money.
Missing out on those books could have cost them creative thinking, language skills, joy, and concepts they never thought they could express in words until they read it in a book.
If you are debating buying an expensive book, default to buying the cheap option.
The real value is in the story.
Sure, you can put a price tag on a rare first edition of an ancient classic.
However, the words in the book are priceless and live rent-free in the reader’s mind for the rest of their life.