An entertaining discussion about the worth of a page came up in our office recently, when wonderful sales rep Adena Siegel was introducing Lorna to a book called Burdock (Yale University Press, August 2008) that features Janet Malcolm’s photographs of burdock leaves. The book retails for $65 and it’s 65 pages long.
The book is getting great praise and garnering rave reviews. Author Michael Pollan contributed a quote for the book’s cover in which he said, "Here is the heartbreaking particularity of nature, and the ravages of time made flesh. At once clinical and poignant, these photographs changed the way I look at the green world around me." (Wow.)
As a buyer, though, a book like this is a conundrum. It can get all the rave reviews in the world, but they won’t change the fact that this is ultimately a book featuring photos of burdock leaves that retails for $65. The question we buyers ask ourselves with every purchase is "Who is going to buy it?" and in the case of Janet Malcolm’s book, Lorna didn’t feel certain of the answer, which made her understandably more wary about buying it.
A great conversation sprung up in our office out of her moments of indecision in which Adena, Lorna, and I pondered the following: what is one page worth? This book weighs in at $1 per page, as cost to the consumer. Obviously "art books" like Janet Malcolm’s command a weightier sum in part because they are larger books printed on much higher quality paper using the best possible inks and more elaborate printing methods in much smaller print runs, all of which contributes to the higher price. I don’t doubt that a lot of readers will find $65 worth of inspiration, at least, in looking at Malcolm’s images, which do seem to tell their own unique and surprising stories. But, still, it’s interesting to ponder the question of whether or not most people would pay $1 per page, if the book were doled out to them in page-by-page fashion.
The question is do you think most books are worth that much? Do you think they’re worth MORE?
It’s a funny question, isn’t it? Pull one of your favorite books off the shelf and look at the page count. Would you have paid $323 to own To Kill a Mockingbird? How about $32 for Goodnight Moon?
Most picture books these days are 32 pages in length and have an average price, in hardcover, of $16 or $17. That’s 50 cents per page, for which you’re getting both art AND writing, in a larger trim size, usually full color, with a binding that will hold up moderately well over time. All things considered, that sounds pretty reasonable to me.
But then think what an amazing deal a novel turns out to be! Graceling by Kristin Cashore (Harcourt, October 2008), which I am POSITIVELY DEVOURING because it is such an incredible treat of a read, is 471 pages in length and retails for $17. That’s like paying just 4 cents for each page, which has got to be one of the year’s best bargains.
Now go back, though, and compare the price per page of a novel versus a picture book from their creators’ perspectives. Anyone who has ever tried to write a picture book will tell you that it is NOT AT ALL EASY, and looking at these numbers in part explains why — you’ve got to pack a lot more value into one page than a novelist does, using only a fraction of their word count.
Which sounds easier, writing/illustrating a page worth 50 cents, or writing/ illustrating one worth 4? Suddenly generating $1 of value per page seems almost impossible, so… I’ve no choice but to tip my hat to Janet Malcolm.
What are your thoughts on all this wacky math? What’s the most valuable book you own, given this pages-to-dollars comparison? And what’s the book for which you’d be willing to pay the most — is it worth more than a dollar per page to you?