The Price of a Page

Alison Morris - September 15, 2008

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?

4 thoughts on “The Price of a Page

  1. Lanora

    I like this exercise! We’ve batted around a similar one only it’s a cost per hours of enjoyment comparason. For example, you pay $10 for a 2 hour movie but for a book, you get 6-10 hours of entertainment for $14-25. ($5 per hour vs. $2-3 per hour). We were trying to figure out comparisons of cost per hour for movies, computer games and any other form of entertainment that competes with peoples’ expendable income for books. It turns out, no matter which way you do it, book are a really good value!!!

  2. Julianne Daggett

    I guess for a book it would be worth how much you enjoyed it. I’ve read books where I wouldn’t finish the first twenty pages I thought they were so bad (so I over paid), but I’ve read books that I read time and again, like “Dealing With Dragons” which I can quote almost word for word from front to back including the mid-90’s synopsis on the back of the book(which you would have to go to back to the sixth peance (sp?) to even put a price on). So a book of brudock leaves might be worth something to someone, and it may be something special, but as you correctly point out Alison very few people would buy the book just by its subject nature. And most cost concious consumers (which is most of us in this dreary economy) would never pay $65 for that book or any book, including a first printing, first edition, signed copy of “Where the Wild Things Are”.

  3. kidzbkcrusader

    I would pay triple the $65.00 for that first edition, first printing, signed copy of “Where the Wild Things Are”. Also, I always think I’m getting a bargain for anything that Sharon Creech, Lois Lowry and Kevin Henkes come up with. In fact, I think I should be paying much more for Henkes picture books. He’s so amazing.

  4. writeroffthelake

    The problem is that books, especially fiction, is so subjective that often it isn’t until after you’ve bought and read the book that you can say what you’d be willing to pay for it. It’s an emotional response, like with music. I’m sure there’s books we’ve loved so much that if we were told we’d have to pay $1000 to keep a copy of that book that we’d sell off everything, including the kitchen sink, to do so. And for everyone the book(s) would be different. As for a book of photographs, as a former photography student, I can only hope that the quality of the paper used will allow the owner of such a book – and for the “average” person $65 is a lot for a book – to keep the book forever and have the quality of the pages not deterioate. Maybe the best way to make a book like that seem worth the price to more buyers would be to not only have superior paper but to have it bound in such a fashion that each page could be removed and framed for hanging should the book buyer so wish. There needs to be books for everyone, whether it’s the remainders we-of-litte-income purchase for $1 or less, or $65+ books. It’s worth it if the buyer considers it still worth the price a few years after purchase.


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