(Mods, if you think this belongs in General Questions, feel free to move it there.)
This has been bugging me for awhile. If I head into the science fiction/fantasy section, I can easily find tons of 400-500 page books at $8. Sure, the hardcovers cost more, but it’s not too difficult to wait for the book to come out in paperback (as they almost always do). Yet if I wander into say, the history section, everything jumps into the $25 and up range, whether hardcover or paperback (and if a book comes out in one, it’s rare to see it in the other). Sure, they often have bigger pages, but they usually have less, and bigger type, so the price-per-word is definitely hugely different. I admit I’m not as familiar with other types of books, but my limited experience is that this holds for most non-fiction books out there. So what’s the deal with this?
My totally uneducated and haphazard guess: they move less volume + the cost of research involved in writing a non-fiction book like a history book.
I’d say it’s mostly this.
While it’s true that not everyone can be a great writer, it is true that a great writer can more or less just sit in front of a computer and type out half of those fantasy books you see on the shelves.
The cost of research isn’t a factor – novelists do research, too, and the cost is borne by the writer, not the publisher (and, I suppose, taxpayers, since it’s tax-deductible)>
A book in the $8 range these days is always a mass market paperback. The cost is less partly because they pay authors less for them. Smaller advances, lower royalty rates, etc.
In addition, many mass market paperbacks have already had a trade paper or hardcover edition. This means they were sold at a higher price at one point.
The prices for a hardcover nonfiction book and a hardcover fiction book are about the same. The current #1 fiction hardcover is “Silver Bourne” by Patricia Briggs, with a list price of $24.95. The current #1 nonfiction hardcover is “The Big Short” by by Michael Lewis at $27.95. Pretty comparable and I think if you compared multiple novels vs. nonfiction, you’d find the prices fit into the same range.
Nonfiction hardcovers may cost slightly more because of the need for illustrations and charts. And nonfiction books are rarely made into mass market paperbacks these days, so you won’t find new copies at $8.
Books have such consistent pricing that it’s hard to think of them being priced for what the market will bear. That’s the way it works, though you have to know the field to see the subtleties.
Hardback books mostly don’t sell very well. Bestsellers get all the attention, but the top 100 hardbacks in the course of a year probably sell more than all the 50,000 others released combined. In effect they subsidize all the others (or at least make up for the much smaller profits that they earn).
A good nonfiction book may sell 5,000 copies. If it’s released as a trade paperback it may sell 10,000 more. It never gets released as a mass-market paperback because there is no market (or none that publishers perceive) for mass-market nonfiction other than a tiny handful of bestsellers. Virtually all hardcovers sell for $25-30 unless unusually long or short. Virtually all trade paperbacks sell for $14-16.
Genre fiction is different. Pretty much any title issued will have a guaranteed sale. But genre fiction buyers tend not to spend as much money on individual titles because they tend to buy more overall titles. That makes genre fiction a good candidate for mass-market paperback at a lower price.
But f&sf doesn’t really sell all that well. Romance does. Romance has 50% of the mass-market, while f&sf is down around 10%. You can tell this by the prices of certain romance lines. Harlequin, the biggest romance publisher, has lines that sell not for the standard $7.99 but for $5.99 or even $4.99.
Bestsellers are themselves a genre, BTW. Most bestsellers get issued as mass-market paperbacks. A new trend in publishing is to take advantage of their popularity by making slightly larger-than-normal paperbacks and charging $9.99 for them. They can get away with this for a bestseller.
People are as sensitive to pricing in books as in anything else. Publishers react to this, but they’re subtle about it. People don’t like to buy cheap books because they think that means cheap content. (Several publishers have attempted cheap lines of books and they’ve all failed.) But there are ways…