Books are interesting economic artefacts. For the most part, they contain information about the year they were published and the price that they were expected to be sold at. So, anyone with a reasonably large collection of paper books going back for a few decades can construct a nice time series showing book prices over the years.
I collected a sample of books from our home library going back through the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010’s. There are even a few from the 1950s and 1960s. For the sake of consistency, I focussed on Science Fiction books written by mid-list writers of those periods (e.g. Andre Norton, Jo Clayton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ursula LeGuin, Kim Stanley Robinson), published in the mass market paperback form (i.e. the 4 inch wide by 6 inch long format that we usually think of when we hear the word paperback). I used both Canadian and U.S. prices, where the distinction was possible, and tracked them separately.
The main result is that the price of mass market paperbacks went up, a lot. Average prices by decade were (also see the attached graph):
1950s $0.40 (number in sample, N=1) Canadian, $0.40 (N=1) U.S.
1960s $0.75 (N=2) Canadian, $0.75 (N=2) U.S.
1970s $1.60 (N=4) Canadian, $1.60 (N=4) U.S.
1980s $3.71 (N=12) Canadian, $3.63 (N=12) U.S.
1990s $7.13 (N=11) Canadian, $5.54 (N=9) U.S.
2000s $10.25 (N=23) Canadian, $8.20 (N=22) U.S.
2010s $10.50 (N=2) Canadian, $9.00 (N=2) U.S.
Of course we all know that there was a lot of inflation during this period. So, to account for that, I have used the Canadian and U.S. consumer price index, as published by each country’s statistical agency, and re-computed prices into constant dollars, using 2013 as the base year. You can think of this as the price at any given time, relative to today’s purchasing power. This is a standard thing to do in economics, when comparing prices over a long time. Here are the prices, after adjusting for overall consumer price increases (also see the attached graph):
1950s $3.44 (N=1) Canadian, $3.44 (N=1) U.S.
1960s $5.56 (N=2) Canadian, $5.56 (N=2) U.S.
1970s $6.75 (N=4) Canadian, $7.06 (N=4) U.S.
1980s $7.87 (N=12) Canadian, $8.53 (N=12) U.S.
1990s $10.21 (N=11) Canadian, $8.89 (N=9) U.S.
2000s $11.86 (N=23) Canadian, $9.90 (N=22) U.S.
2010s $10.62 (N=2) Canadian, $9.18 (N=2) U.S.
As you can see, the CPI adjusted price of books has also gone up. In Canada, adjusted prices went up nearly 80% between the 1970’s and 2000’s, while in the U.S. the increase was about 40%. If we compare prices of the 1950s/1960’s to the 2000s they have approximately doubled (the numbers in the sample for those years are small, so we have to be extra careful about those results).
Actually, this data probably downplays the real situation. There was a tendency to release more books in the trade paperback form (usually 6 inches by 9 inches) as time went on, and fewer in the mass market paperback form (4 inches by 6 inches). At least that seems to be the case from looking at my bookshelves. I would estimate that the trade format generally costs from 5 to 10 dollars more than the mass market format. So, switching to the larger format would tend to increase the average price of books, if they aren’t also released in the smaller, cheaper format.
So, what accounts for the big run-up in prices, after adjusting for inflation? Over that time period, many more media options opened up to absorb people’s time - cable TV, video games, and the internet chiefly. The lower end of the mass market for books may have gone into other activities and the book industry may have responded by abandoning that audience, going after the upper end of the market. So perhaps book prices went up as the book reading population became relatively more concentrated in the highly educated and well paid sector of the economy. But that’s just a hypothesis.
Where did the money go? Well, most mid-list writers of the period would probably tell you that prices didn’t go up because they got significantly bigger advances or royalties. If anything, they would say that their bargaining position declined. Printing technology became much more efficient over that period, so the extra money couldn’t have gone to that, either. Bookstore employees weren’t exactly raking it in, so that’s not it.
I suspect that the increased profits went to management and stockholders of the big publishing corporations as ownership became more concentrated in fewer hands. The same is true of the big bookstore chains, where management and shareholders would have used their quasi-monopoly power to increase the price of books, pocketing most of the surplus for themselves.
Interestingly, the trend to rising prices seems to have stopped and has even reversed itself. Prices in the 2010’s are cheaper than they were in the 2000’s, after taking inflation into account. I suspect that is a result of e-books entering the market in a big way, and independent writers being able to offer books at lower price points, due to having much smaller overheads. That has probably brought down the price of the mass market paperback, in an effort by the big publishing houses to compete at a price that people were willing to pay.
The increased variety of writers has probably also begun to bring back some of the population to reading, that had been written off by the publishing industry as just not interested in books. Independently published writers do tend to specialize in genre writing - romance, science fiction, crime, action/adventure - the sort of thing that the publishing industry tended to think of as slightly grubby and not very profitable. The audience for those books, by and large, can’t afford twenty dollar trade paperbacks - they are a natural market for inexpensive e-books, once they have invested in an e-reader. But the publishing industry has realized that it must try to stem the erosion of their paper book base, so they have dropped the price in an effort to compete for that end of the market. Indeed, we may be seeing the rebirth of the low priced paperback, at least until the e-book has completely taken over from paper books, assuming that’s the way things play out.