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What price books?

By Simon Eliot


For most readers at most times, books were not essential. They were to be bought, if they were to be bought at all, out of disposable income. For most families in the nineteenth century, if they were lucky enough to have any disposable income, it would be a matter of two or three shillings a week at best. This means that book buyers were mostly very price sensitive. We would expect, therefore, the price profile of the Book Trade in general to change markedly as the impact of industrial revolution in print production increased. From work done on book trade prices in the nineteenth century it is clear that this occurred — most notably, judging by data derived from contemporary trade journals — in the 1840s and 1850s, and still further between the 1870s and 1890s. By the mid-nineteenth century this was not simply a matter of producing out-of-copyright works cheaply (although this was still an important part of the market); it was also evident that copyright holders of newish works were working to exploit the possibilities of price elasticity. That is, of finding a new market for the same title by, after a judicious amount of time, offering a radically cheaper version of the same copyright text. Although this was not a market in which Oxford University Press competed, the publication of novels gives a most vivid example of this process. By the 1880s a three-volume novel, originally issued at the very high price of 31s6d (more than the average industrial weekly wage) and aimed at the circulating library market, might be republished as a single-volume novel six months later at 3s6d, then as a railway novel or ‘yellowback’ at between 1s and 2s and then, if demand justified it, as a 6d paperback.

Variety of typefaces and sizes used in BFBS bibles and new testaments 'Reports of the British and Foreign Bible Society; with Extracts of Correspondence', fifth volume for the years 1818 and 1819 (By kind permission of Cambridge University Library, 215 x 130 mm).
Variety of typefaces and sizes used in BFBS bibles and new testaments ‘Reports of the British and Foreign Bible Society; with Extracts of Correspondence’, fifth volume for the years 1818 and 1819 (By kind permission of Cambridge University Library, 215 x 130 mm).

In practice Oxford University Press, though in a very particular and untypical market, had been exploiting price elasticity for decades, indeed it had been obliged to do so. In order fully to exercise its right to print Bible the Press needed to sell a variety of different texts in different combinations at different prices to different markets. Whole Bibles, New Testaments, Psalms, the Apocrypha, the Book of Common Prayer, Services, and Catechism could be sold separately or bound in various combinations and at various prices. This ‘modular’ approach was visible in the Bible Press’s offerings from at least the 1780s onwards. In the Press’s warehouse in 1801, for instance, there were 79 printed items listed ranging from a Royal Folio Bible (422 copies valued at £1,329.44), through Common Prayer Pica (6,846 copies valued at £782.4), to a 32mo Psalms (498 copies valued at £14.25). Even when a new bible copyright could be exploited for the first time, the Press was not inclined to wait to ‘tranche down’, but offered the same text at different prices from the very beginning. In May 1881 Henry Frowde was promising that ‘on or about 17 May’ the Revised Version New Testament would be available in five formats ranging from Pica Royal 8vo down to Nonpareil 32mo and in four binding styles. The most expensive was the Pica Royal 8vo in morocco at 25s, the cheapest Nonpareil 32mo in a cloth binding at just 1s.

In the market for secular books, as in the market for bibles, not all prices were equally popular, and some possible prices were rarely if ever used. Taking the book trade as a whole during the nineteenth century, prices such as 2s6d, 3s6d, 5s, 6s, 7s6d, 10s6d, and 21s were common throughout the period. From the 1830s onwards the percentage of titles at higher prices (above 10s6d) diminished rapidly while, by 1853, no fewer than seven lower prices (6d, 1s, 1s6d, 2s, 2s6d, 3s, 3s6d) were each accounting for at least 3% of the total titles listed in the main book trade journal. 6d became much more popular in the second half of the century, while 31s6d occurred more commonly than one might expect as it was the price of a three-decker novel; with the collapse of this form in 1894, the first edition of a novel fell to 6s. In other words, the book trade’s price profile shifted decidedly towards cheaper books as the century progressed, with reprints of all sorts commonly selling at various points between 6d and 3s6d. What was seriously under-represented in these figures were the very low prices of texts produced for the literate and semi-literate agricultural and industrial working classes, a market that usually went unrecorded in the respectable catalogues and trade journals of the period. Traditionally this marketed catered for those who might be able and willing to afford something between a halfpenny and twopence. At those prices, print-runs and subsequent sales had to be very large in order to make a reasonable profit. However, by the end of the nineteenth century Oxford University Press was engaging in such markets by publishing one or two books of the Bible retailing at 1d.

Simon Eliot is Professor of the History of the Book in the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. He is general editor of The History of Oxford University Press, and editor of its Volume II 1780-1896.

Editor’s notes: (1) Currency: The United Kingdom decimalized its currency in 1971. Prior to that the currency operated on a system pounds, shillings, and pence (and crowns, halfpennies, and farthings). There were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound. Pounds were abbreviated as ‘£'; shillings as ‘s'; pence as ‘d’. For example, the ’31s6d’ cited in the first paragraph = thirty-one shillings, six pence. (2) Publishing formats: ‘8vo’ is an octavo, page size resulting from folding each printed sheet into eight leaves (sixteen pages). ’32mo’ is a thirty-twomo, page size resulting from folding each sheet into thirty-two leaves.

With access to extensive archives, The History of Oxford University Press is the first complete scholarly history of the Press, detailing its organization, publications, trade, and international development. Read previous blog posts about the history of Oxford University Press.

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