In January, thanks to a sale of 467,000 copies in its first week on shelves, Prince Harry’s Spare (Bantam Books) became the fastest-selling nonfiction book since Nielsen BookData’s official sales records began in the late 1990s. With a £28 recommended retail price (RRP) in the U.K., it is one of the most expensive books to have topped the weekly bestseller lists, and certainly one of most expensive memoirs–beaten only by Barack Obama’s A Promised Land (£35 RRP), which spent three weeks at number one in the run-up to Christmas 2020.
High advances will no doubt be a factor behind the relatively expensive RRPs for both, but market forces (Brexit, the rising costs of paper, energy, and manufacturing, the pandemic) are forcing all publishers to reconsider RRPs generally. And, at the same time, book-buyers are of course facing similar pressures of their own.
Recent reports from Nielsen reveal book-buyers are already switching to paperbacks (Books and the Consumer survey, March 2023), while they plan to reduce their book purchases and increase their library borrowing (National Literacy Trust research into spending on children’s books, February 2023). The current cost-of-living crisis is certainly putting a squeeze on consumer spending.
Faced with an impossible choice, publishers have begun to gradually increase RRPs. An analysis of the top 100,000 bestselling print books of 2022 compared to pre-pandemic 2019 reveals the changes. The mean average RRP of a hardback novel has increased by more than £2, from £18.22 to £20.25, while the average RRP on a paperback has increased by 84p, from £9.54 to £10.38.
In 2019, 24 of the bestselling hardback novels were priced at £12.99–a price point that appears to have been deserted in 2022, given just two of the top 100 hardback fiction bestsellers of the year carried this RRP. It seems £14.99 and £16.99 are the new £12.99 while, at the dearer end, publishers are looking at £22 and above as the new price point for books that until very recently would have hit the shelves at £20.
In the paperback format, 36 of the top 100 bestselling paperback novels of 2019 carried a £7.99 RRP and none carried a £9.99 price point. In 2022, just two of the top 100 bestselling paperback novels of the year had a £7.99 RRP, with 24 priced at the previously uncommon £9.99 mark.
In trade nonfiction, the mean average RRP of a hardback has jumped £1.21, from £20.10 in 2019 to £21.31 in 2022, while paperback average RRPs have increased by 51p, from £11.83 to £12.34. The mean average price of a cookbook has jumped by 77p; the price of a personal development book by more than £1.50.
Just two of the top 20 bestselling hardback biographies or memoirs published in 2019 were priced above the £20 mark. In 2022, 11 of the top 20 bestselling hardback biographies or memoirs carried an RRP greater than £20, with £22 and £25 popular new price points.
In the children’s sector, mean average RRPs have increased by 76p to £11.32 on a hardback, and by 50p to £8.22 on a paperback. Prices in the pre-school and picture books sector have jumped by 40p, to £8.20, while prices in the children’s and young adult fiction genre have increased by 98p, to £9.31. Children’s annuals, meanwhile, are around £1 more expensive in 2022 than they were in 2019.
Prices up, discounts down
While RRPs increased in 2022, the long-term trend of reductions in retailer discounts continued. According to Nielsen BookData point-of-sale information–based on aggregated data from more than 6,500 U.K. book retail outlets–a physical book was discounted on average by 25.5% in 2022. Not including 2020 and 2021, when BookData sales reporting was suspended in lockdown periods during the pandemic, this represents the eighth consecutive year of a reduction in discounting since 2012’s high water mark of 35.1%.
But while RRPs are increasing and discounts decreasing, a strong case could be made that books have never been cheaper. The average price paid for a printed book in 2022 was £8.66–up 93p, or 12%, over 2002. However, according to the Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator (www.bankofengland.co.uk), the average amount of £7.73 paid for a book in 2002 should equate to a figure of £13.14 today.
Office for National Statistics:
According to the Annual Survey of Hours and Earnings by the Office of National Statistics (ONS), the median gross annual earnings of a full-time employee in the United Kingdom in 2002 was £20,376. In 2022, the provisional figure was £33,000–an increase of 62%. Additionally, the ONS reports that mean hourly earnings, excluding overtime, in 2002 was £11.97. The equivalent provisional figure for 2022 is £19.48–an increase of 63%. Thus, while earnings have increased by two-thirds in the U.K. over the past 20 years, average selling prices of printed books have increased by just 12%, or one-eighth.
Books have never been cheaper. Perhaps just cheap enough to fit tight budgets.
Philip Stone is an analyst at Nielsen Book, where his remit includes producing the Sunday Times bestseller lists. He has worked in the U.K. book industry for 23 years and was one of the architects of Super Thursday.