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Ideally, a book price should be proportional to its publication cost. Since some books and topics have potential for higher sales, publishers increase the price. What I do not understand is why a book with public audience costs a few dollars, but a technical book (with the same printing costs) can be a few hundred dollars.

I speculate that one reason is that a technical book has a lesser number of potential sales. Of course a publisher would expects a decent revenue from each book project, but but I cannot understand why the increase in price is so extreme. I wonder if this high price is part of the reason for lower sales in the first place, creating a vicious cycle.)

Is there any standard scheme for determining the price of a book? Or do publishers increase the price to as much as the book will sell?

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Pricing has any number of major factors; I don't think we can comprehensively list which are the "right" ones... This is a fascinating discussion, but I don't think it works as a question. What do others think? – Standback Aug 7 '12 at 20:22
As to one of your questions: Technical books are bought out of necessity and/or for professional use; fiction books are entertainment. Business necessities can charge a lot more than "have a few hours of fun" items. Also, technical books usually have (much) smaller print runs, and the good ones need much more in terms of thorough proofreading, expert criticism, and such. – Standback Aug 7 '12 at 20:26
Ali, the way your question was written was a little confusing. I've clarified which parts are clearly background speculation on your part to frame your question. I think this will read better now, but please revert the edits if I've done them incorrectly. – Neil Fein Aug 7 '12 at 20:42
up vote 2 down vote accepted

I think the simple answer is that the publisher has to recover their costs on the expected sales of the book, and tend to price accordingly. There is also the drive that they want to charge as much as they can for it, while not damaging their sales.

So academic or technical books are liable to have similar or higher costs than novels, for example, because they need checking for accuracy by people who know the subject. They are often also larger and thicker, requiring more time to check.

The potential sales of these are hugely less than popular novels. Some of them will sell hundreds, maybe thousands, rather than tens of thousands that novels can sell. So their income is liable to be less - if the book takes off in academic circles, they will get a nice profit from it, but if it fails to take off, they will make a loss. Hopefully, it balances out.

There is a different market for regulatory books, that is, books that certain organisations need to have, which will have known basic sales, but they will be businesses, so they will charge more. There are extra costs for making sure it is strictly correct and valid, according to the regulations, and companies will pay £200+ a year for the latest copy. Publishers will price according to what they think the market will take.

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There are two different primary factors involved here. The first is recovery of costs, while the second is supply and demand.

The publisher is going to have a certain amount of fixed costs tied to any book, regardless of subject. These include editing, fact checking, cover design, paper, and printing. With a popular novel, they can recover these costs more easily through volume sales. Say for example their total expense is $100,000, and the book sells for $10. They would need to sell 10,000 copies of the book just to break even. For a technical book, they have to factor in the likeliness that they even have an audience of 10,000, let alone that many who will actually buy the book. Based on previous sales of similar books, they will most likely identify a target number of sales they might realistically be able to reach, and then price the book accordingly.

With the supply and demand factor, they can look at the marketplace and detrmine whether or not there is any other book offering the same information. If there is not, and the demand for the book seems respectable, then they can charge a higher price simply because nobody else can offer what they have. Even if they can sell the book at a lower price to recover their expenses, they may be inclined to start with a higher price. This would especially be true if they believe that there is considerable demand from a limited audience.

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Don't forget marketing; that's a chunk of a publisher's costs as well, at least with some books. – Neil Fein Aug 9 '12 at 17:04

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