over past four centuries, books much cheaper, but less price dispersion

The First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623, provides a benchmark price for an up-market, popular book about four centuries ago.  The folio book size, which was the largest typical book size, marked that publication as being an up-market item.  Although the Shakespeare’s First Folio has become an enormously valuable collector’s treasure, it was not produced as a limited-edition book.  The First Folio had an initial print run of an estimated 750 copies.  That was a relatively large print run for that time.  In 1623, the price of the First Folio, unbound, was 20 shillings.  A high-quality binding might have cost several additional shillings.

Over the past four centuries, the price of books relative to services has decreased roughly a hundred-fold.  In 1623, the price of the First Folio relative to an up-market seat at a enclosed theater, relative to a craftperson’s monthly earnings, and relative to the price of a man’s visit to the barber were 13.3, 0.7, and 10.0, respectively.  By 2011, these relative prices had increased by factors of 41, 111, and 8, respectively.  The barber’s service in 1623 may have been much more extensive (shaving, wig treatment, etc.) than a man’s haircut in 2011.  The admission price for groundlings at open-air London theaters like the Globe was only a penny.  The change in the relative price of an up-market book to a craftperson’s monthly earnings is the best indicator of the change in relative prices.  By any reasonable indicator, the relative price of books has dropped enormously.

Dispersion in general-market book prices appears to have decreased.  The First Folio, even unbound, cost forty times more than a standard playbook in 1623.  In the U.S. today, most paperbacks cost more than five dollars, and most hardcover books, less than fifty dollars.  The growth in e-books may push price dispersion towards the higher levels of four centuries ago.

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Statistics: book prices relative to other prices across four centuries (Excel version)

Sources: The price for Shakespeare’s First Folio is from Edward Dering’s Book of Expenses (entry for Dec. 5, 1623). The source provides a variety of prices in London in 1623, including the prices for attending a play and going to the barber. For information about Dering’s Book of Expenses, see Lennam, T. N. S., “Sir Edward Dering’s Collection of Playbooks, 1619-1624,” Shakespeare Quarterly, v. 16, n. 2 (1965) pp. 145-153.

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