book prices in England about 1670

Price differentiation among books in England about the year 1670 was considerable.  Among 1090 titles priced in a catalog of books printed in England from 1666 to 1672, the median price was 2 shillings.[1]  The lower quartile was 1 shilling, and the upper quartile, 3.5 shillings.  Hence the interquartile range amounted to 125% of the median price. Among bound books of large-octavo size, the interquartile range amounted to 60% of the median price.

Book prices increased sharply with book size for volumes octavo size and larger.  The median “price bound” for a small octavo was 1 shilling, while the median price bound for a quarto was 4 shillings. The median price for a folio-sized bound book was 12 shillings.

Binding costs account for a significant share of the bound price.  Octavo was the most frequent title size. For a large octavo, a binding in calf skin would have cost about 30% of the price bound.  A binding in sheep skin would have cost 15% of the price bound. Hence even these common binding variations significantly affected the retail book price.

Book prices also varied with book subject.  Law books and books in Latin had median bound prices of 4.5 shillings and 3.5 shillings, respectively, while poetry and school-books had median bound prices of 1.5 shillings.  The relatively high median price for architecture books (8 shillings) probably reflects more illustrations in these books.  Relatively high prices for law books and books in Latin may reflect higher page counts in those books.

The reduction of the per book material cost to zero with ebooks continues a much longer trend of falling book material costs.  In England before about 1670, nearly all paper was imported from mainland Europe.  Paper was the single most expensive capital outlay for producing books.[2]  Today, paper cost is only a small share of book production costs.  Book production has become a service business, not a materials business.

*  *  *  *  *

Data and statistics: book prices in England about 1670 (Excel version)

Data source: Robert Clavell (1673). A Catalogue of all the Books printed in England since the dreadful fire of London, in 1666, to the end of Michaelmas Term, 1672.

General information on term catalogues and their limitations

Read more:


[1] The median (middle) price is less sensitive to outliers than the mean (average) price.  Titles would need to be weighted by exemplars purchased to measure median or mean price for book purchases.

[2] James Raven (2007).  The business of books: booksellers and the English book trade, 1450-1850 (New Haven: Yale University Press) p. 308.

2 thoughts on “book prices in England about 1670”

  1. Is there any way of knowing how much was spent on books in any one representative year? And what proportion this was of the national income? Approximately, of course. I’d be interested

    1. That would be difficult to calculate within a factor of 1000. My sense is that spending on books was a de minimus share of national income in 1670. But I haven’t actually done any quantitative estimates.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Current month ye@r day *