Pricing a Book

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In the past few weeks, we have received many e-mails from readers of our new René Herse book. All messages were positive. Many readers wrote that the book greatly exceeded their expectations.

I appreciate the feedback, and I am delighted that our readers are so happy. After all, few people take the time to write about something they buy, so when you get dozens of e-mails with only a couple of hundred books sold, it’s a good sign.

Readers love the wonderful photos and stories. The René Herse archives are amazing – I was blown away as well when I first saw them. But something inside me still wonders why the book exceeded so many people’s expectations. What did they expect, if not an amazing book? Perhaps the answer lies in the price: $86 is a lot of money in absolute terms, but it’s very little for a book like this.

Book pricing is a tricky thing, because when the book gets printed, you pay mostly for the setup fee. After that, it costs less and less to keep the presses running longer to print a higher quantity, thus lowering the per-unit cost.

This gives publishers two choices: You can print a lot of books, so you are able to sell them at a low price. The downside is that you need to sell many books to break even on the project. For specialized titles, it’s safer to print very few and sell them at a much higher price. After all, you know that some readers will buy the book almost at any price, and that way, you will break even once you have sold only a few hundred books.

As an example, take a beautiful book on the early days of Porsche published last year (top of this post). Many books have been published about Porsche, but this isn’t your standard, casual overview. It is a carefully researched book by one of the best authors in the field. It includes specially commissioned studio photos. With 356 pages in a format of 10.5 inches square, it’s almost as big as our René Herse book. The publisher priced the book at $ 120. The first printing is already sold out, barely three months after it appeared. This indicates that the publisher underestimated the interest in this topic, but it also means that they already have recovered their investment.

I have more than a passing interest in car design and history, even if I rarely drive a car. I am tempted by this book, since the Porsche/Cisitalia/Dusio Bicycles connection has intrigued me for a long time. But $ 120 makes me hesitate. At 2/3 that price, I would have bought the book as soon as it came out.

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Above is another “specialized” title about the Group B rally cars of the 1980s. It’s a lavish book, 1000 pages in two volumes, written and published by the expert on the subject, photographer Reinhard Klein. The price? 995 Euros. That’s a little over $1300. No wonder the book is limited to 500 copies. Perhaps more surprisingly, over 400 already have been sold. Good for Mr. Klein, but too bad for me, who cannot afford his book.

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René Herse could be considered a “specialized” topic as well. The average cyclist doesn’t recognize the name, and our book never will become a blockbuster. On the other hand, there are quite a few fervent fans of the “Magician of Levallois.” For them, the book would be a “must-have” at almost any price. Unlike Porsche or rally cars, there isn’t anything else published on the subject. If there ever was a title that lent itself to a high price, this is it.

So why didn’t we price the book high? The reason for keeping our books affordable is simple: The story of René Herse and his riders is so wonderful that I want to share it with as many people as possible. The very reasonably price of René Herse allows the book to have an impact far beyond the collectors and connoisseurs. That way, it can inspire current and future generations of cyclists. That is my passion and true goal for writing these books.

For true aficionados, we offer the “Limited Edition” with a beautiful slipcase and four  ready-to-frame art prints of unpublished photos from the René Herse archives.

Click here for more information about either edition of the René Herse book.

About Jan Heine, Editor, Bicycle Quarterly

I love cycling and bicycles, especially those that take us off the beaten path. I edit Bicycle Quarterly magazine, and occasionally write for other publications. One of our companies, Bicycle Quarterly Press publishes cycling books, while Compass Bicycles Ltd. makes and distributes high-quality bicycle components for real-world riders.
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16 Responses to Pricing a Book

  1. GuitarSlinger says:

    Fascinating in light of the fact that I recently purchased the Porsche book . It .. like all your books is well worth the price of entry .Its extra cost though is more than justified by the rare photos and archive access .. not to mention the participation by the car being featured’s owner . Doubly fascinating as there is a less expensive ( or at least there was ) more reasonable version of the Group B book by Reinhard Klein which I also own ( the ‘ ultimate ‘ version was well out of my price range ) Gearheaditis is definitely an affliction I suffer from .e.g. If its got gears I’ve probably got more than a passing interest in it .

    • You are absolutely right that the price of the Porsche book is justified. I know very well how hard it is to get access to archives, how long it takes to track down surviving eyewitnesses, how much effort is involved to take studio photographs of cars (or bicycles). Researching, writing and editing the René Herse book took over 10 years, with many months of full-time work.

      Compare that to selecting a few archive shots (available free of charge from the company’s marketing department), pulling together a little boilerplate copy, and presto: the “ultimate Porsche/Campagnolo/whatever book” is born. Sell it for $ 30, and if you have a good marketing department, it’ll be a success.

      The former approach is much more satisfying, but the latter is going to make far more money.

  2. Bubba says:

    Perhaps if you had Jerry Seinfeld write the Foreward, you would have been in a different price category.

    • Lyli Herse wrote the foreword of our book, which to me is more relevant than a celebrity. However, from what I gather, Seinfeld is a true Porsche enthusiast, and not just a famous name to add to the cover.

      Make no mistake, we could have priced our books higher, and they would have sold. It really is an issue of whom you want to read the books. I am very happy to meet so many young cyclists, college students, etc., who read Bicycle Quarterly and our books. Just like the original riders of René Herse bikes, many of whom saved all their money to afford a great bike, which then gave them many years of enjoyment. Catering only to rich people would be far less satisfying.

      • Theo Roffe says:

        As one of these younger cyclists who reads BIcycle Quarterly and your books, I have to thank you for deciding to go with a lower price for this book.. The $86 was well spent, but not necessarily easy to come up with. I enjoyed reading about the riders who saved up for their Herse bikes, like Roger Baumann, since this was very similar to my situation of stretching to afford a MAP Randonneur (and like some of the riders in the book, I also benefited from the generosity of my constructeur, Mitch Pryor).

      • GuitarSlinger says:

        You’re right Jan . For the record Jerry is a very serious Porsche guy , well respected by the entire Porsche community for both his knowledge ( the man knows his Porsche history ) as well as having one of the more coherent Porsche collections ( though not the largest ) of any independent collector . The man even drives one of his classics as his daily driver .

        But Jan . I’d really like to hear/read more about the Porsche/Cisitalia/Dusio bike connection if you would some time . I’m not familiar with that at all and would love to know more .

        For Chris L . The link to the ‘reasonably priced ‘ Group B rally book

        http://www.rallyandracing.com/oxid.php/cl/details/anid/9234ecbc908789251.82908063/lang/1

  3. Greg says:

    Jan, it is clear, I think, that the Herse book has been a ‘labor of love.’ It really is an amazing book, especially at the current price. When I received my Limited Edition, I spent most of the first weekend reading it pretty much cover-to-cover. The level of detail, organization, and the quantity and placement of the amazing photos, are all just fabulous. I thought I was very familiar with Herse prior to reading it, but I certainly have an even deeper appreciation for his dedication to producing the finest cyclotouring ‘tool’ that he could, bar none, after getting more informed. If you inflate his bike prices to the modern day, it is clear to me that a new Herse, while certainly not cheap, was really significantly underpriced for what it represented. This helps explain (at least partly) the prices that nice randonneuse examples currently bring (the most recent one on eBay was sold for over $10,000, iirc, for example, and you could argue that it was not even from the most desireable time in his career).
    My father co-authored an academic textbook some years ago, and I remember him telling me about the wild pricing discussions that they had with the publisher. A wide range of possibilities and price levels were discussed, which seemed odd to me at the time, but it makes more sense now….

  4. Chris L says:

    I need to hunt down a copy of that Group B book, especially since there’s a non-ultimate edition. BTW for those wondering what Group B is here’s a little video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JG9yfutJ254&feature=share&list=PLA2CA884D33F4AC80

    And yeah, I need to get around to ordering the Herse book as well. So many projects, so little budget. ;)

    • Before we get into cars vs. bikes, let’s say that we can admire the skill and artistry necessary to drive cars at that level without endorsing cars as the main means of transportation. Factoid: A bike race and a car race have the same environmental impact, since the spectators’ cars cause so much pollution that the competitors’ fuel use is insignificant. And since many bike teams advertise cars, even the message from both is similar.

    • Greg says:

      That’s seven minutes of silent slo-mo with only over-dubbed, overly-dramatic sound…. The main things about those cars are the insane speeds and the noise!

  5. If I wasn’t so busy putting together the cash for a new (bike quartely inspired) bike purchase, I would have snapped one of these up right off. Hopefully a few copies are still around after I put a few thousand miles on the new ride.

  6. Eric Platt says:

    Let me join the chorus and state that your Herse book is definitely not overpriced. Have collected books in different categories for a number of years and this book is at the high end of quality versus cost. My only regret is not getting the limited edition. Interesting how others are comparing it to motor car books, of which I have no interest. But I’m comparing it to small press science fiction/fantasy/horror books and, more relevantly, to railroad history books that also have a lot of photography.

  7. Bill Spencer says:

    Jan, as a printer by profession I can attest to the exceedingly reasonable price of both the regular and special addition of your Renee Herse book. Many bicycle aficionados do not hesitate to spend large sums of money on a bicycle yet balk at the price of a beautiful book. The overhead and set up costs for printing are enormous. I think that you pricing is more than reasonable.
    Keep up the excellent work!

  8. Dan says:

    Jan what’s the Porsche/Cisitalia/Dusio bicycle connection? I’ve always loved the story of a TB ridden Tazio Nuvolari nearly winning the first Mille Miglia after WWII in a small underpowered Cisitalia(came in second 1st in class).

    • I haven’t read the Porsche book, and there isn’t much published about Cisitalia, but here is what I know: The Cisitalia appears to have been the first car with a spaceframe. It was introduced in 1946, using mostly Fiat components. Why did it have a spaceframe? Apart from reasons of stiffness and light weight, there was the fact that Cisitalia’s owner, Piero Dusio, owned a bicycle factory. And so he had a lot of steel tubes. So soon after the war, it may have been difficult to have a pressed-steel chassis made, but welding together bicycle tubes was relatively easy…

      Having seen a few Cisitalias without their bodies, they are beautifully designed. One wishes that the genius behind them, Dante Giacosa, had applied his skills to bicycles, rather than just use them as a source for tubing! However, unlike in France, the Italian car designers appear to have had little interest in and influence on bicycles.

      By the way, my understanding is that the bicycles were mass-produced city bikes, and the tubing probably was straight-gauged and maybe even seamed. Perfectly fine for racing cars. I believe that in Britain, they used bicycle tubing for airplane frames during World War II.

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