Another Rant About the Price of Books

by Richard L. Howey, Wyoming, USA


I was walking down Diatom Alley the other evening, when a figure stepped out of the shadows and said:

“Hey, Mister, want to buy a copy of ‘Identifying Marine Diatoms and Dinoflagellates’ by Hasle, Syvertsen, Steidinger, and Tangen? Only $125.”

I was tempted. Only the day before I had seen a copy advertised for slightly over $700.

“May I see the book?” I inquired.

“Well, you’ve got to understand, mate, that this is a used book and its had a bit of a hard life.”

I was still tempted. It is after all an important work.

“Let’s see it.”

“Well, sir, it does have a few condition problems. But they’re minor. The back cover is missing and a few of the pictures have been cut out and then some clumsy lout must have spilled a glass of beer over it, but other than that, it’s in very good shape.”

Publishing technical and scientific works and high quality art and photography volumes is an increasingly risky economic venture with the widespread availability of copy machines and the rapidly expanding access to more and more books online. Nonetheless, there are some pretty egregiously exploitative practices among both publishers and book dealers these days.

Let me begin with two major qualifications. First, I recognize that books with many high quality, glossy prints whether they be paintings and sculpture or images taken through an optical or electron microscope are costly and require considerable expertise to print them properly. Secondly, I also recognize that book dealers, in order to be reasonably successful, have to have large inventories requiring a lot of shelf space and that many of these books may sit on those shelves for decades before they are finally sold, if ever. I would just add that people who get involved in book publishing or book selling are foolish if they don’t know that before they get involved.

With that in mind, back to my rant, beginning first with publishers. Very real economic difficulties have led to the loss of many of the fine smaller publishing houses either through closure or by being sold to large publishers or even worse to corporate conglomerates like oil companies. This latter phenomenon is particularly disturbing since the stockholders in large corporations are finally interested in one thing–increasingly generous profits. This has led to these very large publishing houses setting prices for books that largely restricts their purchase to major libraries, universities, research institutions, corporations, and individuals with wealth.

Let me give you a classic example. There is a 20 volume set called Microscopic Anatomy of Invertebrates. I am fortunate that our university library has acquired this series and I have used selected volumes on a number of occasions. They are splendid volumes; they are printed on high quality paper, and they have many excellent photomicrographs. My not very reliable recollection is that when the first volume, devoted to the protozoa, appeared, it cost about $125, but now, according to, the list price for each volume is $435. The price of $125 is not completely unreasonable for a superb technical volume. (I’ve heard students complain that they have to pay nearly that much for a textbook collection of the works of Chaucer.)

However, the situation regarding this series has altered radically. I looked it up on ABE books and found a dealer offering the 20 volumes for $13,061.84. That’s $653.09 per volume. You would think that he could round it off a bit and get rid of the 84 cents or even just make it an even $13,000, but he did throw in “free” shipping. A dealer in England offers the set for $12,323.43 and has the Gaul (sorry, gall) to charge $7.73 shipping within the United Kingdom. These are not light-weight volumes; imagine what the shipping cost would be to the U.S. Yet another dealer in the U.K. offers it for a mere $8,352.43 and free shipping, but he has 10 sets to get rid of. What a bargain–only $417.62 a volume. I’m afraid I’m going to have to deny myself the pleasure of owning this set.

There are also a few individual volumes for sale, especially, the 3 volumes on Chelicerate Arthropoda (Volume 8)–volumes A, B, and C. Some dealers have just one of the volumes and some tell you which one it is and some don’t; some have 2 of the volumes and some have all three. The least expensive listing is for volume 8C at $128.54 plus shipping from India. The same dealer has volume 8A for $206.91. A dealer in Texas is offering this volume for $319.60, but then everything in Texas is bigger.

However, you’ll probably want all 3 volumes and the least expensive set comes from a U.S. dealer in the Garbage State–New Jersey (oh, sorry, that’s the Garden State)–for a mere $1,128.53 plus shipping. You lucky people in the U.K. can get a set for $1,543.95, but don’t stampede, the dealer has 20 sets. Another U.K. dealer oddly offers only volumes 8A and 8B at a price of $1,831.78! This is astounding to me. All of these copies are listed on the ABE books site. Does a dealer really think that a buyer is going to go through the listings and say to him- or herself: “Oh, I want the most expensive NEW copy”? There is also the consideration, at least for me, that if I were to spend $50 or $100 or more on a book, I would almost be afraid to use it. My really good reference books tend to get some hard use and fortunately I acquired most of them some years back at reasonable prices. I don’t want to acquire excellent reference works at inflated prices and then have them sit on a shelf for only occasional, very careful consultation.

We all know, but sometimes forget, the admonition: CAVEAT EMPTOR! [BUYER BEWARE!] However, I think most people of my generation tend to think of book sellers as kindly, older men and women who treasure books and are anxious to provide excellent service and reasonable prices to their customers. If you haven’t seen it, watch the film 84 Charing Cross Road or better yet, read the book. But that world no longer exists and is not likely to return.

Eric Gravé wrote a very nice, little book called Discover the Invisible: A naturalist’s Guide to Using the Microscope. It was published as a paper back at $10.95. On, there are 2 listings for it in “Good–Used” condition. It’s especially interesting just for the section of symbionts in the gut of termites and woodroaches. The first listing is at a price of $17.75 plus $3.99 shipping. It’s worth that even in used condition. The second listing is at a price of $203.55 plus shipping. The first dealer, under Comments, briefly describes the condition of the book: “A large trade paperback, cover and edgewear, small water stain on corner of first few pages.” This strikes me as an honest appraisal. The second dealer, under Comments, simply brags: “Buy without risk! Excellent customer service.” Well, I’m afraid I consider this a major risk to my wallet–a difference of $185.80 or nearly 11 ½ times the price being asked by the first dealer. I’m very tempted to buy the copy from the first dealer and then offer it to the second dealer at the bargain price of $100. What I really do think should happen is that amateur microscopists from all over the world should send e-mails to the second dealer, and other dealers engaging in this kind of price gouging, protesting this crass exploitation of the book market–in a polite way, of course, but in clear, direct terms.

Another case that annoys me mightily is Werner Nachtigall’s splendid little volume Exploring With the Microscope. I have written about this one before. It was published in both a paperback and a hardcover edition. The paperback originally sold for $14.95. On the internet, the cheapest used copy I can find now is listed for slightly over $80. This is a popular, well-illustrated book which is excellent both for the beginner and the amateur. Apparently the publisher didn’t print enough copies and probably due to drastically increased printing costs is not inclined to reissue it. However, somebody should and even if the price doubled to $30, it would be a good investment, but $80+–that’s exploitative.

There is a delightful, small format book The Microscope Made Easy by Lawrence A. Wells. It is a hardcover which originally sold for $4.95 and it has very nice plates of drawings, some in black and white, some in color. It is, in my view, a charming little book written and organized in such a way as to stimulate interest for both beginners and seasoned amateurs. Would I pay $31.50 for it used? Probably not, because from time to time I have run across copies online for a more reasonable price. On Amazon, there are 2 copies for $31.50, and one each at $36.57, $49,97, and $87.90 plus $3.99 shipping in each case. I find it difficult to believe that one used copy listed in “good” condition is worth nearly 3 times another used copy also listed in “good” condition. Is your blood starting to boil? Wait. I’m just getting warmed up.

I mentioned in a previous article that I was interested in acquiring a copy of Vance Tartar’s superb book The Biology of Stentor. At that time, there was only one listing for a used copy–at $300! I e-mailed the dealer and politely inquired whether or not he had misplaced a decimal point. He replied tersely, but civilly that, no, that was indeed the correct price. Now (March 2008), there are 9 used copies available on ABE books. The first one listed is at the reasonable price of $37.80, but the dealer is in Italy and the shipping is about $20, so it would approach the $60 mark; still it’s tempting, because here’s how the others work out. Remember shipping from countries outside the U.S. is expensive.

The prices listed here are all in U.S. dollars and do not include shipping.

$100.80–United Kingdom
$211.68–United Kingdom

So, should I order the copy from Italy? These dealers are rated from 1 to 5 stars (5 being best) and all of them have either 4 or 5 stars–except the dealer from Italy who has a rating of 3 stars. I guess I’ll just keep checking out the copy from the university library.

At one time, I thought that the reason the Stentor book was so pricey was precisely due to the fact that it was devoted to researches on a single genus of organisms. Then, however, I came across Arthur Giese’s excellent book Blepharisma: The Biology of a Light-Sensitive Protozoan. The Stentor book was published in 1961 by Oxford University Press; the Blepharisma book in 1973 by Stanford University Press. Both books being published by distinguished university presses and on a single genus of organisms probably meant a fairly modest number of copies were produced. Stentor is 413 pages; Blepharisma 366 pages and it has more photomicrographs, although the Stentor volume has numerous drawings. So, there are strong similarities, but the price range (even though still annoying) has a much smaller spread for the Blepharisma book, ranging from $19.99 to $68.19. I am still wrestling with the psychology of this. The least expensive copy is described as “Condition is fine in a hardcover. DJ is Very Good with moderate overall wear.” All of this information is easily accessible, so why on earth would anyone go beyond this first entry and foolishly go to the last listing and pay $48.20 more for the same book which would be even more expensive than that since that copy is located in the Netherlands?

Occasionally a volume appears that is such an important reference that you may decide to forgo buying a case of Chateau Margaux for your Rolls-Royce’s wine cabinet and invest in a very special book. I have over my 55 years of microscopical pursuits made such an investment on 3 occasions.

1) Handbook of Protoctista, edited by John Corliss, Lynn Margulis, and Michael Melkonian. It is subtitled: “The Structure, Cultivation, Habitats and Life Histories of the Eukaryotic Microorganisms and Their Descendants Exclusive of Animals, Plants and Fungi.” It is folio with 1024 pages; a true heavyweight. I paid $180 when it first came out. It is now out of print and I found 2 listings for used copies although the first dealer has 5 copies of it for $242.46 plus shipping from Germany. The second listing is for a single copy in the U.S. at $575.00!

It is based on the 5 kingdom system of Whittaker and does argue strongly that these creatures are not unicellular, but must be regarded as complete organisms in and of themselves. The volume was published in 1990 and is the product of many contributors who are world-renowned specialists in their areas. It is a real treasury of information made all the more valuable by the many optical, SEM, and TEM photomicrographs. To me, it has a character that is both an asset and a disadvantage. The kingdom Protoctista (I still prefer, as do many others, Haeckel’s more felicitous term “Protista”) becomes a kind of dumping ground for all kinds of truly bizarre microorganisms that biologists don’t know where else to house and this leads to a large number of phyla within this kingdom that don’t seem to have much of a relationship to one another except that one doesn’t know where else to put them. The positive aspect of this is that it will motivate biologists to give these phyla further and more thorough scrutiny regarding the issue of phylogenetic interrelationships.

2) Freshwater Algae: Their Microscope World Explored by Hilda Canter-Lund lushly illustrated with superb photomicrographs and an absorbing text by her husband. When this was first published in 1995, a friend of mine, a first-class microscopist and microscope technician, suggested in a telephone conversation that I might want to purchase a copy, but he continued that it was a bit pricey, but destined to become a classic work. So, sight-unseen, I ordered it and paid $75 or $80. After considerable poking around on the internet, I found 4 book sellers who were offering copies–3 in the U.K. and 1 in the U.S. The ones in England are $136.66, $140.36, and $194.67; the one in the U.S. is $224.50 and none of these prices include shipping which means that the least expensive copy from the U.K. would be at least $150. It is a fine volume, but I’m not at all sure that I would now expend over twice what I paid for it to acquire a copy.

3) The third time I exceeded my limit (actually my wife did, which I’ll explain in a minute) was the acquisition of the 2 volume Loeblich and Tappan Foraminferal Genera. Volume 2 consists of 847 black and white photographic plates with multiple specimens on each plate; this means that there are photomicrographs of thousands of forams printed on high quality glossy paper. Forams, as you very likely know, are the shells (almost always calcareous) of microscopic marine amoebae. These volumes were published, as I recall, at nearly $400; however, at the time, my wife was working at a bookstore and got a substantial discount and gave them to me as a birthday present. Now, why would I, as a mere amateur, want such a technical and extensive reference? As it turned out, a colleague and friend of mine who was a micro-paleontologist was retiring and his position was not being replaced. As a consequence, he was afraid that his extensive collection which he had built up over many years would be discarded. He knew of my interest in things microscopical and I became the beneficiary of hundreds of paleo slides and hundreds of vials of foram material, including samples from the Glomar Challenger expedition and samples from the Andaman Sea off the coast of Burma. So, this was a very special situation which made this investment worthwhile to me, but not one I would recommend for others unless they plan to become specialists on forams.

Lionel Beale wrote quite a good book titled How To Work With The Microscope. It went through a number of editions and when I buy such references, I always try to get the latest editions and not the first editions which I think are for collectors, not users. The individual who really uses a reference wants the edition with the most information. An excellent example is Kudo’s classic work Protozoology. The 5th edition which you can buy from a dealer in Italy for $37.88 and $19.13 shipping if you are patient (shipping at this price takes from 25-45 business days) for a total of $57.01. If you’re in hurry, you can buy it from an American dealer for $150 plus $4 shipping–maybe. Almost all of the dealers have a caveat that for extra large or heavy books shipping may cost more.

There are 3 copies of the 5th edition (1880) of Beale’s work which has 518 pages.

U.S. $55.95 + $4.75 shipping
Australia $141.93 + 27.00 shipping
U.S. $185.00 + 5.00 shipping

and there is a 3rd edition (1865) with only 272 pages available in the U.S. for $406.24 + $8.00 shipping. It’s not the most up to date edition and it’s not a collector’s first edition–go figure!

I could go on with example after example, but that would be tedious both for me and for you. However, there are some really egregious examples from a fine series designed for serious amateurs and these cases deserve attention and I will conclude with them.

This last case is particularly aggravating to me. There is the wonderful “Pictured Key Nature Series” in paperback which was begun over 50 years ago. I remember how excited I was when I acquired my first copy of Jahn’s “How to Know the Protozoa.” I think it was $3.95 (maybe $4.95) but, of course that was a long time ago. In the meantime, there have been those nasty issues of inflation and currency devaluation. As I recall there was a later period when they sold for about $15.00 and now the list price is, according to Amazon, $51.88. In my view this is a real shame, because these books are wonderful references for young people, beginners, and serious, older amateurs. There are over 30 titles in this series. If I come across a protozoan I haven’t seen before, this is the first work I turn to. However, young people or parents with young children may very well hesitate to pay over $50 for a single paperbound reference book. As a consequence, whenever I go to a library book sale or find a copy in a used bookstore or online at a low price, I buy it if it’s one of those in the series which I think would be of interest to others and then I give them to friends or acquaintances with children who are interested in microscopy or natural history. Sometimes I have obtained copies for only one or two dollars. So, let’s take a quick look at the price range.

First $51.88 with free shipping, then $49.29 +$3.99 shipping (and this applies to all the following listings) $50.00, $53.13, $57, $57.41, $65.18, $68.29, $85.45, $86.23, and $597.78! (I’m not joking; that what’s listed. I’ll come back to this last entry in a bit.) Some of these are new, some are used, this last was described as in “Used–Good” condition.

Let’s take a quick look at another very fine volume in this series, Prescott’s “How to Know the Freshwater Algae.” A number of the books in this series have been published in two or more editions and while it is desirable to have the latest expanded edition, these works are of sufficient value that if you find an earlier edition at a reasonable price, my advice would be–buy it. Here again I am drawing from Amazon. The first listing is for a “Used–Very Good” copy for $19.50 (plus $3.99 shipping). It’s a third edition. If you’re willing to accept an earlier edition, you can find them from $3.00 to $11.95 plus shipping.

However, let’s go on looking at these listing for the 3rd edition without the shipping and remembering that the list price is $51.88. After the $29.50 listing, the sequence accelerates as follows: $20.00, $9.99, $30.00, $32.50, $33.49, $34.88, $35.98, $40.40, $42.79, $51.88 (free shipping), $48.99, $49.29, $51.46, $53.13, $60,73, $61.59, $63.14, $109,54, $133.98, and $598.78.

This means that 7 of these listings are above the list price.

Each dealer has a short space for comments. The description for the $29.00 copy reads: “No notes, underlining or highlighting. Minor wear and aging. Minor musty odor. Clean!” Somehow “musty” and “clean” don’t altogether connect for me.

There is another dealer who has a “Used-Very Good” copy for $40.40 and also a “Brand new! May have small remainder mark” copy for $133.98 and the comment accompanying, the used copy says: “Excellent customer service.” I should hope so if I’m buying the new copy and spending 2 ½ times the price that I can get a brand new copy from Amazon for! What’s with these people? Again, we’ll consider that last price in a minute.

The final example is “How to Know the Freshwater Crustacea.” Amazon tells us that its list price is a staggering $122.15 which I find outrageous for a relatively slim, paperbound reference work on a relatively small group of organisms. Marine crustacea–that’s a different matter altogether. There are 3 listings all describing the copies available as “Used-Good” priced at $155.79, $155.82, and $598.78. This last price, which was the same for all 3 of the volumes which we considered in this series is, as I’m sure you guessed, the same dealer. So, I sent an e-mail informing this dealer that I was a retired professor who was selling parts of my library, that I had an extra copy of “How to Know the Protozoa” and some others in the series. I asked if I could get an approximate price range, if the dealer was interested in buying them. I got a response a few days later telling me that Amazon had made a mistake in these listings and that the dealer was trying to get them to delete them all. I was further told that the Protozoa volume had been sold at a much reduced price and the dealer was not interested in buying any more copies.

So, what are we to believe? In one way, it doesn’t much matter whether these particular instances are the result of a mistake or not–except to the dealer, of course. Any buyer stupid enough to pay hundreds of dollars more than need be for a copy of a book shouldn’t be allowed to have so much money. On the other hand, looking at the less extreme instances, it is clear that some dealers are playing an exploitative game and inflating prices beyond reason. I think that when we come across such cases, we should e-mail dealers and let them know that we won’t buy from them and why. I also think that publishers should be urged to re-release important volumes at reasonable prices. However, that’s probably a lost cause when such publishers are owned by giant oil companies and other large corporations.

It may be a brave new high-tech world, but that doesn’t mean that we have to sit by passively and be taken advantage of.


As you can tell I am particularly exercised regarding the “How to Know...” series precisely because I think these volumes should be widely available at reasonable prices. A month after I received the e-mail from the dealer I mentioned above, I went back onto Amazon to see if any of the prices had changed and to look at what some of the other dealers were charging for other volumes in the series. I will provide a brief summary of my survey and a few final comments.

How to Know the Beetles (1951 edition) (19 copies available)
Price range: $9.00 to $99.00

(1980 edition) (17 copies available)
Price range: $39.03 to $106.56 and $598.78 (our dealer mentioned above.)

(1971 edition) (5 copies available)
Price range: $14.65 to $16.50 and $598.78

How to Know the Spiders (1953 edition) (12 copies available)
Price range: $4.04 to $44.94

(1970 edition) (1 copy available)
Price: $598.78

(1972 edition) (3 copies available)
Price range: $69.19, $579.97 (a different dealer), and $598.78. (Clearly this second dealer is an imitator and pretender to the throne of egregious prices.)

How to Know the True Bugs (1981) (2 copies)
Price range: $249.00 and $598.78

How to Know the Grasshoppers, crickets, Cockroaches and Their Allies (1987) (10 copies)
Price range: $44.20 to $129.43

How to Know the Aquatic Insects (1979) (19 copies)
Price range: $12.99 to $125.95 and $598.78

How to Know the Immature Insects (1949) (5 copies)
Price range: $9.95 to $32.50 and $598.78

How to Know the True Slime Molds (1981) (3 copies)
Price range: $69.96, $124.95, $598.78

How to Know the Mosses and Liverworts (1956) (10 copies)
Price range: $8.74 to $140.00

(1974 edition) (1 copy)
Price range:$19.95

(1979 edition) (3 copies)
Price range: $60.00, $125.95, $598.78

How to Know the Fall Flowers (1948) (9 copies)
Price range: 3 copies at $3.98, 1 each at $4.86, $5.00, $6.31, 2 copies at $578.97, and 1 copy at $598.78

How to the Know the Insects (4 copies)
Price range: $24.99 to $36.97 and $598.78

How to Know the Weeds (1972) (8 copies)
Price range: $7.44 to $35.00 and $598.78

How to Know the Water Birds (1960) (4 copies)
Price range: $6.10, $47.54, $47.54, $598.78

How to Know the Land Birds (1947) (9 copies)
Price range: $4.09 to $48.00 and $99.99

How to Know the Aquatic Plants (1979) (20 copies)
Price range: $4.88 to $64.14

How to Know Pollen and Spores (1969) (5 copies)
Price range: $9.94, 9.95, $33.00, $33.00, $598.78

How to Know the Freshwater Fishes (1957) (13 copies)
Price range: $2.99 to $25.95

How to Know the Mammals (4 copies)
Price range: $0.79, $0.79, $4.91, $598.78

How to Know the Eastern Land Snails (1962) (4copies)
Price range: $49.99, $50.00, $52.25, $125.00

How to Know the Seaweeds (1978) (17 copies)
Price range: $16.38 to $63.14 and $598.78

How to know the Mites and Ticks (1979) (1 copy)
Price range: $598.78

How to Know the Grasses (1978) (21 copies)
Price range: $$4.99 to $88.71 and $598.78

So, there are all kinds of anomalies and disparities here which should indeed reinforce the admonition for the buyer to beware. The dealer with the most outrageous prices of $598.78 that mentioned a mistake and had requested a change by Amazon of all these prices has 84 items in this series listed at this price. Furthermore, I checked some other categories–history, art, music, literature, philosophy–and I found hundreds of books listed for (you guessed it) $598.78!

To make things even stranger, Amazon has a system whereby buyers can rate a dealer from 1 to 5 stars (5 being highest) and also add comments. This dealer has a rating 4.9 stars with 979 ratings or a 99% positive score. This is not the only dealer who is anomalous–there are certainly several others–but this is the most extreme case with one exception. I found a copy of a 1976 book called Inquiry About Communities: Planning Calendar. It is 221 pages, is described as “Used–Like New”, and is listed for $10,000.99!!! I sent an e-mail to the dealer suggesting that surely this was mistake and received a reply thanking me for pointing out the problem and inviting me to make a “reasonable” offer. I declined saying that I did not have sufficient expertise regarding the book market and suggested that the dealer propose a price. I have gotten a reply informing me that the price had been adjusted to $50. I think, however, that I shall have to forgo the purchase since it is simply an old copy of a textbook which one can find elsewhere, in a slightly earlier edition, for $5.55.

I sent e-mails of inquiry to several other dealers. So far, only two have replied. One was the $598.78 dealer who again told me that the mistake was Amazon’s and that a request had been made to delete all of these entries (remember there are several hundred) and I was informed that the books in question– this time philosophy books–had been sold. Another dealer thanked me for pointing out a price disparity in some of the “How to Know...” series and lowered “Used–Very Good” copies of “How to Know the Spiders” and “How to Know the Insects” from $579.97 to $99.99 and a “Collectible–Like New” copy of “How to Know the Lichens” from $579.97 to $149.99. My fundamental question, however, still remains: WHY WOULD ANYONE IN HIS OR HER RIGHT MIND PAY THESE KINDS OF PRICES WHEN ONE CAN BUY A NEW COPY ON AMAZON FOR $51.88??? A new copy of “How to Know the Lichens” is not available on Amazon, but it is available (along with 12 other volumes in the series) for $52.95 from Carolina Biological Supply Company.

Again I would say that when one is looking to buy a particular book or books and encounters such cases, one should send a polite, but firm e-mail to the dealer pointing our the disparities.

All comments to the author Richard Howey are welcomed.

Editor's note: Visit Richard Howey's new website at where he plans to share aspects of his wide interests.


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