The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IV. Prose and Poetry: Sir Thomas North to Michael Drayton.

XVIII. The Book-Trade, 1557–1625

§ 28. Prices

Notwithstanding the keen competition in the book-trade and the great number of works which were issued from the press, books were by no means cheap. They were, it is true, no longer a luxury for the rich alone, and it is quite probable that the prices at which they were sold brought them fairly within the reach of most of those who were able to use them. The prices of those days multiplied by eight will, approximately, represent present day values, and it should be noted that the cost mentioned is often that of the book in sheets, the binding being an additional expense.

The prices of books published under official auspices were sometimes limited by a special regulation; thus, the first edition of the Book of Common Prayer (1549), as appears by the king’s order printed at the end of the book, is not to be sold above the price of 2s. 2d. apiece, and bound in paste or boards not above 3s. 8d. Such a regulation was rendered the more necessary by the fact that the right to print such books was usually granted as a monopoly to some individual printer, and they were not therefore subject to the healthy influence of competition. A curious tract entitled Scintilla, or a Light broken into darke Warehouses, published anonymously in 1641, throws some interesting light on the doings of the monopolists and the way in which they had raised the prices of the books which they had gotten into their grasp. Church Bibles, which formerly cost thirty shillings, are now, it is said, raised to two pounds, and large folio Bibles in roman print, which used to sell at 12s. 6d., now cost twenty shillings. The prices of other editions, before being raised, were: the Cambridge quarto Bible, with Psalms, 7s., the London quarto Bible, with notes and concordance, also 7s., and Bibles in octavo, 3s. 4d. Testaments in octavo cost 10d., and in duodecimo, 7d.; the Book of Common Prayer, 3s. in folio, and 1s. 6d. in quarto. The Grammar of Oxford and Cambridge cost 5d., and Camden’s Greek Grammar, 8d.; there was also an edition of the latter printed in France which was sold at 4 1/2d.

In 1598, the Stationers’ company, with a view to prevent the excessive prices of books, made a general order that no new copies without pictures should be sold at more than a penny for two sheets if in pica, roman and italic, or in english with roman and italic; and at a penny for one sheet and a half if in brevier or long primer letter. A quarto volume of 360 pages in small type might thus cost, in sheets, two shillings and sixpence, equal to about one pound at the present day. At this rate, the first folio Shakespeare, which contains nearly one thousand pages, should have cost about fourteen shillings, but the actual selling price was one pound. For a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Alleyn the actor paid fivepence in June, 1609, and a contemporary diary mentions twelvepence as the selling price of the 1593 edition of Venus and Adonis. Quarto plays and similar productions were mostly issued at sixpence, and ephemeral pamphlets were sold at twopence, threepence, or fourpence.

In 1576, the hall Bible at King’s college, Cambridge, to be read during meals, cost sixteen shillings; and, in 1585, New college, Oxford, paid ten shillings for a copy of Estienne’s edition of Diodorus Siculus. Corpus Christi college, Oxford, a frequent purchaser of books, in 1604 gave three shillings and sixpence for the De idololatria ecclesiae Romanae of John Rainolds. The college also bought Bacon’s History of Henry VII for seven shillings on its appearance in 1622, and paid £3. 8s. 6d. for Purchas his Pilgrimes, which appeared in four volumes in 1625. In 1621, Dodoens’s Niewe herball and Selden’s Titles of Honour cost six shillings and five shillings respectively. It is probable that, in all these instances, the price included the binding of the book.

The methods employed by the bookseller and publisher for advertising his books are mainly a matter of surmise. Book buyers who lived in the metropolis would, no doubt, frequent the stationers’ shops and there see and dip into new books; and the title-page of the latest pamphlet, stuck up on the door post of the shop or any other prominent place, would catch the eye of those eager to see and read some new thing. Ballads may have been hawked in the streets and at busy corners, but books were certainly not allowed to be thus vended, for the Stationers’ registers record the seizure of certain books which were “goynge hawkynge aboute the stretes which ys contrary to the orders of the Cytie of London.” Catalogues were not yet in fashion; occasionally, other works by the same author are mentioned in the preface of a book, but it is not till well into the seventeenth century that one now and again meets with a paragraph telling the “courteous reader” to expect shortly from the press some new work by the same writer; and it was still nearer the end of the century before the publisher hit upon the expedient of impressing a spare leaf at the end of a book into the service of announcing other books issued by him.