Classic literature – adding value

Today’s most popular works of literature are no longer copyright protected – they were first published centuries ago, like Jane Austen’s 1813 ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Consequently, as this means that there are lower barriers to entry in the market for classic literature, unlike modern-fiction, there are huge amounts of competition for publishers. Thus, publishers have adopted two pricing strategies: low price, with low added-value; high price, with high added-value.

An obvious place for competition is on price; a price-leadership approach has been pursued by Penguin Popular Classics (see above), which retails ‘Pride and Prejudice’ at £2.50 and makes for effective in-store merchandising. It’s a great bargain. But they can only sell at this price by using minimalism design, not including introductions, appendices nor notes; and by using small typography and minimal graphology. There is still perceived value – after all, you get what you pay for – but there is next to none added value. The only way to reduce the cost further is to use digital distribution channels, which has, for example, allowed Google to provide the book for absolutely nothing online. But then again, you get nothing physical in return.

The opposite strategy is, of course, to provide these features in order to justify a higher selling price – value is added to the book, albeit the core function remains exactly the same. If we look at Oxford World’s Classics’ approach, evident above, the first striking difference is the picture, not a generic background. But this is not any picture: no, this enhances value – the painting symbolises culture, requires royalty payments and therefore justifies a retail price of £5.99. Moreover, with this edition the reader also gets an introduction by ‘Fiona Strafford’, who, according to a quick google, is an Oxford English Professor and Fellow; her salary and royalties will increase the selling price. This comes on top of general overheads associated with compiling the included bibliography, notes on the text and appendices explaining 19th Century social class in England. Further – to put it simply – this makes the book longer and thus more expensive to manufacture, as variable costs rise. Although the higher price will inevitably lose sales volume to low-cost competition in a low-margin industy, Oxford World’s Classics do have a higher profit margin that more than covers the adverse cost variances.

But which strategy is more effective? I’d go with the high-value approach. Not only do enthusiastic customers of classic literature yearn for more and more literary comment, but also a respected publisher name – hence, the connotations of Oxford World’s Classics – is often sought-after by educational establishments, who provide lucrative customers in the B2B markets of book publishing. Where as, the low-priced approach is likely to appeal to reulctant consumers, those forced to study the work and buy a product they do not want, which means the publisher loses out on repeat custom and the potential to market the no-thrills book as a loss leader.

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