03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A Book Worth: How Much Will You Pay For One That Will Change Your Life?

Our favorite Italian restaurant recently sent us a note with the news that truffle season was upon us once again and we might consider coming in for a few grams of the freshly shaved fungi on our pasta, for a princely supplemental increment of $60 a garnish. Seems reasonable, in a way, when I discover that white Alba truffles are up at $3000 a pound this season.

Which brings me to book pricing. Why do we sell books as if they were potatoes when many of them are actually more like truffles? When something is generic and fungible (which has nothing to do with fungi -- I looked it up so you don't have to), supply and demand determines the price. Hard coal, everyday sea salt, water, topsoil. They go for the same price, everywhere, because it's all the same.

And that's about where we are with book pricing right now. Because books, on the surface, tend to resemble each other -- paper with ink on the inside, covers and a spine on the outside -- publishers tend to price them as if they were all hardly more differentiated than branded topsoil. But I'll bet that for the avid reader of romance novels, Nora Roberts and Diane Palmer are not interchangeable. Fiction readers are addicted to the author, not the just the genre. Yet we price fiction as if it's generic.

What about non-fiction books that we urgently need? Someone in your family becomes ill with Kukla Fran & Ollie syndrome that the doctor can't take the time to fully explain. What do you do? You rush out and buy the very best book you can find about the rare disease. Do you carefully compare prices on all the books that address the issue while your loved one hovers between life and death? I doubt it. You look for the publication date, the credibility of the author, the quality of the review and endorsements. And you buy it, whether it's priced at $9.95, $24.95 or maybe even $49.95.

Salespeople buy, on average, seven books a year. Salespeople face tough challenges every single day, and the good ones are constantly seeking ways to increase their productivity. A great sales book that really changes the effectiveness of a salesperson can be a genuine goldmine for the reader. To the right salesperson, the right book might mean an additional income of $100,000 dollars a year, or much more. And many sales books are worthless. Can you explain to me why both the valuable and worthless might carry the same retail price of $16.95?

Maybe one reason publishers price their books as if they were commodities, when in fact they are anything but, is because they fear they aren't able to present a persuasive case for the true value of their books. "It may be worth $50 or $100, but if we put that kind of a price on it, no one would even pick it up." And that's true, if we don't know who the author is, if the endorsements aren't convincing, if the tidbits on the back cover aren't irresistible.

When I was starting my publishing consulting business fifteen years ago, I was living in Aspen, and my nearest great book store was The Tattered Cover in Denver. When I finally got a chance to get to the store to see what kind of help I could find for launching my business, I discovered a pile of slipcased shrink-wrapped double notebooks called The Complete Marketing Handbook for Consultants, by Don M. Schrello. The price was $235. I took the liberty of slitting the shrink-wrapping and sampled the notebooks. I found letter forms, contracts, pricing guidelines, legal and strategy guides -- everything I needed to start my business. I bought the set and used it as my guide. What was the real value of Schrello's book to me? Much more than $235.

If we can't figure out ways to convince our prospective book buyers of the unique value of our books, we will be inclined to take the easy route, treat our books as commodities and price them as such. But when publishers get the courage to examine what they really are worth to the audience that needs or wants them, publishers can then price based on value. It took Scholastic a while to catch on, but look what happened when they finally realized they had addicted several millions kids (okay, and some adults, too) to Harry Potter. The first three hardcovers were priced at $24.95. By book four, Goblet of Fire, Scholastic screwed their courage up a little and raised the price to $29.99. You can just imagine the fretting around that conference table when that risk was taken. Someone -- come on, you know who you are -- surely said, "If we price it that high, we'll kill our sales." Riiiight. And then, for the final book, which could have been priced as high as an Xbox, it came out at a courageous $34.99. Now I realize that the retail price was hammered by Amazon, but the point is -- the publisher gets paid on the wholesale price no matter how idiotic Amazon wants to be.

How can publishing move toward value pricing? It may start when an editor or publisher decides they're willing to experiment in order to find what the true value is for three or four night's joy curled up with a favorite author. Or when a publisher chooses to take the time and calibrate carefully what the right information is worth to someone who's career, health, or marriage depends on it. Two years with Dr. Krausenheimer over here or two weeks with this little book. Your choice.

You'll have to excuse me for a moment.

"Ah, waiter! Could you shave a little more of that truffle on our pasta?"

Yes, I know it's outrageously expensive. But it's worth it.