The Price Of Reading

Over the weekend the value of the UK pound sterling fell sharply after the government announced that (despite two years of heavy borrowing to fund the pandemic response) it would now CUT income taxes. It is doing that on the assumption (hope?) that those now paying lower taxes will buy stuff instead of have to give it to the government (and that doing that will lead to more taxes eventually being collected EVENTUALLY from a bigger economy). Most of those who will benefit from the income tax cuts will be those in the higher tax brackets.

This was tried in both the U.S. and here in the 1980s; and some insist it worked economic prosperity magic and while others state it was an unmitigated disaster for most people. Believing the re-incarnation of that approach is wrong right now (and may not work even in the longer term), in the last few days investors sold off UK pounds and bought US dollars. The result has been that the pound that was worth about $1.20 only a few weeks ago is this morning worth only about $1.05.

That is just the latest example of these being uncertain money times that authors too must naturally bear in mind:

[From Twitter.]

Fiction books are entertainment. If push comes to shove they take a back seat to necessities like food or heat or a roof. That is simply reality.

The other side of the coin – no pun intended – is this. For instance, Jane Austen’s first novel, Sense and Sensibility, was published in 1811. It cost its contemporary purchaser 15 English shillings.

It is intriguing recalling this history. Comparing prices and buying power from that mostly sailing ship, mostly horse-powered, largely pre-industrial Regency age with ours today is not easy. In simple terms, 1/- or 1s (the shilling coin was eliminated in 1971 in the decimalization of the British currency) was worth 12 pennies/pence (symbolized by a “d,” not a “p” as today).

[A Queen Victoria shilling, 1853. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

At that time, 240 pence (240d) also made up £1, and so 15/- would have been the equivalent of 180 pence, or .75 of a pound. (When the shilling was in circulation, if you read a British person say something like, “It is 7/6…”, they meant the object cost 7 shillings and 6 pence.) Confused yet? Let’s not even start with farthings. LOL! (4f were 1 pence. 48f were 1 shilling. And 960f were £1.)

More broadly, in terms we might better appreciate now since we function (and generally “think”) in decimalized pounds and pence only, “£500” for example in 1811 British money was worth, according to the Bank of England today, just under £30,000 in 2021 money. (That number, though, should be treated with extreme caution; it is based on a very broad inflationary comparison spread out over the centuries, and there was more inflation at some times than others. It is estimated now that during the 1793-1815 span of the French Revolutionary and then Napoleonic Wars – when Austen wrote most of her books – much higher inflation was common.) Most who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s went through THEIR ENTIRE LIVES earning (and surviving on) shillings and pence and quite possibly NEVER even saw an actual £1 note; that £1 was worth SO MUCH and relatively speaking they earned SO LITTLE in terms of cash.

Case in point. When Austen wrote two years later in Pride and Prejudice that “Mr. Bingley” had a “fortune of four or five thousand a year,” that was in £. “Bingley” was therefore “earning,” loosely speaking, about “£200,000-£250,000” a year in 2021 terms; and she also wrote that “Mr. Darcy” was much better off than “Mr. Bingley.” They were VERY rich men by the standards of the time.

Adjusted for inflation, again according to the Bank of England, £1 in Austen’s 1811 was the equivalent of just under £60 in 2021. Assuming for the sake of a blog post that is reasonably accurate, her Sense and Sensibility selling for 15/- (or 180 pence) would have cost an 1811 book buyer the equivalent of about £45 in our 2021 money. However, our modern £45 – as expensive as we may think that is – is usually a far smaller percentage of our overall yearly income than its 15 shillings would have probably been for most in 1811.

[Rudolph Ackermann (England, London, 1764-1834), Fashion Plate (Carriage Dress), November 1811. Wikipedia. Public Domain.]

Vitally, it must also be borne in mind that the average British yearly family income in “1811” might have been somewhere maybe about “£100.” That is roughly £5,500 in 2021 money. In comparison, the median UK family income in 2021 was £31,400.

In the early 1800s book buying, and indeed even reading as there were no public libraries back then, was decidedly an activity for the well-off.

Of course, in 1811 there were also no e-books…

[Sense and Sensiblity, free version, on Kindle for iPad. Photo by me, September 21, 2022.]

And in 2022 if a book is out of copyright as Sense and Sensibility is, you may even find it out there somewhere for FREE.

So reading, and certainly buying books, was far more expensive in 1811 than it is now.

Given all of our other current troubles, we all – writers are readers, too, of course – can take some solace in that latter at least.

Try to have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂