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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: Market Does Not Play by The Book

I often say that I love books more than money. But money is so fascinating that I am tempted to embrace both at once here.

Russia is a very strange country, even in the book business. For example,I cannot explain two basic facts:

1. The cost of paper and printing here is on a par with the West, while books themselves are a 10th the price cheaper. The average retail price for an ordinary hardcover is $2 to $3 here, compared to $25 to $30 in the United States.

2. In civilized countries, the publisher's price for a book is usually 60 percent of its retail price, with the remaining 40 percent divided between the wholesaler and the bookstore. But here, every stage in distribution doubles the price.

Take, for example, the current bestselling biography of the great Soviet tragicomic actress Faina Ranevskaya (1896-1984). The publisher of this richly illustrated hardcover gets the ruble equivalent of a little less than $2. Readers at bookstores pay 25 to 27 rubles ($4 to $4.50), and street vendors sell it for 35 to 40 rubles. I saw one impertinent street vendor on Novy Arbat who priced the book at 50 rubles. And people were buying it, not knowing, or just too lazy to find out, that 100 meters down the street at Dom Knigi the book cost half as much.

Another curious aspect of the "books and money" question is the unnaturally low prices for antique books and first editions.

The gem of any book collection, a first edition of "Eugene Onegin" by Alexander Pushkin, was sold at a recent auction for 85,000 new rubles ($14,000), an adequate sum.

But a first edition of Pushkin's early poem "Ruslan and Lyudmila" made less than $3,000; a first edition of Alexander Blok's "The Twelve," published in 1918, went for a mere $600; and several first editions of popular Soviet authors of the 1930s found new owners for the laughable sums of $1.50 to $3.50.

Recently a reminiscence about the 1970s was published in the Novy Mir literary monthly, written by the poet Anatoly Naiman. Here is an abridged quotation:

"To start with, one ruble officially cost at the time $1.50, but 20 cents on the black market. ... At the same time, a first edition of the futurist 'Sadok Sudei' by Khlebnikov, Kruchyonykh and Burlyuk could be bought at a second-hand bookstore for 100 rubles and sold in New York to a rich library or a collector for $6,000; 'Vzorval' by Malevitch and Rozanova -- 100 rubles and 3,000 pounds in London; 'Fantastichesky Kabachok' by Sofia Melnikova, published in Tiflis, 100 rubles and $5,000 in Israel. And so on. That means one could very easily invest 100 rubles and get, using the exchange rate of the black market, twenty five thousand rubles. ... A nice profit with low risk."