What does it take for a book to be worth $30 million?

Da Vinci's sketches in The Codex Leicester
Da Vinci’s sketches in The Codex Leicester

I hear the argument all the time.

What should I price my book?

In the glory days of traditional publishing authors didn’t have to worry about such trivial matters. Publishers did it for them.

Well, they did if you had a publisher.

Most authors didn’t.

The chosen few hit the bookstores.

The masses and multitudes of the great unwashed kept on writing novels, proposals, and query letters.

Now the eBook revolution is upon us. It’s easy to write a book, good or bad, and have it up on Amazon in a heartbeat.

But what about the price?

Should we price the eBook at $4.99 or $2.99 or, God forbid, Free.

Some who have studied the market believe the magic number is $3.99.

Don’t know why.

But they do.

There are, however, some authors who have struck it rich.

They didn’t have to worry at all about pricing.


The first reason: Time made the difference, and some bidder at an auction did it for them.

The second reason the authors didn’t worry? They are dead.

So what are the world’s most expensive books?

The cover of the world's most expensive book.
The cover of the world’s most expensive book.

Coming in at number one is The Codex Leicester, written by Leonardo da Vinci. It’s packed full of scientific writings. It provides rare insight into the complicated mind of da Vinci as a scientist, an artist, and one of the most provocative social thinkers of his day. The book has, perhaps, one of the worst cover designs in the history of publishing.

It didn’t matter.

At auction, The Codex Leicester brought 30.8 million dollars.

The Gospels of Henry the Lion ranks second – but a far distant second. Nobody knows who wrote it. The author remains anonymous. All anyone knows is that Henry, the Lion, the Duke of Saxony, commissioned the work for the altar of the Virgin Mary in the Brunswick Cathedral. Fifty full-page, full color illustrations are inserted quite handsomely into the book’s 266 pages.

At auction, The Gospels of Henry the Lion was sold for $12.8 million.

An American, believe it or not, holds down the number three spot. John James Audubon roamed the nation’s countryside and created The Birds of America, a life-sized, fully illustrated encyclopedia, describing numerous birds he had observed during his travels. The illustrations are so life-like it appears as though the birds could actually take wing and fly off the page.

Audubon’s Birds of America was sold for $8.8 million.

A page from Chaucer's original Canterbury Tales.
A page from Chaucer’s original Canterbury Tales.

We may not have thought much about it while studying The Canterbury Tales back in high school. After all, Geoffrey Chaucer had written the collection of short stories back during the fourteenth century, and they were narrated by a group of pilgrims on their way from Southwark to Canterbury Cathedral.  Dig deep beneath the façade, however, and you’ll discover that the tales reflected Chaucer’s personal scorn and criticism of modern society and specifically the church in England.

I guess schools still hand out copies of The Canterbury Tales for free. But an original copy, whose ink was wet when Chaucer was still poking fun at the aristocracy of the English carries a price tag of  $7 million.

The First Folio of Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies of William Shakespeare contain’s more than a dozen of the bard’s plays, including some of his classics. The collection was published several years after Shakespeare’s death, and only a few of them have ever been made public.

Maybe that’s the reason the First Folio has been priced at a mere $5.5 million. Neither the hard copy nor the eBook is available on Amazon.

A page from the Gutenberg Bible.
A page from the Gutenberg Bible.

The Gutenberg Bible is an inspiration for us all. If Johannes Gutenberg had not invented the printing press in the 1450s, we would not have grown up with mass produced books at our fingertips. We would have read our novels from ink stains on Papyrus or etchings on stone. The book, originally known as the Mazarin Bible, has been highly acclaimed for its aesthetic, as well as its artistic, qualities.

If you have room for a copy of the first edition on your bookshelf, you can pick one up for about $4.5 million, give or take a couple of dollars.

I guess that’s the secret.

Publish a book.

Bury it.

Keep it a secret.

And maybe five or six centuries from now it will be a valuable commodity in the literary world.

I doubt it.

But da Vinci didn’t know he had penned a $30 million thriller either.

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