Charles Robinson, a bookshop owner from Atlanta, asked Marketplace this question:
Why are books actually marked with a price on them? Music isn’t. Movies aren’t. Most retail items that I could think of that you would find at resellers aren’t in fact.
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You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but you will know how much it costs.
Pick up any book on your shelf that was published in modern times and you’ll see a suggested retail price, often printed on the back, near or inside the bar code.
Like Robinson observed, it’s a feature that’s not commonly seen on other retail products. Potato chips and books are extremely odd in this regard. Other commodities might be labeled with a tag or a sticker, but the cost is not usually printed on the product itself, giving stores more power to set their own pricing.
It turns out the origins of price listing are rather murky — publishers didn’t collectively decide to assign print prices on books for one set of reasons. The practice has persisted over the decades in different forms, for different types of books.
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A brief history of price listing on books
Dust jackets have been especially conducive to the act of price listing. One of the earliest-known jackets, from 1830, covers a British book called “Friendship’s Offering” and has the words “Price Twelve Shillings” printed on there.
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Jonathan Senchyne, an associate professor of book history and print culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said he thinks a price might have been listed because this type of book would have been put on display at a holiday fair.
For more than a century, American publishers have often listed the price of a book on the inside flap of a hardcover book’s dust jacket (sometimes on the spine).
You can see prices on the dust jackets of Mark Twain’s “Extracts from Adam’s Diary” from 1906, Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” from 1920, Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls” from 1940 and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” from 1960.
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Tom Congalton, founder of Between the Covers Rare Books, said that around 1830, publishers started to make books in uniform cloth bindings, which helped to standardize the prices.
“Before that, it was more customary to issue books in unbound sheets or in cheap cardboard covers (meant to be discarded) and the buyer would then have the books bound to their taste, usually in some sort of leather, and at what were probably widely varying prices depending on the quality of the leather, decorations, titling, etc.,” Congalton said over email.
That explains the conditions that enabled publishers to print prices. But publishers’ motivations for including them in the first place are less clear, with scholars providing different theories.
Beth Kilmarx, the director of Texas A&M’s Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, said this practice began to gain momentum during the Industrial Revolution, when it became easier to mass produce books and they became more affordable.
Publishers produced different editions of books at varying prices. By having the price listed on the book, this signaled to the customer the quality of the type of book they would be getting, which helped make the purchasing process easier for some people, according to Kilmarx.
But Michael Winship, a bibliographer and professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, argues that dust jackets with prices were listed for salespeople, not customers.
“Certainly in the 19th century,” he said. “In the second half of the 19th century, American books typically had the price printed — not on the corner of the flap as they do now — but on the spine. You will see surviving dust jackets that have been mutilated. The bottom of the spine has been removed.”
As the standard practice for price listing changed to placing it on the corner flap of a book, some would then “clip” that section.
“If you’re going to give a present, you really don’t want someone to know what you paid for it, and that’s why they put it up in the flap where they could cut it off,” Kilmarx said. (The irony being that now, intact dust jackets are an essential component of a rare book’s value.)
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Some scholars also have a theory that they think encouraged the uniform printing of prices: the existence of book cartels.
Jonathan Senchyne and Michael Winship say price fixing could have helped influence this practice’s popularity.
“So publishers and booksellers kind of form an agreement around 1900 — both in England and in the United States — to not discount books,” Senchyne said. “And the big and powerful publishers essentially all agree to not stock booksellers who discount prices.”
In the U.K. and Ireland, it was known as the Net Book Agreement, which operated up until 1990, according to Senchyne.
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Price listing on the front cover of books has also been a mainstay of mass paperback novels, which Kilmarx calls “the common person’s book, so to speak.”
In the 1860s, the American publisher Irwin P. Beadle & Company began printing mass paperback novels and labeled them as “Beadle’s Dime Novels” on their covers, which sold for, obviously, 10 cents. In effect, price and branding became intertwined.
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Alex Grand, founder of the online fanzine Comic Book Historians, said this choice also stems from the newsstand distribution days of the late 1930s.
“The covers having the prices on the front made it a lot easier for customers to know how much something was before touching it. The newsstand dealers also would rather have it on the cover so that people weren’t thumbing through their product to look for the price,” Grand said. “It’s a great symbol of comic art being a commercial art — as something that combines a sequential visual beauty with a hard money price.”
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“A book barcode gets scanned at many points in its journey from printer to publisher warehouse to distributor warehouse to bookstore. The price gets scanned so that all trading partners in the sale of a book can easily record the value of the book. That 5-digit barcode enables a ton of efficiency in this process,” Dawson said. “Before standardized pricing barcodes, people would have to manually key in these prices into whatever system they were using for inventory, or sales, or shipping and receiving.”
Brian O’ Leary, executive director of the Book Industry Study Group, explained that having a list price is important because the discount that retailers receive is based on that price, and because retailers can return unsold books to publishers for credit at the net price.
“Books have many different prices, so sales and credits for returns require both parties to keep track of which book is sold or returned at a given price,” O’Leary said.
But while many publishers follow that rule, you can technically opt out of a pricing barcode. Some books have the ISBN, and an add-on with the digits 90000, which the barcode services company Bowker states is a “null code which indicates that there is no pricing information encoded in the barcode.”
“Some publishers don’t want to commit to a stable book price,” Dawson said. “It’s kind of a ‘cheat code’ in a way — this way the scanners can still scan, but the publisher can retain some control over pricing.”
You’ll see this with college textbooks, which Dawson said is due to publishers wanting to control their prices and raise them year to year if they wanted to.
“We know that textbook publishers in particular are notorious for overcharging on their textbooks,” Dawson said.
Barnes & Noble also sells movies and music, so why didn’t the practice of including a pricing barcode jump to those items?
Dawson explained that those products had UPC barcodes, and the UPC scanning system already had their prices in a database. “The EAN barcode system did not work that way, and had to have the prices sort of ‘tacked on’ separately so the scanners could recognize them,” she said.
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Charles Robinson, who co-owns Eagle Eye Book Shop in Atlanta, said he finds the marked price to put his business at a disadvantage.
His bookstore gets between a 46% to 48% discount on the suggested retail price of books that are purchased from publishers, and a 41% discount on books that are purchased from the shop’s distributor.
Some of his competitors (e.g. Amazon) can mark the price down from there, while he said his business would struggle to survive if it did.
“As an independent business, I cannot afford to offer a discount on essentially the only products that I sell,” Robinson said. “If we tried to match Amazon’s prices — we call Amazon ‘Voldemort’ here — we would definitely not be able to sustain our brick and mortar business.” (In some bookselling circles, you’ll find that the mere utterance of Amazon’s name is blasphemous.)
But Kate Jacobs — co-owner of Little City Books in Hoboken, New Jersey — said her store prefers having a printed price on their books.
“We almost never discount anything so we just ring books up as priced,” Jacobs said. “It’s also very helpful when people question the price, or show us the Amazon price on their phone. We can say, ‘This is the price of the book.’”
Mary Williams, general manager at Skylight Books in Los Angeles, said she also likes having a printed price for those reasons. Whenever a customer feels like they’re being overcharged — especially as prices inch up over the years — they can simply note that it’s the price listed by the publisher.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea to take something as valuable as literature and treat it like anything else where you should be bargain shopping,” she said.
Link to the rest at Marketplace and thanks to DM for the tip.
PG suggests that, after reading the OP, a reasonable person might conclude that nobody really knows why publishers print prices on their books, including publishers.
It’s one of the many examples of a lack of rational business thinking throughout traditional publishing. PG suggests that doing something because it’s always been done is not the optimal way to operate any business enterprise.
He suspects that not thinking about one aspect of doing business might tend to breed more not thinking elsewhere in the enterprise.
PG’s jaundiced view of traditional publishing is that it’s an empire built upon thoughtless habits.
But he could be wrong. There could be an evil madperson at the root of it all.