Should bookstores be able to raise book prices?

On The Bookseller’s blog, Ed Handyside of UK publisher Myrmidon Books complains that the price of a standard paperback in the UK has not risen with inflation—six years ago it was £7.99, and today it is still £7.99 (US$10.52). Since the publisher’s recommended retail price is printed on the cover of the book, this means that booksellers cannot raise prices to account for inflation—so they take their margin out of the publishers’, writers’, and agents’ share instead.

Handyside writes:

Book prices must be allowed to rise organically and incrementally. Booksellers themselves must be allowed and encouraged to spearhead that rise whenever they perceive an opportunity to do so. This is a necessary prerequisite for gradually enhancing the public perception of the value of books as and when trading conditions permit. Publishers are ill equipped and insufficiently responsive to do this.

He adds:

If we are serious about increasing the real and perceived value of bound books (and e-books too, since the price of the one is largely derived as a proportion of the other) then UK publishers and retailers, acting in concert, must take the first and necessary step of removing the printed publisher price. It’s not too late to do this, providing we start now. When we do, we begin to eliminate the very notion of ‘discount’ from the vocabulary of the consumer; there can be no discounting without something from which to discount.

I’m not so sure this proposal is really helpful. The reason that so many people are eschewing their local bookstores in the first place is that on-line retailers have lower prices. And he’s talking about “saving” the publishing industry by allowing brick and mortar bookstores to raise theirs? Even if Handyside succeeds in removing “discount” from consumers’ vocabulary, “cheaper” will go right on being a major part of it.

As far as I know, there’s nothing stopping UK publishers from deciding to add a pound or two onto their suggested retail prices every so often on their own. Perhaps that would be a more realistic goal for Handyside to work toward.

6 Comments on Should bookstores be able to raise book prices?

  1. I am confused and hopefully might put me right. The Net Book Agreement was abolished in the UK many years ago. The publishers cannot fix the price that books are sold at any more. Is this not so ?
    So what on earth is Mr Handyside prattling on about ? What has the RRP printed on the book got to do with anything ? What exactly is preventing them from charging more than the RRP ?

  2. > What exactly is preventing them from charging more than the RRP ?

    Because if they do, no one will buy the book from them? I don’t think there’s any law that stops them, but who in their right mind is going to pay more than list for a new book?

  3. I lived in Israel during the sky-high inflation of the late 1970s. I remember going into a bookstore and finding two books I wanted whose prices in Israeli pounds hadn’t been adjusted. I handed both to the sales clerk along with a 200-pound/lira, then worth less that $10 U.S. She said, “That won’t even pay for one of those books.” I replied, “Yes it will. It’ll pay for both.”

    To their credit, they sold the books to me at the marked price. I suspect that, as soon as I left, the clerk was scurrying about looking for similarly underpriced books. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have been so mean, but I was on a very tight budget.

    Keep in mind the bind these UK publishers are in. To get a good price on printing, they must print thousands of copies, each with a barcoded price by tradition. If it takes years to sell off those copies, that price can’t easily be changed.

    There are alternatives:

    1. The University Book Store in Seattle prints its own book barcode labels that it slaps over those on the book. That allows it to set its own price and most customers probably don’t notice since the same barcode is used on other items. I’m not sure the rationale, but it may be because some academic presses only sell books at full retail.

    2. Print-on-demand from sources such as Lightning Source don’t yet allow the pricing barcode area to be changed on the fly, which is why my books sell without the price in the barcode (one option). But Lightning already prints on-the-fly information on a book’s last interior page. There’s probably no technical reason why the price portion of the bar code on the cover couldn’t be altered for different currencies or for inflation. Going POD would also save publishers their inventory costs.

    Preparing for a bout of inflation now might be a smart move. There’s a lot dubious behavior going on in regulatory and banking circles here, in Europe, and in China that could blow up and dump the entire world economy into something even worse than the kind of situation Israel found itself in during the late 1970s. I remember what that was like there and here. It was a nasty time.

    Israel was in even worse shape than the U.S. When I was there, inflation was in the 30% range, and Israelis, always phlegmatic about their troubles, told me that didn’t matter, that everything–salaries, interest on loans and savings, etc–was linked to the inflation rate. I was dubious and took care to change my U.S. dollar traveler’s checks only when I was almost broke. The exchange rate would be noticeably better for me on a Friday than on the previous Monday. After I left, inflation moved into the 70-80% range and people quit excusing it. Israel had to adopt some hard measures, including a new currency (the shekel), to get inflation under control.

    We’re already in for a bout of inflation. The rapidly rising price of gasoline affects the price of almost everything, particularly food. Let’s hope matters don’t get out of hand. High rates of inflation can really mess up your head. When prices are spiraling upward almost daily, nothing seems certain.

  4. Greg – Exactly. Nothing stopping them, except stupidity. The bar code does NOT set the price, only the product code. The RRP is only ‘advice’. I have rarely ever bought a paper book in my country where the RRP is not covered with the shop price sticker.

    The amusing thing about the article is the underlying assumption that prices should automatically go up and no down. It demonstrates the way these people think and their utter failure to appreciate what is happening in the market, what a market means and the transition to digital.
    The rest of commerce knows that nothing has an ‘intrinsic’ price. It knows that price is key, critical, factor in selling a product and determines how many are sold – resulting in overall more or less profit.
    The thinking in this article is of the mind that ‘we should increase the price, because increasing price means making more money’. It doesn’t! It often means selling fewer products and making LESS money!
    The public is not in the mood for increased book prices. They have been too high for too long, using an archaic and out dated pricing and margin splitting system. It needs to change.

  5. I have frequently seen that the prices for books are higher in airport terminal bookstores.

    The airport authorities charge such high rents that the booksellers have to charge more in order to make a profit.

    Generally, this is done by putting a sticker with the new price over the old price on the book cover.

    Of course, only people who are desperate to get something to read will buy a book at those prices. Those who can wait do so, and buy the book cheaper when they get home.

  6. Well in my country $5 books are sold for $20 or more (if they’re available at all.) That’s why I love ebooks so much.

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