Pointing to the need for pricing flexibility at a time when bookstores face a growing number of economic challenges, some booksellers question whether it’s time for publishers to stop printing suggested retail prices on book covers and dust jackets. They argue that publishers should instead offer net pricing, like many bargain book wholesalers do, and let bookstores determine the margin they need and the price their community will pay. While it might not alleviate showrooming—customers checking their cell phones for the lowest prices—removing printed prices could help bricks-and-mortar stores’ profitability.
“I have felt for some time that taking the price off books would put bookselling in the same place as almost all other retail,” said American Booksellers Association president Steve Bercu, the owner of BookPeople in Austin, Tex., and an advocate for net pricing. “Allowing flexibility in pricing gives the retailer the possibility of sharing changes in wages, theft, and occupancy costs with the consumer. Almost all forms of retail have this possibility, but booksellers do not.” Bercu also cited an additional advantage of net pricing: it would make discounting difficult and would allow market conditions to dictate the price locally.
Currently, publishers are required to print a pricing bar code, or five-digit add-on, next to the ISBN bar code on book covers and jackets. According to the Bowker Bar Code Service website, that’s because large retailers like Barnes & Noble need to track large inventories. Although Barnes & Noble declined to comment on just how important the five-digit add-on continues to be for its business today, Amazon does accept books without prices printed on them, according to spokeswoman Sarah Gelman.
Even though suggested retail prices are printed on books, some retailers place stickers on each jacket with the list price and the store price, if the two are different. One problem for independents, who don’t typically sticker books, is increased cost. “From an operational point of view,” said Jamie Fiocco, co-owner and general manager of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., “it would require additional costs in labor, materials, printer hardware, and time to the shelf for us to sticker books. The inventory we sticker now—university press titles and nonbook items—we handle with a price gun and standard address labels.” Or, as David Didriksen, president of Willow Books & Cafe in Acton, Mass., put it more bluntly, “Stickering books is a royal pain in the backside, a throwback to a bygone era.”
For Didriksen and a number of other booksellers, the issue has less to do with the preprinted price than with the perceived value of books. “I have always been opposed to taking the prices off of book covers,” Didriksen said, “mainly because most consumers already think books are too expensive. I agree with them. But they at least know now that the publishers set the prices. If you force us to put our own prices on the books, consumers will assume that we are the ones who are gouging them.”
Neil Van Uum, founder of Joseph-Beth Booksellers and current owner of DK Booksellers, with bookstores in Cincinnati and Memphis, said that his opinion about net pricing has changed over the past decade due to the rise of Amazon and e-books. Although he estimates that the ability to add a dollar or two to the cost of slow-moving backlist titles could help him raise as much as $50,000 in his Memphis store, he prefers that customers be able to see the printed price.
Van Uum points to the music industry, where the amount that people are willing to spend on an album has plummeted. “The biggest challenge isn’t Amazon. It’s supporting this value equation of what a book is worth. There’s a general sense that books are not worth what they used to be. Oyster and Kindle are making books look expensive at $25. I’m not suggesting we lower the price of a book, as long as we can support the value.”
At stores in airports, bus terminals, and train stations—where customers don’t linger—printed prices on covers may be a necessity. “We strongly believe that retail prices should be printed on the books. Price is an important part of the buying decision for most customers. When you are running for a plane and want to pick up a quick read, transparency in pricing and clarity of communication are key services which we want to provide,” said Sara Hinckley, v-p of book purchasing and promotion at the Hudson Group, which specializes in airport and transportation retail.
Half Price Books, the country’s largest independent bookstore chain, which is headquartered in Dallas, also supports keeping retail prices printed on book covers. James Palmer, director of acquisitions and proprietary publishing for both Half Price and its sister company, Texas Bookman, said that in terms of new books, which the chain now stocks along with the used titles, removing the cover price “would be more confusing to our customers.”
Half Price discounts new releases by 20%. Palmer believes that it is just as important to have printed prices on used books. “It’s easier for booksellers on pricing and for customers to know it’s half price,” he said. The one exception is on the bargain titles, where retailers can set their own prices.
On the other hand, as Flyleaf’s Fiocco pointed out, customers don’t come to her store because of price. “They’re shopping with us because we’re in a convenient location and [because of] the value they get from the independent bookstore experience,” she said. “So, if the prices disappeared from the covers, perhaps only our receiving department would notice the change.”