Why books always seem to have a discounted price

Paper books on a table are, of course, on sale.

Paper books on a table are, of course, on sale.

If you want to get a sense of just how dramatic online book pricing can be, it helps to go to a local bookstore. Like Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Massachusetts.

Carol Chittenden is the owner there. She lets me play price-check. Her price for Michael Lewis's "Flash Boys"? $22.36. And Amazon's price that day? $16.77.

“I think that's a little less than we could buy it for from the publisher,” Chittenden says.

We look another bestseller. "The Goldfinch". Eight Cousins sells it for $24. Amazon sells it for $17. So far, online's looking like the way better deal.

We move onto notebooks. And that's when things get interesting. The store's notebooks are pretty much the same price as Amazon's. Same with the store's totebags. In fact, it turns out just about everything Eight Cousins Books sells that isn't a book is pretty much the same price as on Amazon.

Online has way cheaper book prices . But compare other products, and that price difference goes away.  So what is it about books as products that leads to these steep price cuts by discounters?

Oren Teicher's CEO of the American Booksellers Association says "Books are the one significant product left in the marketplace today in which the manufacturer actually prints the suggested retail price on the product.”

This means book markdowns are extremely visible. Sellers can tout their low prices compared to what's on the back of book covers, the price publishers want to sell it for. And that can be a convenient psychological device -- especially if you're a big retailer with lots of other stuff to sell.

“When the customer sees a book at 40, 50 percent off,” Teicher says, “the presumption is that everything else that that retailer is selling is also equally inexpensive.”

And books bring in some pretty attractive consumers.

“Book buyers are good customers,” Teicher adds. “They tend to be slightly more affluent, they tend to be consumers who shop and therefore are always in the marketplace for other products.”

But Dennis Johnson, the founder of the Brooklyn publisher Melville House, says books are getting used as a vehicle here.

“It really devalues the whole concept of the book,” he says. “And the book is very important to our culture.”

Johnson is worried about these discounts in the book industry. But he's not about to stop selling his books to Amazon.

“That would be very stupid business,” he explains. “They're the biggest part of our sales, and my core job as a publisher is to sell books.”

Hardcover sales are actually on the rise, they're growing faster than ebooks. And despite all the online discounts, Oren Teicher at the American Booksellers Association says sales at independent bookstores are growing too. He explains that the localism trend – shopping at local farmers markets, drinking local microbrews – has also driven sales at independent booksellers.

“I feel that booksellers are very powerful in fact,” says Carol Chittenden at Eight Cousins Books, "because we're very involved in our communities, and our customers are so loyal.”

About the author

Audrey Quinn is a reporter in New York City.

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