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I've Always Wondered ...

Why do books have prices printed on them?

Janet Nguyen Jan 21, 2021
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This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

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.

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. 

To get a better understanding of why price listing may have arisen, you have to take a trip back in history to the 19th century. 

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.

If you look closely, you can see the price listed on the dust jacket for this 19th century book. (Image credit: Letterology)

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.

The dust jacket for a first edition of Edith Wharton’s “Age of Innocence” shows a net price of $2 on the inner flap. (Image credit: bronzeanthology/Etsy)

Major publishers continue to do this, although many now also clearly list it on the back near the book’s barcode.

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.)

Book cartels

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.

Winship said that in America, this practice was specifically aimed at Macy’s. “The department stores were buying in huge quantities at great discounts, and selling them to customers below the price,” he said. 

Senchyne said while he doesn’t have hard evidence that price fixing systems are exactly why prices are published on the covers of books, he’d wager it’s a reason given the mix of developments occurring at the turn of the 20th century — like the rise of publishers’ bindings and retail as we know it today. 

The role of paperback novels and comics

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. 

“The Dime Novel was born in an attempt by the publishers Erastus and Irwin Beadle to make money on inexpensive, ephemeral literature,” wrote the librarian and historian Marc Carlson.

The first of these novels were largely Native American and pioneer tales, according to the Library of Congress.

This edition of Bambi from Pocket Book had its price of 25 cents listed on the cover. (Image credit: Matthew Budman, author of “Book Collecting Now: The Value of Print in a Digital Age”)

The American publisher T.B. Peterson and Brothers also produced cheap paperback fiction in the 19th century with the phrase “Petersons’ Cheap Edition for the Million” printed at the top of the cover, and the price at the bottom, which could range between 10 cents and 50 cents. 

Then, in the 1930s, there was a paperback revolution, with the publishers Penguin and Pocket Books at the helm. On some of these books, you can see the price — often for a quarter or less — prominently featured on the cover.

While hardcover books were distributed and sold through bookstores, paperbacks were sold outside of this system at the likes of newsstands or drugstores, according to Paula Rabinowitz, editor in chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature and author of the book “American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Mainstream.”

“The idea was to grab attention, and cost little more than a bottle of soda,” she said.

Since their inception, comic books have also displayed their price on the cover. 

A 1940 issue of a Batman comic book. (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)

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.”

The rise of the barcode

Currently, many publishers place a Bookland EAN barcode on their books, which contains the price — a requirement that was pushed for by major book retailers like Barnes & Noble and became standardized in 2007. 

This EAN barcode technically consists of two barcodes: the first lists a book’s 13-digit ISBN, while the smaller one to the right contains five digits.

That first digit in the second barcode represents the price’s currency and country, with the number “5” indicating that the price is in U.S. dollars. The following four digits are the price. 

A breakdown of a Bookland EAN barcode. (Image via Independent Publisher Services LLC)

So if you see the numbers 52995, that means that the price of the book is $29.95 in U.S. dollars. Most publishers will explicitly print “$29.95” above that, although there are exceptions. There are Penguin Random House books with dust jackets that instead only explicitly contain the price on the cover’s inside flap.

Bookstores and distribution centers need to know prices to calculate ordering projections, conduct returns and report on profits and losses, explained Laura Dawson, CEO of the consulting company Numerical Gurus and a former Barnes & Noble employee. 

“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.

How price listing affects booksellers 

The printed price has been polarizing in the book community, with booksellers expressing a wide range of opinions about the practice — especially with Amazon’s growing dominance in the retail space. 

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.

Skylight Books’ default is to sell all books at full price, although the store does have a membership program that provides customers with discounts, along with anniversary sales. Having the printed price, and choosing to sell the book for that amount, means that they can avoid stickering all their books with different pricing barcodes.

“The time savings and the sticker purchasing savings are not insignificant,” Williams said. 

But she also pointed out that Skylight Books and some other bookstores in cities like Los Angeles pay a $15 minimum wage, while those in smaller metropolitan areas may pay less. 

“If we were coffee shops, the coffee shop that’s paying the higher wages could charge 50 cents more for the cup of coffee. So the flexibility might be nice,” Williams said, although she thinks that’s outweighed by the benefits of having a printed price. 

Other booksellers are more ambivalent about the practice, like Valerie Koehler, the owner of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas.

“I’m on the fence. I’m gonna be very honest. I go back and forth. One part of me says that if prices weren’t on books, then our biggest competitor, the big A, would not be able to say, ‘Well, we’re discounting it X number of dollars,’” Koehler said. “Because there would be no starting point to say that.” 

Koehler added that there are occasionally times when books come in and the store thinks they’re more expensive than what they should be. 

“A lot of times, it’s just more a matter of what the publisher thinks they could get in the marketplace for it — not what we could get in the marketplace,” she said.  

On the other hand, like other bookstores have mentioned, Koehler doesn’t have to worry about relabeling the store’s books. “I would imagine a lot of small bookstores don’t have the equipment and the time and the procedure to do that,” she said. 

Emily Powell — owner of Powell’s Books, a chain of independent bookstores in Portland, Oregon — said they set the prices on their used books, but sell new books for their suggested retail price.

“In general, it’s helpful to have a perception of value across the board for customers about what a book costs,” Powell said. “But of course, at the end of the day, we’d like to be able to control the prices on the things we sell.”

The Book Industry Study Group’s Brian O’Leary pointed out that last year, anti-racist titles were in significant demand, but because of the suggested retail price, stores wouldn’t have had the power to sell them for more. 

Mark Bergen, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota whose research focuses on pricing, also points out that the suggested retail price prevents sellers from being able to raise the price on the book. 

“It helps them lower it, but harms them from raising it,” Bergen said. “It’s a pricing ceiling, and so it’s the most you’ll be able to charge.”

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