Looking At The Future: The Price Of Books

January 2nd, 2007 · 2 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

We were sitting quietly, considering possibilities for the big stories of still-nascent 2007. What, we wondered, would people be talking about in the coming year? At first we thought to look back to 2006, but, well, this is a modern blog. It’s all about the future, baby!

Where our crystal ball failed (we so want a refund), the headlines of the day came through. Pricing of books, we have decided, will absolutely be a hot topic in the near future. How could such an obvious answer escape the sharp mind of BS
Last week, in our still-ongoing discussion about readers and Amazon, we noted that price is absolutely a consideration for consumers. Convenience, of course, remains a top ten concern. And, not surprisingly, selection ranks up there as a reason for people to shop where they shop. It has long been a given that bigger retailers command higher discounts than smaller retailers. Had we bothered to stay awake in Econ 101, someone would have explained that the reason has to do with volume and maybe the power of the purse. Or is that latter one a Presidential prerogative?

Anyway, book pricing was the topic of two articles gracing our inbox this morning. The first, out of the UK, deals directly with the concept of heavy discounts for supermarkets and other major retail chains. It fascinated us that while the entire notion of lower prices for people who buy in greater volume was discussed, the concept of book pricing in general was ignored.

We’re sure that most of you are old enough to remember a medium called “vinyl”. If not vinyl, then “videocassettes” (also sometimes called “tape”). These old formats were used to hold entertainment media for consumer consumption. They were all the rage. But then they were replaced by such newfangled concepts as CDs and DVDs and, gasp!, digital downloads. These less-efficient media didn’t stand a chance.

Along with the shiny promises made in the era of the CD and DVD and digital downloads were suggestions that new technology would benefit the consumer in the form of lower prices. Whoo hoo! Cheaper stuff. In the world of computers, as new technology rolls out, it’s better, faster, and generally less expensive than the old stuff. In the world of entertainment, there is a “take no prisoners” mentality. To lower the price by even a dime is to admit defeat.

Books, naturally, haven’t benefitted much from DVD revolution. Oh sure, you can argue that digital books are finally finding their niche in the market, but as long as the publishers continue to price ebooks like print books, the market is going to sputter. When it comes to print books, as technological efficiencies are realized, prices are…yes, kids, they’re going up. Books are getting more expensive.

This makes discounted on the printed cover prices all the more attractive. It also creates the impression with consumer that some retailers are “cheaper” than others. Luckily, consumers still continue to factor convenience and selection into the mix. Which is where, sigh, Amazon’s flexible pricing makes its way into our story.

An intrepid reporter for the Los Angeles Times discovered, more through error than trial, that a book in his shopping cart mysteriously changed prices overnight. Intrigued, he engaged in a more scientific study…and one book went so far as to fluctuate in price to the the tune of $75. Supply and demand? Or simply demand? This shopper wanted to know.

A quick look at Google suggests that Amazon’s prices do change — products are constantly being revalued by the retailer. This fluctuation is addressed FAQ regarding prices. Bottom line is that the price you pay isn’t finally determined until you place your order…putting an item in a shopping cart is not considered a purchase (as you all know from seeing abandoned shopping carts full of melting ice cream at the grocery store). If the price shifts are minimal, most consumers aren’t going to notice, much less dig through the help menu if they missed the explanation the first time.

But those consumers who do wonder will also wonder why. How could the price of one book change from day-to-day? Is it that Amazon paid more for shipment A than shipment B? Is that there is a fire sale on old inventory? Could it be that elves are skipping through the warehouse and marking down prices with gleeful elf abandon?

And setting aside the need for retailers to have sales at all — what is capitalism without huge holiday sale prices? — it does make one wonder if book pricing at the wholesale level reflects the best interests of consumers (who, it has been noted, tend over the years to purchase fewer and fewer books). Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know all that, all those costs that factor into the final wholesale price of books. We know that electricity is expensive. We know about the salaries, the cost of shipping, paper, trees, and ink. We even know the old saw about how many hours of entertainment fun one gets from a single book as opposed to a single movie.

Still, before we blame the big retailers for squeezing independent bookstores, should we at least look at how all retailers (and, by extension, consumers) are being charged for books? It is not a rule that prices must always go up.

File Under: The Business of Publishing

2 responses so far ↓

  • Joan Kelly // Jan 4, 2007 at 10:55 am

    I am both grateful for and bedeviled by Booksquare’s intelligent postings on these sorts of topics. Grateful because I love a well thought out and articulated article, bedeviled because said articles, like the one I’m posting a comment to now, give me The Fear. My gut feeling is that BS is so right she almost comes full circle around to being wrong again. (But definitely does not.) So I get this urge to do something that will land me on the cutting edge of solutions for the changes that are occuring but not being effectively dealt with yet. The urge is not followed, ever, by inspiration.


    And, as ever, thanks.

  • Maximum Persuasion // Jul 18, 2007 at 9:20 pm

    I read in a PC site (PCWorld or PCMag) that Amazon had cookies that detected whether you were a regular purchaser of books.

    If you were- it adjusted the price upwards.

    There was much clamor against this when some folks figured it out.

    Im glad that Amazon ultimately recanted and stopped the practice.

    Imagine- penalizing regular buyers with higher prices? Illogical!