Why do books usually have prices printed on them? Most items don’t. Janet Nguyen at Marketplace has a go at explaining this. Thanks to Daniel Pereira at the SHARP listserv for this link.

I would have assumed that the Net Book Agreement, starting in 1900, would have had something to do with this, but Ms Nguyen shows us a book jacket from 1830 with a price printed on it, and a few minutes thought makes you aware that the practice of printing prices on books started well before the twentieth century. The Net Book Agreement does indeed have something to do with the matter, but in a retrospective mode, codifying established practice, rather than making any changes. Books had prices printed on them because the publisher wanted (was able) to control the pricing decision.

Today we can express surprise about a product with a price printed on it because most of the items we buy in supermarkets and drug stores don’t. But these kinds of retail store are a quite recent development. When I was a child I can remember going into the grocer’s shop where they’d dig out a slab of butter from a cask, pat it square between two wooden boards, wrap it in greaseproof paper, weigh it, and calculate the price you’d pay. And so it went with flour, sugar, tea, raisins, rice whatever. Here the grocer was setting his own prices: he knew what he paid for a cask of butter, and worked out the margin he’d need to make to pay rent, staff, insurance and so on.

Bookstores originally didn’t exist. If you wanted a book you’d go to the printer, who’d probably have a sort of showroom out front. There you’d buy a set of sheets which you’d take to your bookbinder to have bound up for you. Straightforward: the printer set the price. This way of business was well established when in the first half of the nineteenth century the first independent bookshops began to appear. Many of these grew out of agencies which the big printers had set up in outlying cities, and they inherited a trading format which was already well established. They bought at a discount off the price set, as always before, by the printer/publisher.

Because the publisher (and in the early days of the trade this tended to be synonymous with printer and with bookseller) set the price, it would seem an obvious step just to print the price on the book, rather than to have constantly to answer customer enquiries. Inflation is a twentieth century invention, and in the Victorian trade if you printed 12 shillings on a book, 12 shillings would be the “right” price for the lifetime of your inventory. In this example we see the pricing confidence extend into the printing of the text: here is the opening page of a volume I’ve written about before, confidently telling you how much you’ll pay for the next George Eliot book you buy.

In the late twentieth century we learned that printing prices in the text of a book was crazy, while even putting it on the jacket was risky, as inflation might make you have to increase your prices almost as soon as the book was published. Thus we invented stickering. Now it is simpler to deal with the issue, partly because inflation has cooled down, but also because at each printing, our inventory management systems make us print more cautiously if more frequently.

So we print prices on books because publishers want everyone to know that we set the price. As you all know retailers are at liberty to offer customers a discount. But what the publisher (and by extension the author) receives for each copy remains constant.

See also Prices on covers.