This Should Not Be News: Books Would Sell More If They Cost Less

Brigid Alverson looks at how bookstore sales went up this year:

Why the sharp turnaround? ICv2 attributes it to the Borders bankruptcy and the subsequent liquidation sales…. What I take away from this is that books are too expensive. E-books and online sites like Amazon have been eating away at bookstore sales for years, but apparently you can increase sales of print books in brick-and-mortar stores simply by decreasing the prices…. From everything I’m seeing, sales of e-books continued to climb during that period, which suggests a tantalizing possibility: The market as a whole, print and digital, online and brick-and-mortar, could continue to increase, if only books were cheaper.

I’m with Brigid on often seeing prices on books higher than I’m willing to spend (with the very large caveat that I’m incredibly spoiled by getting some for free as review copies, which can set your scale at the wrong level very quickly). But I’d make a slight emendation to this. Based on seeing my local Borders liquidation sales, it’s not whether books are cheaper, it’s whether people *think* they’re getting a deal. People were walking up to the register with stacks of titles at the time. If you did the math, those books could be gotten cheaper at Amazon, but when they saw that 20% off (or higher), they wanted them more, and they were willing to shell out because they felt like a smart shopper taking advantage.

That’s one of the problems with ebooks. They feed that discount drive when you compare them to print copies. If the book is “worth” $24, but you’re paying $9.99, score! That’s what publishers don’t get when they make the argument that it takes the same amount of work to make a digital book as it does a print one. People would rather pay $10 for something marked $15 and 30% off than they would pay $10 for something that lists at $10. Digital books don’t have discounts, which is why people compare them to the print version prices and feel cheated when they’re the same.

One exception to that is DC’s 99-cent comiXology one-day sales. Those are smart because they feed that same “I need to buy it now to pay less” urge. I’m very curious to see what happens with DC’s digital sales for its new titles once the price drops after their first month of release.

5 Responses to “This Should Not Be News: Books Would Sell More If They Cost Less”

  1. Thad Says:

    Good point — I went to three different Borders stores during the liquidation sale, and wound up buying exactly one book. Because even with the “deep” discounts, they were still more expensive than just getting the things at Amazon.

    And a good point, as well, on the frequency with which ebooks cost the same as their print counterparts.

    The Borders bankruptcy has rattled me a bit and made me focus on supporting my local independent bookshop more, regardless of the extra cost.

    (Funny story: my dad started taking me to that bookstore when I was about 4 years old. It used to be downtown, but was chased out when rents skyrocketed in the 1990’s. The new bookstore downtown? Well, you can probably guess. Over a decade later, Changing Hands is doing just fine at its “new” location, while Borders, well…)

    Of course, I’m an outlier, and simply appealing to guys like me who want to support their local independent bookseller is no way to keep a business running. Fortunately bookstores — at least the good ones — still have advantages over Amazon: signings and other events, friendly and helpful staff, and the draw of being able to just walk in, browse, and walk out with a book.

    (Of course, ebooks are chipping away at that last one.)

  2. Darryl Ayo Brathwaite Says:

    I just want to say that it’s usually Marvel having one-day sales on ComiXology. They have a 99-cent sale every Monday and I believe most (if not every) Friday.

    But yes, total agreement with this principle!

  3. Johanna Says:

    Oh, I didn’t know about the Marvel ones — I was thinking of DC’s themed sales, like when they put all the Wonder Woman books on one-day special. Good to know about that, thanks.

  4. takingitoutside Says:

    There is another aspect to brick-and-mortar stores that Amazon doesn’t quite replicate: the visual browse. Amazon can suggest books all it wants, but nothing stimulates my impulse buys like seeing a new title sitting near one I already follow, or walking over to the science-fiction section and happening to see a cool-looking cover.

    The going-out-of-business sales at Borders were so widely advertised and known that they brought lots of people into the stores who hadn’t been there in ages. Sure, they might have been able to get a better deal elsewhere, but would they have known about whatever they were buying if they hadn’t gone in Borders that day? I didn’t get much, but I did buy one of those “50 classic Westerns” collections for my dad’s birthday. I would never have seen that online. I just happened to walk by it in the store.

  5. Johanna Says:

    Excellent point. I still miss the Tower Records bookstores, which had such wonderful groupings in their cult/weird sections. I’d do exactly what you said, just wandering from book to book in that grouping. That kind of curation requires good buyers and employees to build that kind of section.




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