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.
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.
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.”