Book discounts aren't always a bargain

I know many people who watch their email every Friday morning for the weekly Borders Australia message with detail of the latest discount coupons. Will it be 15%? Two for one? Or the much-loved but rare 30%?

And there are others who keep an eagle eye on Dymocks for the occasional 20% off sales.

Book prices have received a lot of attention in the media in recent weeks (see here and here), as the Productivity Commission returned its recommendations on parallel importation rules, alleged to cause high book prices in Australia.

Bookshops (most prominently, Dymocks) argue for complete deregulation, so that cheaper overseas books can be imported. Authors and publishers argue against, claiming a vibrant but small publishing industry will be undermined if protection is removed. Both sides have interesting arguments and, most importantly, it's largely about guessing the future. Consumers' preferences probably depend on their attachment to good literature or good prices.

So, let's wander into an Australian bookshop and see what we find. Independent booksellers tend to sell at the Australian recommended retail price (RRP). They can't often afford to discount, but they aren't out to gouge customers either. Now pop into Borders. What if you want to buy, say, Vefa's Kitchen — a new Greek cookbook (recently reviewed over at The Gastronomer's Bookshelf)?


You can see the price is $76.99. How strange. The RRP is only $69.95! You see, Borders bumps up the price on lots of their books by 10%. How friendly. That makes your 15%-off coupon a (1-(1.1*0.85)=) 6.5%-off coupon. A bargain? Nup.


This trend started, I believe, with Angus & Robertson (A&R) last year. By Christmas 2008, Dymocks had reportedly starting do it, just before it was bought by A&R. Now, the marking up is rampant. And I gather that Dymocks is doing it too, though I've not seen evidence with any of the titles I've looked at.

So there we go. Whatever your feelings about RRP book prices in Australia, keep in mind that the chains are distorting perceptions further and ripping you off in the process.

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15 responses to “Book discounts aren't always a bargain”

  1. Daniel Chan

    We noticed the unusual prices at Borders, and apparently it started to happen after they got taken over. A friend sent an e-mail to Borders asking them why their prices were higher, and they got the reply that it was these higher prices that allowed them to discount other titles.

    Didn't they bring in parallel imports for the music industry? Despite all the warnings about the destruction of the Australian music industry, it appears that it is thriving.

    In the end, the parallel import rules are only delaying the inevitable. People can and do buy from Amazon and other internet retailers. If a product like Kindle increases its usage, then the parallel import laws become ineffective (as we have seen with software that is now downloaded instead of being purchased in a package).

  2. Manggy

    Actually if that is the sequence, then the discount is a little better than 5%– it's 6.5% :/
    Recently an import tax on imported books was lifted here due to it being "unlawful" (based on an international agreement that prohibits book import taxing as it makes education expensive). I haven't seen its effects, though, at least not with the kinds of books I usually browse.

  3. Anh

    Oh book price can be so expensive here! Talking about the greedy markup, geez!

    I tend to order mine online now. Generally cheaper anyway.

  4. Daniel Chan


    Of course the book industry would argue their industry is structured differently to the music industry. But the book industry (like every other industry….hello coal miners) are resistant to change and are happy to maintain the status quo.

    But if it is an issue of nurturing Australian writers, then there will always be people who will feel passionate about the issue to publish and distribute books. If anything, if the Australian industry develops into a more "boutique" industry, Australian authors may benefit in the long run.

    To take another part of the writing world, the rise of the internet and blogs was supposed to herald the end of fanzines. But according to the folks behind the Sticky Institute, there are more fanzines being published today than ten to fifteen years ago.


    Hi Duncan
    Any idea where I can get any macaron books in Melbourne besides Stephane Glacier macaron edition? Can't seem to get any online…

    Thanks D

  6. estelle

    Yes! Naughty. I noticed this too at A&R, and Babette Smith recently bemoaned the GIANT markups A&R put on her books.

    Lisa pointed me over here after she saw my post on this (much shorter than yours). I'm not trying to goatherd you over there, by the way, just saying what a coincidence it is, considering chains have been marking up books for a while now. Guess it's a timely discussion with all the PC brouhaha.

  7. Coby

    I had no idea this was happening, the suggestion that they mark up some books in order to be able to discount others isn't new though, other retailers do this too. After all a 'recommended' price is just that isn't it. Certainly pays to remember the adage 'buyer beware' as I certainly wouldn't *expect* a priced item on the shelf to be dearer than RRP.

    I'd really like to support smaller bookshops and do so when I can, but I admit, the majority of my books come from a UK online bookshop. Having small children it is easier to shop online and it works out cheaper than all but the best bargains I've seen, as don't charge shipping, either.

  8. Mae

    Well, this post (and Estelle's – I followed a link from her post) certainly opened my eyes. I tend to shop around anyway but wasn't aware the prices were marked up from RRP. Luckily, I'm on a second-hand book buying resolution.

  9. Daniel Chan

    If you're buying books, the cheapest option is usually K-Mart and Target. In terms of cookbooks, you're not going to find your Thomas Keller books, but you will be able to get mainstream titles by Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, Donna Hay, Neil Perry, etc. They are usually about 35% below RRP.

  10. Daniel Chan

    @Duncan. I'm getting a sense of deja vu with this discussion.

  11. Serenity-Later

    I know this is an old post but I just wanted to share my recent book-buying experiences. The book you mention in your post, Vefa's Kitchen? I purchased that lovely book off a UK online site for a sweet 19.75GBP and no extra for shipping, so i got my mitts on this book for less than $40AUD.

    I know what you're saying about online sources not being the issue here, but perhaps with more and more attractive options becoming available to people, maybe conventional retailers will need to start lifting their game a bit to stay competitive. my opinion anyway.

  12. Lucy

    Yes. Hmm.

    Support your independants, I say. Having worked in both chain (Dymocks and Collins Booksellers) lordy, more than 10 years ago – how did that happen? – and, up until a couple of years ago, totally independantly run ops, the latter are by far better value in the long run. Staff are happier, too. Mostly…

    Good on you Duncan. Well-spotted shocker, that one.



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