TORONTO - Cloy Hinbest picked up a bestseller at a downtown Toronto bookstore, and was immediately struck by the disparity between the Canadian and U.S. prices listed on the book's jacket, even as the loonie hovers around par with the U.S. greenback.
"Since the dollar is almost the same as the U.S., why shouldn't books be the same?" Hinbest asked Thursday as she walked out empty-handed from the busy Indigo bookstore in Toronto's Eaton Centre.
Book prices, which are determined at the time of publication, can appear out of date when compared to the value of the loonie, which fluctuates on a daily basis. The Canadian dollar sat at 98.65 cents US Thursday and economists say it could soon hit parity.
Hinbest said she always checks the price differential printed on a novel before she checks out, adding the discrepancy is enough to drive Canadians to shop south of the border.
On a shopping expedition to a bookstore in Pennsylvania last month, Hinbest went home with four novels for the price she'd pay for one at any Canadian bookseller, she said.
"It really annoyed me. Things are so much cheaper there and it should balance out," she said.
But bookworms north of the border shouldn't expect to pay the same prices as their American neighbours even if the dollar hits parity, said Susan Dayus, executive director of the Canadian Booksellers Association.
Shoppers will continue to pay a few dollars more at Canadian bookstores if the dollar is at par because book prices are negotiated up to a year before books hit the shelves, she said.
"Books aren't like lettuce that you throw out at the end of a week if it's no good. Those books were purchased when the (U.S.) dollar was at a higher value.... Until that book has to be reprinted, publishers are not putting a new price on it."
But even if the dollar stays above par for years, Canadians would continue to pay a premium for their books.
Canadian book importation regulations under the Canadian Copyright Act allow American publishers to tack a 10 per cent markup on top of the U.S. price of a book sold in Canada.
"You'll never see them at par because the government allows that 10 per cent," Dayus said.
The 10 per cent surcharge is designed to help offset the cost of importing the book to Canada, including shipping and handling fees. If a book is imported from another country, that premium rises to 15 per cent.
Book lover Linda Best said she always questions why the prices of the expensive trade books she buys can run up to $30 or $40 higher in Canada.
Like many Canadian shoppers, she said she never knew she was paying a surcharge on top of the exchange rate. But she wasn't surprised to hear currency fluctuations aren't the only factor in high book prices.
"The publisher and the bookseller can take advantage and not have to change their prices," she said. "The dollar is going to stay strong, so they need to change things."
For years, Canadians have complained about the discrepancy between the U.S. and Canadian prices listed on the back of books and magazines. When the loonie and greenback are close to each other, it can become an even bigger sore point with buyers.
Dayus said when the dollar hit parity in 2007, book prices remained about 30 per cent higher in Canada and consumers became disgruntled.
At the time, many booksellers saw a drop in sales, partly due to cross-border shopping and partly because book prices eventually began to drop, she said.
Some booksellers even decided to sell books at par to stay competitive, which further strained already tight profit margins, she added.
"If a bookseller lowered the price because the dollar has gone closer to parity then they would be losing probably all or more than the margin that they had on the book."
Publishers set book prices and sell them to booksellers for a discount off the listed selling price of the book. Random House, Penguin Publishing and Simon and Schuster did not return phone calls Thursday.
Independent bookseller Nicholas Hoare, who operates in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, said the way those prices are passed on to consumers is part of a cycle that has been in place since the 1880s.
"(Customers) come in saying, 'Is this going to go down in price?' and we say, 'Of course it is, once we get through the existing stock. It's like selling tins of tomatoes at Loblaw's: it'll come down, but until then, sorry, that's what we paid for."'
Hoare noted that the system can benefit buyers when books are printed when the dollar is at par and then the value of the loonie drops.