Boyd Tonkin: Stop this race to the digital depths

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With scores of everyday products and services, we really do inhabit "rip-off Britain". From our sky-high public-transport fares to slyly hiked food costs, from soaring utility bills to covert bank charges, much of the consumer economy more or less resembles daylight robbery. And the most shameless rip-off of all escapes censure because too many vocal citizens profit from it. Grossly inflated house prices in many places have, with political and media blessing, damaged the nation's mobility and opportunity over two generations at least.

Rant over. What prompted it was momentous developments in one small corner of the economy that can, for the most part, plead innocence to such charges. By historical standards, books are cheap in Britain. They are getting cheaper, especially in electronic form. Ultra-competitive downward pressure on consumer prices began in earnest when the price-fixing Net Book Agreement collapsed in 1997.

When supermarkets muscled into the bestseller business, this dash for the bargain basement quickened. Our only remaining specialist chain has become best-known for its permanent "three-for-two" offers. Now, with the fast-accelerating e-book boom – new figures show that 6.5 million British adults own an electronic reader - Amazon would very much like the hot new novel that you download to a Kindle to cost less than the coffee that you drink with it.

Yet living, breathing authors, unlike those six-feet-under scribes that Amazon and Google find so much more tractable, need food, warmth and shelter – even if that means Hackney more often than Hampstead these days. Hence the logic behind the "agency model" of e-book pricing. Almost (but not quite) a virtual revival of the NBA, it encourages publishers to set a price for digital editions that the retailer cannot then change.

In principle, that should help to preserve the revenues of authors (and their much-maligned publishers) and halt the current race to the bottom on price. Large groups such as Hachette, HarperCollins and Penguin have agreed to agency pricing. Somewhat surprisingly, Apple insisted on these terms for books available on the iPad. Amazon, of course, hates the very idea.

Now agency pricing has been referred to the Office of Fair Trading, which will launch an inquiry into whether it flouts competition rules. Did Amazon prod the OFT? We don't know, but it certainly gains from any thickening of the legal fog. The OFT has pointedly said that the opening of an investigation does not imply any prior assumption that the law has been breached. However, its report may take a full year to complete. That long hiatus will inhibit other publishers from following Penguin and Hachette.

I hope that the OFT gives agency pricing a clean bill of health. This feels like a tough case to defend. We all want cheaper entertainment and enlightenment. But look at tasteless supermarket fare. Ruthlessly enforced economies can kill diversity. Rather, they favour uniformity and predictability. Contra the pub wisdom you often hear, e-books do have significant production costs even if they don't need trucks and sheds. Those costs include keeping professional authors alive.

Dirt-cheap e-books benefit the very rich – and the very dead. They might also help new authors to find a foothold and win an audience – although, on that logic, newcomers should think about showcasing their work for nothing. Many do. But the almost-free digital novel hammers another nail into the coffin of a long-term literary career. Who cares? Readers should, if they cherish full-time authors who craft not safe genre pieces but distinctive book after distinctive book that build into a unique body of work.

None of this would matter much if e-books in Britain were to dawdle on the margins of the literary economy. They won't: the evidence is in, and they are going mainstream fast. This week Asda released a no-frills e-reader, the View Quest Mediabox for £52: half the cost of a basic Kindle. What happens in virtual publishing will increasingly steer the fate of the entire sector. Which means that readers should keep a hawk-like watch over the next moves in this game. Above all, beware the specious arguments for "competition" likely to emerge from the next mighty monopoly.

Best of Beryl to Most of Martin?

In a rush of posthumous affection – or maybe just guilt? – the Man Booker Foundation has unveiled a special award in tribute to the late Beryl Bainbridge (right). Admirers of the perpetual Booker runner-up now can now vote for their favourite among her five shortlisted novels in a ghostly "Best of Beryl" race. Perhaps, for any such future events, the Booker folk should give serially thwarted contenders the option of attending their own wake. Since we know for certain that one disapproving judge or other will always scupper the chances of the younger Amis, why not follow up next year with a "Most of Martin" prize? At least the guest of honour would be around to collect it.

Speaking for freedom in Cairo

Before the current revolt, or revolution, Egypt's boldest publishers had already shown their courage by opening a space for free expression in books, newspapers and blogs. In a time of crisis, pioneers run extra risks – as Dar Al Shorouk, one of the finest of the independent Cairo houses, has now discovered. The offices of Al Shorouk, which publishes a non-party paper as well as books by many major Egyptian authors, were attacked during the protests by a pro-Mubarak mob. Knife-wielding heavies tried to storm the building, but security guards and opposition demonstrators kept them out. Ibrahim el Moallem, Dar Al Shorouk's publisher, said in the aftermath of the foiled raid that "If the regime is serious about instituting reforms it needs to immediately get the thugs out; stop terrorising intellectuals and newspapers; stop its attempts to divide the Muslims and Copts in a battle that will burn this nation." Let's hope that he, and his peers, will find themselves able to speak even louder in the new Egypt.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

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