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There's a price to pay for these giant bookstores

SO THE promotional puffs and plugs were justified. The vast new Waterstone's in Piccadilly, said to be one of the biggest bookshops in the world, is indeed an astonishing fun-palace for readers. Spacious, well-lit and multistoreyed, furnished with a juice bar, Internet station, a superb children's room, a restaurant and a cafe, it exudes the air of a luxury liner.

It would be tempting to see this emporium as the symbol of a new golden age of the book, in which publishing is one of the more vibrant of Chris Smith's much-vaunted creative industries.

Tempting, but wrong. Beyond the excited twitterings of well-paid senior booksellers and publishers, the market for books has not significantly expanded over the past five years, but merely changed its shape. The removal of price maintenance with the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in 1995, has not brought a new generation of book-buyers flocking to the bookshops. In fact, the annual value of sales of general books went down in 1996, from pounds 1,631m to pounds 1,606m. There has been a small increase since then, but the 1999 figures are known to be flat.

What has changed, and dramatically, is the balance of power within the book industry. Whereas once a sort of equilibrium existed between booksellers and publishers, and, within publishing houses, between the editors that commissioned the books and the marketing people who promoted them, the arrival of vast, ruthless book chains has meant that a small number of money-minded booksellers are at the top of the food chain.

They openly use their power to influence publishers' acquisition policies, squeezing them for ever-larger discounts and reducing editors to little more than gofers scurrying about at the behest of their sales directors. The decision of WH Smith earlier this year to buy its own publisher - in the form of Hodder Headline - heralds the next logical step in the rise and rise of bookselling power.

So the market is dominated by big chains working with big publishers for the best deal on big authors. Does it matter? Do we really need the small, independent publisher, the old-fashioned bookseller without a juice bar or creche in sight?

We are in trouble if we lose them. Recent history has shown that, when freedom of speech is threatened, the large book chains - cautious and economically vulnerable to legal action - are quick to hide behind the skirts of their lawyers and withdraw troublesome publications from sale. It is the small, bloody-minded bookshops that have withstood the pressure from the bullies - the Cabinet Office in the Spycatcher case, the fundamentalists in the Rushdie case, Robert Maxwell's henchmen when Tom Bower's negative biography was published.

The general effect on publishers' buying policy, particularly in fiction, has been subtle and dangerous. Now that the decision as to whether to buy a new book is essentially made by the large booksellers in consultation with their computer records of the author's previous sales, the role of publishers as nurturers of talent has been abandoned.

Instead they have adopted a hysterical scatter-gun approach, paying vast sums for first novels from "promotable" new authors whose main sales asset is their literary virginity. When the book fails to sell, the author, having been hurtled much too soon into the fast lane, is dumped in the next lay-by.

This obsession with the new seems likely to exert a harmful effect on the culture of the future. With a brutal, mercantile giantism now deciding what and who shall be published, we may find that the great and glittering book emporia that are being delivered to us today have actually arrived with a significant hidden price-tag attached.