Book agreement abandoned

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The Independent Online

Arts Reporter

The official death knell was sounded for the Net Book Agreement yesterday following a dramatic and uncomfortable meeting of top industry figures in the Publishers Association.

The council spent three hours in heated discussion of the century-old agreement, which prevents the discounting of bestselling books, before issuing a milestone statement announcing that it would no longer administer or enforce the NBA. It added that it had considered abrogating the agreement but had decided to leave it formally in existence.

The decision means that the NBA has finally come to the end of the road because it was maintained by the association on behalf of its members - the most influential of whom have left the agreement.

Christopher Hurst, a trade publisher who attended thecouncil meeting, claimed that the decision to abandon ship would herald disaster: "The war is now going to start. There's going to be bombing and torpedoing and a lot of people are going to lose a lot of livelihoods."

Clive Bradley, the chief executive of the PA, added: "I fear we have to anticipate there will be a very deep price war between now and Christmas. I would hope that most small retailers would have the strength to survive beyond Christmas and then things will settle down."

But others welcomed the news. Tim Hely Hutchinson, the chief executive of Hodder Headline, said: "It will stimulate interest in books and I think booksellers and publishers will now see a much stronger last quarter of the year than they would have otherwise."

Dillons supported him. "It's good news for book lovers, good news for booksellers and good news for literature," Stephen Dunn, the bookstore's marketing director, said.

Yesterday's announcement was prompted by the en masse defection of big publishers from what has been criticised as a cosy gentleman's agreement. It started with Reed in 1991 and Hodder Headline last December, but it was the loss of Random House, HarperCollins, Oxford University Press and Penguin this week that killed the NBA.

The immediate effect is expected to be ferocious cuts in the price of hardbacks from bestselling authors such as Jeffrey Archer and the five Booker shortlisted novels announced yesterday, a partial shift in the profits to the supermarkets, and a reduction in the number of small bookshops and publishers.

It may also herald a bloody future for the PA, which was rocked earlier this month by the prediction of its president, Nicholas Chapman, that the NBA would collapse before Christmas.

His admission was seen by the die-hard NBA supporters on the PA council as a betrayal of all it stood for. Mr Hurst has called for him to resign.

Yesterday's meeting was deeply uncomfortable for others, too, including Simon Master, president-elect of the PA, whose company, Random House, left the NBA this week.

An observer said that he had apologised for doing so. "He was the most acutely embarrassed of all."