Booksellers breathe again as 'price war' proves damp squib

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The Independent Online
The promise of widespread price cuts in the wake of the Net Book Agreement has not materialised - with the biggest bookshops offering discounts on only a tiny proportion of their stock in the run up to Christmas.

Waterstone's is discounting only 50 titles - about 3 per cent of its stock - while Dillons is discounting 237 titles, about 0.6 per cent of the stock in an average store holding 40,000 books.

The extremely limited range of bargains, on only the most popular books, is a far cry from the price war predicted when the agreement, which prevented shops discounting books, collapsed two months ago.

Then, publishers predicted that the independent booksellers would go to the wall and the shops would overflow with bestsellers. The reality has been less dramatic, with many booksellers reporting impressive customer loyalty in the face of price cuts from rival outlets.

Nevertheless, shoppers prepared to search hard will find a range of discounts on identical books. This week the trade paper Publishing News shows Salman Rushdie's The Moor's Last Sigh, priced at pounds 15.99 by Cape, as being offered for pounds 13.99 by Dillons, pounds 9.99 by WH Smith and Books Etc, and pounds 9.59 by Waterstone's.

Coming Home, by Rosamund Pilcher, priced at pounds 16.99 by Hodder, was being sold for pounds 12.99 at Dillons, pounds 11.99 at Books Etc, pounds 10.99 at Woolworths and pounds 9.99 at Menzies.

Tinker's Girl by Catherine Cookson was listed at pounds 4.99 by Corgi and offered by Tesco at pounds 3.99, Safeway and Woolworths at pounds 2.99, and Asda - which led the campaign against the NBA - at pounds 2.49.

The range and variety of discounts on selected books, whose prices may substantially change from week to week, shows that booksellers are playing a subtler game than out-and-out annihilation of their rivals.

Two weeks ago, WH Smith was offering the Rushdie book at pounds 12.99 - pounds 3 more than at present - while Coming Home was priced at pounds 9.99 by Dillons, pounds 3 less.

Far from destroying the book industry, the ability to discount has caused a surge in sales, Peter Harland, director of Bookwatch, said. "In the first two to three weeks after the collapse of the NBA there was a 35 to 50 per cent increase in overall sales. But that just brought forward the Christmas rush. It has now cooled to an average 17.5 per cent increase."

"It's been like a small earthquake - not many injured," Alan Giles, managing director of Waterstone's, said. "The impact has been relatively muted, but the collapse of the NBA did create considerable interest among consumers, partly because of the unprecedented publicity."

Smaller booksellers have also benefited. Martin Grindley, who owns two shops in Essex,said: "I'm discounting about 20 titles out of 25,000 books. My November figures are up on last year by a comfortable margin."

But Paul Scherer, chairman of the publishers Transworld, is more cautious. "It's going to be very hard to get a proper picture of the effect of the collapse until next year. One needs to get through Christmas before one can make any judgement."

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