Jeffrey Archer for pounds 2.99 in first skirmish of books war

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A FULL SCALE price war begins today in bookshops and supermarkets across Britain in the wake of the breakdown of the Net Book Agreement.

Book stores have launched ruthless promotions that will compete to offer the lowest prices for best sellers following the decision by the country's largest publishers to pull out of the price-fixing agreement, which enabled publishers to control the price of books for six months after publication.

Four other retail chains - Asda, Tesco, Safeway and Woolworth - are also planning to cut the price of books by as much as 50 per cent, following the collapse on Tuesday of the agreement after three leading publishers, Random House, HarperCollins and Penguin, withdrew. Safeway, which sells books in all its 366 supermarkets, announced it would be reducing the price of all its Top 20 paperbacks to pounds 2.99.

Waterstone's boss, Alan Giles, will kick off the book chain'scampaign at noon today, releasing 1,000 balloons into the skies of London at the Notting Hill Gate store and welcoming the first customer through the doors with a set of the promoted books. Complimentary glasses of champagne will be served during the first hour of trading with a price promise: if a customer finds the same book cheaper locally, Waterstone's will refund the difference. With John Lewis stores standing by their slogan, "never knowingly undersold", competition is inevitable.

Meanwhile at Books Etc, 48 titles will go on sale with prices cut by up to a half, while WH Smith follows hard behind with a list of 60 discounted titles from HarperCollins and Random House which, it is believed, were tempted away from the NBA by this deal. John Menzies plans to reduce prices by up to 40 per cent at its branches. Dillons will be offering pounds 2 off the titles on the Booker Prize shortlist from today, before beginning the rest of its campaign to cut the price of more than 200 titles next Saturday.

Among the titles which readers will be able to buy at discount is The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie, a hot favourite to win the Booker, which was pounds 15.99, and now costs pounds 13.99 at Dillons, pounds 12.99 at WH Smith, pounds 11.99 at Waterstone's and pounds 9.59 at Books Etc. Robert Harris's second novel, Enigma, is cut from pounds 15.99 to pounds 11.99 at Waterstone's, pounds 10.99 at WH Smith and pounds 7.99 at Books Etc. Top biographies are drastically reduced: Margaret Thatcher's The Path To Power is slashed by pounds 10 to pounds 14.99 in WH Smith, Blake by Peter Ackroyd is down pounds 5 to sell in Dillons for pounds 15 and White House hopeful Colin Powell's A Soldier's Way is reduced by pounds 5 at Waterstone's.

Popular paperbacks will be even more heavily discounted. Barbara Taylor Bradford's Everything To Gain is pounds 3.99 at WH Smith, Ruth Rendell's Simisola is the same price at Waterstone's, Jeffrey Archer's latest collection of short stories, Twelve Red Herrings, is now available for pounds 2.99 at WH Smith, and Jung Chang's bestselling Chinese family history, Wild Swans, has been slashed from pounds 7.99 to pounds 3.99 by Books Etc.

The decision by HarperCollins and Random House to withdraw from the NBA opened the floodgates as other publishers, anxious not to lose out in an ensuing price war, also abandoned the agreement. By Friday, even the most ardent supporters of the NBA had made the decision to leave, albeit reluctantly. Mark Barty-King, chief of Transworld, said: "We don't see how we can do anything else. Having defended the NBA to the last breath we regret it has come to this."

Philippa Harrison of Little Brown hoped that the discount frenzy would make publishers think again. "The large publishers and bookshops will probably do very well in the autumn," she said. "But when everyone runs into difficulties at the beginning of next year we hope people will reconsider."

Leaders of the Booksellers Association said many small shops would be forced out of business. Some authors, meanwhile have warned that many young writers would now find it harder to get into print.

But millionaire author Ken Follett welcomed the collapse. He insisted the worries of small retailers were unfounded and that the price war would be good for consumer choice.

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