Price-fixing dies as big publishers leave book pact

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A price war is set to erupt in the book trade following the decision yesterday by three large publishers, HarperCollins, Pearson and Random House, to abandon the Net Book Agreement, Britain's last remaining legal price-fixing scheme.

Popular titles may be available for as much as 50 per cent lower than established prices from 1 October, when the publishers "de-net" their books.

Industry leaders agree the announcement marks the death of the NBA. The Publishers Association, which administers the voluntary agreement, will meet tomorrow to discuss the NBA's future but its staff conceded publicly last night that the departure of the three publishers was "the nail in the coffin".

Leading book retailers, including WH Smith, immediately announced they would begin to discount popular titles, and a promotional programme will be unveiled next week at all Smith's stores and at Waterstones, the WH Smith-owned high-street chain.

The company called it "the UK's largest ever initiative to bring quality books to consumers at lower prices". Asda, the supermarket chain which has led the battle against the NBA, said: "We guarantee that we will be the lowest-price seller of popular books in Britain."

Asda has been selling selected titles published outside the agreement since early this year, notably the latest John Le Carre thriller, Our Game, which was sold at half price. It was served an injunction earlier this year when it attempted to sell books published under the NBA at a discount. It then complained to the Office of Fair Trading and the European Commission. "We believe that discounting drives volumes and drives profits," an Asda spokeswoman said.

Tim Hely Hutchinson, chief executive of Hodder Headline, the publicly quoted publisher which yesterday said its profits were likely to be hit by a slow summer, said: "We are very, very, pleased. This will give the market a serious stimulus."

Hodder & Stoughton, left the NBA last year and has been campaigning for its abolition every since.

It joined the media giant Reed, which publishes books under the Secker & Warburg, Heineman and Methuen imprints, which broke ranks with other publishers in 1993.

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