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Media Editor

Publishers yesterday warned that the public faced a reduced choice of bookshops following the collapse yesterday of Pentos.

Even though the receivers expect to sell the bookshops in the next 48 hours, and are negotiating for them to be bought as an entity, there are fears that not all the shops will survive.

While Dillons has expanded too rapidly in high streets - publishers yesterday described it as "vanity expansion" - the shops hold a key position in British cultural life as the biggest chain of textbook and academic booksellers, prepared to stock and supply up to 100,000 different titles and recommended or set texts.

This service to students and serious readers distinguishes it from the limited range of paperbacks sold through outlets like W H Smith and supermarkets, though it has been under direct attack from Waterstone's, owned by W H Smith.

Dillons operates 17 university and medical school bookshops, on university campuses. It also runs the Economist Bookshop and the Science Museum bookshop.

The flagship branch in Gower Street, close to London University, is regarded as one of the best bookshops in the world. It also runs the highly regarded and historic Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly.

But these, and profitable shops in cities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham and Dublin, are balanced by others which are suffering from lower sales and pilfering, book-trade experts say.

Richard Charkin, head of Reed International Publishing said: "It is terribly sad. But Dillons is a wonderful brand name, and I am sure it will be bought up."

Nigel Atkinson, UK sales director for Cambridge University Press, many of whose 1,500 annual new titles are sold through the Dillons chain, said yesterday: "This is awful news. They should have been given a bit longer to sort things out. The industry was hoping right up to the last moment they would come through."

He said branches in smaller towns might be vulnerable. "There is not a party involved in this which is going to win."

Simon Wratten, sales director of Oxford University Press, said: "We're just shattered. The staff had been doing so many things right in the last year. We did everything in our small power to help."

While the book trade appeared to be weathering the recession fairly well up to 1993, Dr Frank Fishwick, economic adviser to the Publishers' Association and a leading expert on the industry's fortunes, said that now the full figures for 1994 were in, the company had come through the worst.

Figures collected by the Central Statistical Office for the 12 months to September 1994 show that total new book sales of £1.654bn were 4.1 per cent lower in real terms than for the same period in 1993.

Book Marketing, the industry organisation which today brings together booksellers and publishers for their annual conference, said that 1994 saw at best static sales.

There was great debate yesterday about the role Terry Maher, ousted founder of Pentos, played in the downfall. He was a fierce opponent of the net-book agreement, the voluntary agreement allowing publishers to fix prices and profit margins.

There was praise for the way he introduced modern retailing and marketing methods - including professional window displays - to traditional shops, forcing standards higher for everyone. A leading industry figure said: "At least he was committed, he had a vision, he built something wonderful He is a hero. But he expanded too fast."