Publishers' price agreement faces court challenge

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THE NET BOOK agreement, a long-standing pricing pact between publishers which prevents most books being sold at a discount, is being thrown open to challenge for the first time in 30 years.

The Director General of Fair Trading, Sir Bryan Carsberg, said yesterday that he was referring the agreement to the Restrictive Practices Court, which has to rule whether the agreement, which dates back to the early years of the century, is still in the public interest.

Defenders of the agreement, by which the publisher sets a price on a book and this is enforced, argue that it means more titles are published and stocked, books are kept in print longer, and that it favours small independent booksellers and serious authors who would lose out in a completely free market. They point to the United States as an example.

A campaign to break the agreement has been led since the late 1980s by the Dillons chain of bookstores, which believed it could sell more books by discounting, and has challenged the agreement by offering a list of bestsellers at a discount.

To succeed in his application to have the agreement overturned, Sir Bryan has to demonstrate that the publishing industry has materially changed since the court last considered it in 1962. He will point to increasingly concentrated multinational ownership, technological advances and an increasing advance in paperbacks over hardbacks.

Since last November, when Sir Bryan said he was considering referring the agreement to the court, he has received more than 100 submissions and has questioned publishers, booksellers and wholesalers, literary agents, librarians, book clubs, library suppliers and printers.

The Publishers Association, which has been fighting a rearguard action to protect the agreement, and five years ago convinced Sir Bryan's predecessor, Sir Gordon Borrie not to appeal to the court, said last night it was 'deeply disappointed'.

The association said in a statement: 'With the support of the Net Book Agreement, the UK has possibly the finest and most competitive book retailing structure anywhere in the world . . . with many small companies dependent on the agreement. Book prices are stable and lower than in most equivalent


It pointed out that almost all European Union countries have equivalent agreements.

The Booksellers Association, which represents 90 per cent of bookshops, said yesterday it was 'surprised and dismayed' by the decision: 'The domestic book market grew by 63 per cent from 1972 to 1988 and consumer book prices have, in general, risen by less than inflation,' it said.