Away with price-fixing - and on with VAT!

Books do not deserve their special status: they are commodities and should be treated accordingly; The Net Book Agreement was not just restrictive, it was price-rigging
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The Net Book Agreement was one of those things, like trading in commodity futures, that you know to be wrong, though everyone who understands how they work can blind you with unassailable reasons for their existence. The NBA was a restrictive practice if ever there was one. I reckon the Independent called it correctly - the NBA represented nothing more respectable than price-fixing, though I would word it even more strongly and call it price-rigging.

As physical objects, books are worth less than they ever were. The quality paperback is anything but. So-called perfect binding can be guaranteed to shed leaf after leaf and whole chunks of book within months of purchase; printing is mechanical and shoddy and the paper is mostly junk. When books themselves have become disposables, it is astonishing that they can cost more than, say, an electric kettle or a toaster. Blockbusters are printed in their millions; the unit cost must be pennies but the price on the bookstands remains unaltered.

The profits on the book that sells itself, say the businessmen, go to finance the books that can hardly be sold at all. This sounds a bit like that other piece of price-rigging, the prescription charge. The extra money shelled out for less expensive prescriptions far exceeds the cost of the costlier medicines, we learn at last. The prescription charge is regularly jacked up only because the suffering public has no choice but to pay it.

It is a strange fact that in the so-called free market the cost of books is grotesquely inflated; in socialist economies books are astonishingly cheap. The farm worker reading Jose Mart as he rests in the hot afternoon is no dream. I have seen it for myself in Cuba.

It is typical of the bad behaviour of cosseted authors that I should turn and sink my teeth into the hand that feeds me. Like most authors, I can't understand why my books cost so much that the people I really want to reach cannot afford to buy them.

To increase my print run and lower my unit cost is to find me more readers and get me on the bestseller list. The largest element in the elevated cost of books is what the booksellers charge to put my books on their shelves. Something like a third of what the customer pays for a book stays right in the shop; if the shopkeepers should decide to reduce that component in order to move more copies, I cannot but be delighted.

Not that my books are necessarily of the kind that will sell at the supermarket checkout but, frankly, I wish they were. I would be prepared to sign books in supermarkets all over the country if I didn't have to hear so many students, carers, pensioners, disabled people, unemployed, saying: "I'd buy your book but I can't afford it ..."

As it is I am sent by my publishers to selected venues to strut my stuff, give a performance that will induce the punters to cough up for a signed copy. This humiliating practice represents not only a squandering of the writer's time and energy and a frittering away of scarce spiritual resources, but an attempt to compensate for the growing irrelevance of books in the age of information technology.

Books have virtually had it as a way of storing and transmitting information, partly because they take up too much space. One of the hidden elements in the price of a book is the cost of warehousing and shipment. Yet publishers want books to look big and fat, so that they masquerade as value for money. The one stipulation on the contract a writer signs these days is length. The 1995 William Faulkner couldn't turn in As I Lay Dying as a full-length novel and get away with it.

The assumption that the purveyors of books all make is that the book qua book is a worthier object than any other merchandise. Small bookshop keepers appear to believe that theirs is a semi-religious avocation, as if there is an innate virtue in book-ness that renders all merely pecuniary considerations irrelevant. The suggestion that books should be subject to VAT invokes as shocked a chorus of denunciation as if sheets folded and gathered and clapped between boards had been proved good for the soul.

Books are mostly luxury items, and those who read books are people who can spend a good deal of time sitting down, ie, the remnant of the leisure class. Why should I pay no VAT on a book when I am required to pay it on a shovel and a wheelbarrow? Anyone would think that pornography did not come in books, or that the average book made no resort to pornography of one sort or another as a way of making instant contact with the reader. Publishers are in the marketplace and I'm damned if I can see why they should continue to pretend that they are not of the marketplace as well. Honesty has to cost us less in the end than hypocrisy.

Thus am I brought to air a pet peeve. Why in Mammon's name are the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses allowed to persist in the grotesque charade that they are charities? What kinds of charities can they be that pay for many hundreds of hours of work in dozens of pounds or, in many cases, no pounds at all? Why do the authors then see the work they have done at their own expense for a press that has guaranteed returns from outrageous monopolies appear in bookshops at prices they themselves cannot afford to pay? It is part of the insolence of Oxbridge presses that they do not blush to pay some contributors with one or two copies of their own book.

If Oxbridge authors were not supported by academic salaries paid mostly by the taxpayer, they could not afford to supply texts for publication. Re-issue after re-issue of editions originally prepared 50 or more years ago appears priced at present-day rates. The Oxbridge presses ride their contributors harder and give them even less editorial support than is available in other publishing houses; their authors are held responsible for all line- and copy-editing, and even compiling indexes - work they cannot afford to farm out. University printers are conspicuously more expensive than their competitors, presumably because they can exploit the prestige factor.

Properly managed, the Oxbridge presses should be rolling in profits but, because of their sacred status, the rest of us are not allowed to know what they are doing with their money. Though I can hear the pious outcry already ringing in my ears, I say abolish the tax-exempt status of the Oxford and Cambridge University Presses by Act of Parliament or whatever it will take, and do it soon. The free market is a far cleaner and more open place than either of the priestly enclaves of Oxbridge publishing.