Blasting books into outer cyberspace: The latest plunge in sales gives publishers no choice but to shift stock by reducing prices

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The Independent Online
THE ANNUAL rite of jeering at the Booker Prize is under way. This year, it is claimed, the Booker is a dud. The judges have chosen a shortlist that is quite spectacularly dull. As a result nobody is buying any of the contenders.

Not since the prize went to Keri Hulme's Maori novel The Bone People has our leading literary award looked so imperilled by the perversity of these arbitrary panels of gratuitously highbrow judges, locked away in their ivory towers, out of touch with the common reader . . . I am sure you know the rest.

Except that this is all nonsense. This year's Booker list is no worse than any other. According to publishing insiders, the truth being carefully concealed by this weary, routine book-trade sniping is that, over the past four to five months, the book market has collapsed and nobody appears to be buying anything very much, Booker-listed or not. Anything, that is but the story of the alleged affair between Major James Hewitt and the Princess of Wales.

The collapse has been so severe and inexplicable that in the trade it is generally either denied, dismissed as seasonal or talked about in hushed whispers. One piece of evidence adduced is the number of people going into bookshops. One counted how many people wandered in on one day last year and compared that with the same day this year: the figures, I am told, were around 450 in 1993 and around 30 in 1994.

The severity of the collapse, at a time when the rest of the economy is recovering, is, for the book business, frightening. What nobody at this stage can say is why it has happened and whether it is merely a one-off freak or a chilling portent. But we can, at last, be sure that the Net Book Agreement is finished. The retail price maintenance arrangement between publishers and bookshops cannot survive. The latest lurch downwards in sales gives publishers no choice but to try to shift stock by reducing prices. Hodder Headline recently followed Reed into abandoning this deal and the trade is waiting for Eddie Bell, boss of the country's biggest publisher, HarperCollins, to join in and 'de-net'. The NBA is stone dead and free book pricing is only months away.

Dire forecasts have repeatedly been made about the effects of the abolition of the NBA and millions of culture- in-crisis words have been written to explain why 'books are different' and need this market-rigging dispensation. All those words and all those forecasts are now obsolete because the issue is decided and because these are, in any case, merely ripples compared to the tidal waves about to engulf publishing.

The first wave will be the realisation that the present structure of the business is intrinsically uneconomic.

'All publishing in Britain,' I was told by one executive, 'is now vanity publishing. You cannot have lunch at the Garrick every day on the basis of a new biography of Walpole. The game's up.' The latest fall in the market has exaggerated an extreme polarisation of the business that has happened over the past five years. The bestsellers - Archer, Francis, Cooper etc - sell better than ever and are obliged to support the increasingly unprofitable 'serious' sector of the business. Once, a first 'literary' novel would have been expected to sell 2,500 copies; now it will sell between 600 and 800.

Authors' advances have consequently plummeted and one estimate suggests that no more than one in four or five books published are commercially viable. Yet still the publishers churn out new titles - approaching 70,000 last year - in the apparent belief that flooding the market is preferable to understanding it.

Clearly, this insane growth in the number of titles will have to go into reverse; equally clearly, the reign of the hardback is over. It is pointless for publishers to put all their publicity and marketing effort into hardbacks that only ever sell a few thousand and watch, a year later, as the paperback creeps into the shops unnoticed. In addition, book production is now so absurdly cheap and easy that it 5only makes sense to publish 'serious' books as basic, low- cost paperbacks. The gold leaf and hard covers are quite pointless unless, as with mysterious phenomena such as A Brief History of Time, you can be sure the market will bear the premium price.

These and other changes will be forced upon the industry. But the more interesting issue is what has happened to the market. Even if the latest dip appears to reverse itself as the Christmas buying season approaches, it is difficult to avoid the view that a fundamental change has begun.

The first point is that there is an unprecedented level of competition for books as a way of passing time. There is more television - broadcast or on video - to watch and there are new generations who don't feel so guilty about watching it.

Other forms of industrialised 'leisure' are making books look like the dullest of alternatives and, for those still quaintly committed to the activity of reading, newspapers and magazines have expanded enormously over the past decade.

One publisher told me that there are now so many newspaper features covering so many areas that most mainstream non-fiction titles are effectively obsolete within days of being conceived. Why read 80,000 words when you can get the gist in 1,500?

But the second point is the big one. The price of computer hardware in the United States has dropped so far that high-powered personal computers with CD-Rom - a memory system that employs compact discs - will soon be standard equipment in the American home. With a short time lag, this will happen here.

Once this penetration of the domestic market reaches a certain 'critical mass', then whole areas of book publishing will be wiped out. It is already, for example, virtually pointless to buy a set of encyclopaedias for your children. The necessary hardware package and a CD containing a complete encyclopaedia with sound, animation and video is not that much more expensive. Other non-fiction and reference areas will follow.

Say Brian Lara wishes to produce a cricket training manual - an obviously attractive book idea - he could do so much more vividly on CD. Even the argument that books are portable does not really work: the palm-sized 'wallet PC' is only two years away and that will allow you to read on screen as easily as you now do on paper.

Whole publishing categories are vulnerable to this new technology - art books, cookery, diet, keep-fit, self- help, dictionaries and so on. Doubtless even Major Ron and Major James could find interesting ways of exploiting the potential of the PC.

When academic publishing - much of which is already 'on-line' - is included it becomes clear that well over half of all book turnover will become software turnover within the next five years, perhaps much sooner.

Existing publishers may well benefit from this revolution. But even the biggest are minnows in this particular ocean. The American software companies talk in billions not millions and it is they who will be in control.

We may feel that cookery, sport etc are not great losses to the empire of the book. But the point is that they underpin both the book industry and the book-reading habit. Once these activities are no longer recorded in ink on paper, then books themselves will become scarcer, less familiar. And that, of course, will begin the long-predicted transformation of the role of the book in culture.

Many gleeful technophiles have already begun dancing on the grave of the book and celebrating the arrival of The Net, cyberspace and all the virtual paraphernalia of the Information Age.

And, in one sense, why not? The words of Shakespeare or Samuel Beckett are the same on a screen as they are on the page. Indeed, they are more easily accessible. People in the software industry argue that putting high culture on-line or on CD will expand the audience.

Currently, for example, paintings all over the world are being 'digitised' so that they can be published as software. Already, with a CD- Rom drive, you can take a virtual stroll through the collection of the National Gallery.

But, in the end, books really are different. They are strange, magical objects that cannot be just tossed into the random, infinite realm of cyberspace. Physically handling books connects us to something bigger, older and better than The Net.

If the latest market crisis forces publishers to devise new methods of salvation, then it will be good news. If not, then a new illiteracy looms, a new form of disconnection that will console only those technocrats and neophiles who always secretly resented those endless shelves of dusty volumes.

(Photographs omitted)