Blood in the bookshops

If publishers cling to price controls they could cause the extinction of their industry; There is no point in preserving virtuously stocked bookshops merely as museums
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In a report to be published today the National Heritage Select Committee will sit firmly on the fence on the issue of book price control. The committee will say the publishing business is changing of its own accord. Some price discounting is already happening and, in time, this may well destroy the Net Book Agreement (NBA), which allows publishers to fix the retail price of their books - or it may not. Either way, the committee concludes, there is no need for Parliament to get involved.

This may be fair enough, in that the Restrictive Practices Court is also looking at the NBA and can decide on its fairness or otherwise in a broader context. But the problem is that between now and when the NBA finally collapses - as it surely will - much literary blood is in danger of being spilt.

The continued survival of price controls on books is mystifying. Book sales are appallingly depressed. A year ago it was possible to argue that the business had yet to climb out of recession. Now, with the recession long gone, it has become clear that something more fundamental is wrong with the book trade. The theory that there is some special book business economic cycle has been disproved in the United States, where books (without price controls) have leapt out of recession. In Britain it must now be obvious that serious price cutting is the one thing that might make a difference.

Yet still the majority of publishers persist with that strange relic, the NBA. Last October, when the extent of the market crisis first became apparent, I gave this dinosaur no more than "a few months" to live. I was premature, the beast clings on.

Only Reed and Hodder Headline, representing perhaps 20 per cent of the market, have "denetted". This has led to average price cuts of 30 per cent, bringing, for example, the price of a hardback novel down from pounds 15 to pounds 10. In the case of the new John Le Carre novel the price has been halved.

Meanwhile, supermarkets have got into the book discounting business and book clubs, which sell special cheap editions of current books, have started to open their own shops. So we have the absurd and obviously unstable state of affairs in which identical products are available on the high street at wildly different prices.

This cannot go on and yet most publishers and almost all bookshops behave as though it can and must. They argue for the NBA as an act of cultural welfare. Only by controlling prices and thereby limiting competition can the continued existence of bookshops holding a wide and deep range of stock be guaranteed. Books are different, special, they need this degree of protection.

But at the moment books are primarily different in the sense that they are being threatened with extinction by their own producers. The crisis in the market has been long and deep enough to call into question the viability of large parts of British publishing and bookselling. Ludicrously expensive hardback books are simply failing to sell in competition with the increasing number of alternative attractions. Even if mass paperback sales hold up, this new shape to the marketplace, combined with severe rises in paper prices, will force publishers to restructure drastically. They now have either to sack a lot of people or cut the price of their product; sadly, bewilderingly, they seem to be going for the sackings.

To maintain the NBA is to say that price cutting is not the answer to the present crisis. Somehow, it is assumed, the market will recover and, miraculously, people will once again decide they can afford a new hardback at some artificially inflated price.

But why should the market recover if it has not done so by now? The truth is that something is dissuading people from buying books and it is clearly no longer the recession. If it is also not price, then there must be something else. Perhaps the habit of book buying has simply vanished. Perhaps a new illiteracy, long muttered about by cultural pessimists such as myself, has finally surfaced. Perhaps school-leavers don't know books are for sale, or don't care.

If any of these apocalyptic scenarios are correct, then nothing can be done. Keep the NBA or abolish it, it doesn't matter, the game's up and the publishing business is heading for a massive shrinkage. We are entering the post-book age.

But if they are wrong, then price cutting must be the only sane course of action. What else can free up the market? How long are the publishers and bookshops going to wait for the upturn?

In practice, as I said in October, the NBA is bound to die eventually. The only issue is whether it dies before irreversible damage is done to British publishing or after. Only the publishers or the Restrictive Practices Court can decide that.

The next question then becomes: how accurate will be the direst forecasts of the effects on the serious high street bookshop? The pro-NBA argument says that serious bookshops will be deprived of the margins on their bread-and-butter sales of bestsellers by the big discounters and will therefore go out of business, leaving the high street bereft of Herodotus and Wittgenstein but sadly overloaded with Shirley Conran and Jeffrey Archer.

One can sympathise with this. The demise of good bookshops would be one more big step on the long road towards the trashification of Britain. Our high streets have been growing progressively more uniform and tacky, and the loss of the bookshops would accelerate the process. Furthermore there is a degree of reasonable idealism in the idea that people should have access to good books. The library service is not what it was and seems, in any case, to find the idea of "good" books too ideologically challenging. In this context bookshops have, culturally at least, become more important.

But the problem is that the idealism and the industry are now just too catastrophically out of step. To lend support to stockholding bookshops by maintaining the NBA is to threaten the commercial basis of publishing. In addition, I am not convinced that the effect of freeing the market would be that terrible. British bookshops defend their cultural role fiercely, but in fact American ones are better. There is, admittedly, more rubbish but, amazingly, you can still find Wittgenstein and many other good things in the mall.

One way or another this bizarre, lemming-like behaviour by the publishers has to stop. Books are special but access does not just mean availability, it also means sales. There is no point in preserving virtuously stocked bookshops merely as museums or street furniture for the voraciously unread masses.