Leading article: The business of books

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Almost anything to do with books - but especially publishing and selling them - raises furious passions. We recall the epic battle over the Net Book Agreement before its eventual demise eight years ago. Cassandras, in the shape of small bookshops, forecast the end of books and book-selling as we knew them. In fact, the opposite happened.

Book-selling has flourished; outlets have multiplied; a hundred flowers have bloomed. We can contemplate buying a book over a coffee, pick one up with the weekly shopping, or while away the time in the quirky little bookshop around the corner. Small and specialist shops are still in business and, mostly, prospering.

The new row is about the possible takeover of Ottakar's by HMV, which owns Waterstones. It comes to a head next week when the Office of Fair Trading will decide whether to refer the bid to the Competition Commission. Again, it is smaller publishers and booksellers who object, and they have recruited an impressive collection of literary luminaries as cheerleaders.

Their concern is that, if the bid succeeds, the market will be dominated by the big chains; their purchasing power will guarantee blockbusters even more shelf-space than at present, and choice will be narrowed as small operators are priced out of the market.

We are as fond of books as anyone. But book-selling is a commercial activity and harsh reality dictates that a business which is not viable will not survive. The good news is that books and book-selling have proved admirably resilient. There will long be a place in the market for enterprising operators - big and small.

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