Leading article: Cheap books at a high price price

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BOOKS are to be cheaper! It is hard to believe that anyone could be less than joyful at the news. People can afford to buy two books where before they bought one; some people who never bought books at all in the past may think to pick up a few with their supermarket groceries. Authors, publishers, booksellers, anybody who cares about literature and ideas or who worries about the decline in the habit of reading, should surely be dancing in the streets, joining Waterstone's in popping champagne corks or releasing balloons into the London sky.

Yet the mood in much of the publishing and bookselling trade - and particularly among what may loosely be termed the literary intelligentsia - is one of gloom and apprehension. Why? Because these people are suspicious of the consequences of a free market, and are right to be so. They may be wrong to mourn the Net Book Agreement, a form of price-fixing that has looked increasingly anachronistic. But they may wonder what kinds of controls will replace it and whether books will eventually fall victim to the free market's greatest weakness: that, while delivering what any single individual would rationally choose, its consequences may be a state of affairs that nobody would rationally choose.

Thus, it can make perfect sense for any individual to use a car for a particular journey, and to welcome the freedom to do so. But nobody would choose to sit in traffic jams, to endure polluted cities or (as a more indirect consequence) to live in a country with a neglected public transport system. Again, the decision to shop at an out-of-town superstore may be a rational one for most people. But a decision to drive the small local grocery shop out of existence or to turn the provincial high street into a ghost town would be eccentric, if not irrational. Likewise, television viewers benefited enormously from the advent of commercial television, and even more so from the advent of satellite and cable. Only a fool would decline ever to watch programmes supported by advertisements. Only a bigger fool would want 50 television channels offering nothing but girls and game-shows, and not a single one that would mount a good production of Pride and Prejudice.

Television, indeed, is one example of how the free market is modified so that discrete individual choices do not lead to what everybody agrees would be an undesirable end. This is achieved partly by regulation, partly by the preservation of a non-commercial broadcaster, supported by a compulsory state levy. The point here is not to protect minority interests (regular viewers of Coronation Street are a minority, though they happen to be a large one) but to allow the expensive and risky production a chance so that choice is eventually widened rather than narrowed.

And that is the important question for the book trade. It is all the more important because books, as Hamish McRae argued in the Independent last week, remain by far the most effective vehicles for spreading ideas. That books are now marketed for their designer labels, that celebrity status is now a better route to best-sellerdom than intellect or writing ability is beside the point. What matters is that other books are still published and sold; a fine Stilton is no less fine for being sold alongside a bland and sweaty Cheddar. Diversity - of authors, of publishers, of retail outlets - is essential to books. A society does not want its cultural tastes or its flow of ideas determined by the chief buyer for W H Smith or by Mr Murdoch's hard-nosed marketing people at HarperCollins.

The Net Book Agreement acted in favour of diversity because, put crudely, it protected weaker competitors (authors, publishers and sellers) by limiting competition. Almost certainly, it was unsustainable. And the pity is that those who write books, make them, sell them or love them have expended so much energy in arguing over it that they have hardly thought about what might replace it. Britain's monopoly laws are weak, and we know from the brewers, the supermarkets and the newspaper magnates how ruthlessly big companies will act to drive out the competition. Today, thousands of people will make a rational choice that they should go to Waterstone's and buy a cut-price Martin Amis. But the Government, which has an abysmal record in restraining monopolies, should be thinking now about how it could best respond to the all-too-likely outcome of those individual choices.