Letter: Prices, predators and freedom in the books market

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The Independent Online
Sir: Why is it that newspapers, which can never be bought at a discount, even from tables on street corners where overheads must be tiny, or on the Mediterranean coast, where the mark-up is high, are so reluctant to understand the value to book buyers of the Net Book Agreement? It is a vital part of ensuring that books, in all their constantly new variety, are available through an enormous range of outlets, large and small.

Since the UK Restrictive Practices Court understood perfectly the importance to the public of maintaining wide availability of books by protecting booksellers against predatory price-cutting, which could only lead to concentration and lower variety of outlets and of published output, would it not be fair for newspapers - which share our task of disseminating knowledge, information and ideas, at least - to reflect this part of an important argument ('Europe brings the publishers to book', 29 July)?

But would you at least make it clear that, in the decision upholding the decision of the European Commission not to grant 'exception' from Article 85(1) of the Treaty of Rome, 'to the extent that (the Net Book Agreement) covers the book trade between Member States of the Community', the European Court of First Instance in Luxembourg did not declare the NBA 'void and unlawful'. It only endorsed the Commission's decision that it could not operate in respect of interstate trade.

Further, it did not even consider, let alone make any decision on, whether or not the NBA conferred benefits on consumers, and did not find that the agreement distorted trade between Britain and Ireland, only that it did indeed (as was never contested) apply to interstate trade and provide for restrictions, in that the publisher, not the bookseller, determines the retail price of net books.

The main effect of the court's judgment is, ironically, to cut Ireland off from the longtime single book market of the UK and Ireland. And it was the benefits to Irish bookbuyers - who actually need more support in their small market, not less, than in the UK - that, in appealing against the Commission's decision, we were most concerned to preserve.

Could you also make it clear that the NBA in the UK does enjoy statutory support, through the Resale Prices Act, for resale price maintenance for books as 'exempt goods', so it is not that different from the comparable French law. In any case, 'foiling' the terms of a contract approved by the courts as being in the public interest - which price cutters of net books are doing, and of which your reporter seems to approve - is no better behaviour than 'foiling' national legislation.

And you might care to withdraw the tendentious comment that I and my colleagues are engaged in 'price-fixing'. I for one have no more to do with the prices each publisher determines than you do, and for the publisher to set the retail price for the books it publishes is hardly reprehensible, when the UK courts have approved just this arrangement. It is that which gives the bookseller the support against price-cutting that almost all booksellers, with the support of most people in the industry, including authors and librarians, regard as essential.

Yours sincerely,

CLIVE BRADLEY

Chief Executive

The Publishers Association

London, WC1

30 July

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