You can't kill bookworms

The crash of the Net Book Agreement was not, as predicted, a catastrophe for British literature

Related Topics
The London International Bookfair today displays stalls from a thousand companies at Olympia. Some 19,000 toilers in the groves of literature gather in a great crescendo of cabals, caucuses and cartels to trade in rights between agents and publishers, wholesalers, retailers and distributors.

But something is missing. Where are the weeping, the wailing and the gnashing of literary teeth? Where is the blood of authors washing down the aisles? Where the whitened bones of small local booksellers?

When the Net Book Agreement came crashing down last September, the prophets of doom in the book trade told us that this was the end of literate civilisation as we know it. The NBA was the 95-year-old price-fixing system which kept book prices artificially high, in the belief that only by making popular books too expensive could you pay for the publication of unpopular works.

Supporters of the NBA forecast that first novels were doomed, publishers' lists would be cut back savagely, authors would be shed, advances slashed, small booksellers would go to the wall, big booksellers would stock nothing but Andy Macnab and Danielle Steele. But it didn't happen.

Meanwhile, abolitionists said that destroying the NBA would herald a new literary dawn where all kinds of people who couldn't afford books would suddenly find they could. More books would be sold and read by more people through the big chains and supermarkets, so a new boom in reading and bookselling would follow. That didn't happen either.

Most publishers wanted to keep the old NBA, but some broke ranks. The dam burst when WH Smith led the way, and all the others tumbled in behind.

The battle over the NBA was a classic war between free-market and protectionist ideas. But it presented serious problems for many on the right, forcing them to turn intellectual somersaults. By gut instinct they were all for free trade and letting the market rip. Andrew Neil, billed in the Daily Mail as "The Voice of Controversy", was typical of the raucous right: "This conspiracy allowed publishers to make us pay more for books we wanted to read, while they subsidised, with our money, the publication of books that gave them kudos among the chattering classes - but which nobody, bar a few of the literati in Hampstead, wanted to read."

This was the philistine view - the know-nothing, one-book-is-as-good- as-another line from the sort of people the Tory snobs refer to as the "garagistes". But the more erudite, effete and literary right (some of whom live in Hampstead) are, by instinct, cultural elitists themselves. They are also cultural doomsters, bewailing the ignorance of the masses, and, even worse, the lamentable lacunae in the intellectual apparatus of the modern so-called educated class. How they mourn the passing of the days when any educated man (yes, always man) could pick up Ovid or Catullus with the same ease as he might read Goethe in the original, or browse through the latest more recondite offering from the Oxford University Press. It is hard to square such concern with a free market in books that is expected to let low literature swamp everything else.

When the NBA spontaneously combusted, there was panic as hundreds of books were discounted. The falling price of a Delia Smith was quoted on the books' market like the value of the Deutschmark. Small booksellers thought it would be their last pre-Christmas rush. Where would it end?

Oddly enough, neither the protectionists nor the free-marketeers were right. The book trade has proved to have rules of its own, impervious to the more brutal market forces - at least so far. Books, it seems, really are different.

Book sales everywhere went up by 25 per cent, then went down. Now they are almost exactly at their previous level - and very few books are currently discounted. The Booksellers' Association reports no losses among its 3,300 bookshop membership. Somewhat sheepishly, it says: "We fought tooth and nail to keep the NBA, but we've been surprised at the result. We're not bellyaching any more." The Society of Authors reports no drop in subscriptions - authors are not giving up.

Leslie Henry, Research Director of Book Marketing Ltd, keeps all the industry statistics. "The net effect is zero," he says. "The market is stable, and hasn't changed in 15 years. Prices rise, prices fall, but it barely affects sales. People buy the books they can read, and not much more nor less." .

Britain buys 400 million books a year and almost every adult buys at least one. (Remember "book" means paper inside covers, including the A-Z of Birmingham). There is a huge wealth of variety - 700,000 books are currently in print. Last year there were 95,000 new titles, many more than in America, with a population 40 times the size. And the number of new titles rises every year, even though total sales are static. Why? "Stupidity," says one market analyst. Others suggest it is because, for all its mega-takeovers and downsizing, publishing remains a gentlemanly business whose practitioners' interest in books often overrules market principles.

The 100 bestsellers do not swamp everything else, but hold the same slice of the market as ever - only one eighth. In spite of videos, computers and other new temptations, people are spending more - about 5 per cent - of their leisure income on books than before. Sixty per cent of books are "real" books - fiction, biography, history or general interest: the rest are ones whose primary purpose is not literary, but reference and "How To ...". In surveys, every year around 57 per cent of the population say they are currently reading a book. We read as much as the French and Germans, from a wider selection and no less highbrow. The French are not all reading Derrida - they are more likely to be reading Agatha Christie, as their market depends heavily on popular British writers.

The death of the British book, like the death of culture, civility, morality and education, has been exaggerated. "We are entering the post-book age," wailed one cultural pessimist recently. Really? Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, WH Auden, Louisa M Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne have all had their work promoted recently by Hollywood. As for the threat from computers, even Bill Gates, the software wizard, wrote his bestselling The Road Ahead as a book, not as a CD-Rom.

Cultural panickers like moral panickers see nothing but barbarity closing in on us. (A cultural panicker is one who thinks a mispronunciation on Radio 4 means the vandals are at the gates of Broadcasting House.) Their tunnel vision fixes upon the loss of Latin and Greek, but forgets the rapid spread of higher education to one in three of the population (one in eight in 1979). They ignore, or even despise, the surge in consumption of art: in any three months one in five adults goes to the theatre, one in five to an art gallery or museum, while attendance at concerts rises, as does radio listening to classical music. Surviving the hot breath of the market, the book, too, it seems, is robust, as indeed are most of our abiding values.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?