You can't kill bookworms

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

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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.

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