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This item is taken from PN Review 213, Volume 40 Number 1, September - October 2013.

'Change and decay in all around I see,' hummed the Reverend Henry Francis Lyte, shortly after he snuffed the candles in his church in Brixham in 1847 and prepared to take his ailing lungs to France. The author of 'Abide With Me' died later that year in Nice, and was buried there.

His words come to mind as the candles burn to stubs in the British book trade. The Summer 2013 edition of The Author is full of gloom. Books and writers are under threat from Amazon, Waterstone's, print-on-demand, e-books, piracy, government, the Arts Council. Nobody seems to know what to do and nothing is done except to gaze deeper into the gloaming.

We at PN Review know what to do. We know where the darkness flows from and we believe it could be stanched, just as Cuchulain knew the tide could be turned. We must go back in time to 1981 when the shadows lengthened decisively. News and Notes in PNR 21, older readers will recall, drew attention to Vivienne Menkes's blood-chilling Bookseller account of the effect of 'the now clearly culturally disastrous measure implemented by the French government in the area of publishing: the abandonment of the equivalent of "retail price maintenance"'. At that time there seemed to be common cause among European publishers: we could write without irony, 'The European book trade is so alarmed by what may be the irreparable damage done to traditional bookselling in France that they are putting a resolution to the European Parliament that governments ensure price maintenance for books.' Menkes recalled the 1959 International Booksellers' Federation London resolution insisting that books be regarded 'as cultural products, not as pure merchandise [...] Government in France and in countries where economic "imperatives" subvert cultural values,' Menkes commented, 'is deaf to that fundamental axiom.'

The following year there was a moment of hope. News and Notes reported: 'The election of a Socialist president in France has been welcomed by many elements in the French book trade as heralding - just in time - the re-institution of retail price maintenance. If they are right then the smaller and the specialist booksellers who have been so under threat may live to fight another day.' But they were wrong. The Socialists had other priorities, the French trade did not recover. And eight years later Britain caught the French plague and the end of the Net Book Agreement (NBA), dubbed a 'price-fixing cartel' (though a wholly transparent one), was inevitable. A big book chain led the assault, some big publishers colluded, and books became merchandise.  

In PNR 68 (1989), we devoted an Editorial to the issue. '"Books are different," Tim Waterstone, the most refreshing wind to blow through British bookselling since Sir Basil Blackwell, wrote in the Guardian (23 January). "Fifty-five thousand new titles a year are published, and a further 400,000 are available in stock. It is the pluralism of book publishing that gives it its joy and strength, and this pluralism is protected by the fact that the publisher and bookseller are able to provide a market place for minority titles at stable prices and stable profit margins."'

This subject bored the public then. Perhaps it will bore the public today. 'Yet the issue affects all those who buy, write or borrow books,' PNR declared. 'Abolition would hit particularly [...] the endangered species of small, independent booksellers. In a price discount war they would be the first victims of competition from large chains.  Booksellers have to buy in volume to command the trade discount to cut stock prices. "Good for large booksellers, bad for booksellers; good for big writers, terrible for writers," D.J. Enright said.'

There was already evidence from the United States where, Tim Waterstone noted, 'The abolition of retail price maintenance for books has destroyed the whole texture of the US book retailing scene. [...] Discount and remainder stores are in every mall and in most main streets. Sales are brisk [...] but choice is extremely narrow, and anything from the literary backlist is unobtainable.'

The cultural case had no chance against large commercial interests keen on concentrating the market. 'An Independent leading article accepted abolition and the depletion of the independent bookshop sector as inevitable. It wanly conceded that "inefficient" shops might die.' It did not bargain with the demise of some of the large chains, also; or with the rise of Amazon. Or with the rise of e-books. Or with Amazon selling £18.99 hardback novels as e-books for 99p.

Could the NBA be restored? Might publishers, writers' organisations and booksellers make common cause? It would be in the interests of the big publishers and the bricks-and-mortar chains which destroyed the NBA to resurrect and re-impose it now. There has never been any doubt that it benefited the independent publisher and bookseller, and therefore the reader, even if that reader paid a little more for a better product. Only a revived NBA, if possible by European agreement, can bring to heel the irresistible sword and sorcery of Amazon. But after her recent triumphs in court, Amazon would make her case easily against a trade she has decisively reduced. She admits no restraints or restrictive practices. In her cyber-sphere she is not even subject to the restraint of taxation.

For those of us who write, read, publish and sell books in the physical world, 'Change and decay' indeed... Having clearly foreseen the end of the NBA and its aftermaths all those years ago, PN Review struggles to rise once more to prophesy. But it is awfully dark, and though there is that tried and tested way out, who will have the energy, the subtlety and the means to restrain the clock from striking thirteen? I wonder what the weather's like in Nice?

This item is taken from PN Review 213, Volume 40 Number 1, September - October 2013.

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