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This item is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

On 30 July Philip Pullman, president of the Society of Authors, galvanized writers, independent publishers and booksellers. He called for the re-introduction of a minimum price for books, in effect the restoration of the Net Book Agreement, which was declared illegal by the Restrictive Practices Court in March 1997. At that time it had been in force from 1 January 1900.

Older readers may experience a sense of déjà vu. PN Review 68 and 69 (1989) featured NBA editorials, as did 106 and 109 (1995–96); it was a subject of correspondence and figured in News and Notes. Pullman, a clear-headed spokesman for writers and literary provision, was keen to protect what remains of the beleaguered independent bookshops. He dubbed them ‘the lantern bearers of civilisation’, a charming archaism: the bookshop as Diogenes in search of an honest man. The Booksellers’ Association welcomed his suggestion; the Publishers’ Association, dominated by the big players, didn’t.

‘There is an insane, inhumane and perverted belief,’ Pullman said, ‘that the market knows best, and that it is something natural, like gravity, which we can do nothing to alter. But of course we can alter the way the market works. It’s a human construction.’ He knows whereof he speaks, being a best-selling author: the independent booksellers are suffering from the heavy discounting, on pre-orders, of his forthcoming La Belle Sauvage, the first in the Book of Dust series, due out on 19 October from Penguin Random House and David Fickling Books. The book is officially priced at £20 but Amazon, Tesco, W. H. Smith, Waterstones and Foyles are selling it at half price, less indeed than the independent bookseller would have to pay to get stock in. They cannot afford to compete; and what is more, the author pays because his royalties will be calculated on net receipts rather than the recommended retail price.

Small booksellers for the last twenty years have been at an increasing disadvantage. Independent publishers, too, whose best-sellers are few and far between, have been brutalised by a book trade in which the large players demand discount as a condition of purchase. And the author suffers, too. Shortly before Philip Pullman made his call, chief executive of the Society of Authors Nicola Solomon – one hopes there is a whiff of collusion here – wrote to publishers urging them to eschew special sales at ‘ultra-high’ discounts which impact on author royalties and on the market as a whole.

One major change over the last two decades is the growth of online websites abroad such as Amazon from which UK customers might secure discounted books in editions published abroad. Tom Godfray of the Booksellers’ Association noted how ‘The NBA collapsed in the year Amazon was formed in Seattle. Any new arrangement would have to cope with the internet age, and globalisation of publishing and bookselling.’ But the head of the Publishers Association, Stephen Lotinga, ruled out any change to trading terms, instead suggesting that the booksellers lobby for a reduction in business rates. In the trade this is called ‘passing the book’. He talked about ‘a level playing field in the book retail market’. On his level playing field, one bookseller gets 70 percent discount, another 35 percent.

The European Commission does not forbid retail price maintenance on books. France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain enjoy this protection and Belgium is on the verge of re-introducing it. Way back in PN Review 192 (2010) Iain Bamforth wrote, ‘Curiously, the French themselves attempted, in the late 1970s, to repeal fixed prices in the interests of encouraging competition. After two years of turmoil, during which publishers were prohibited from even recommending prices, lists were slashed, and many small independent booksellers went to the wall, a law was introduced in 1982 by Jack Lang, the then culture minister, to regulate the market. Even the French Consumers Union agreed that the free trade in books had led to a marked disparity between cities and towns, where the same book often cost more. The key paradox: ‘Price freedom was undemocratic. France – and most EU countries for that matter – therefore still apply the continental form of the Net Book Agreement, which obliges retailers to sell books at agreed prices (Amazon is able to discount titles by only 5 percent in France).’

May Philip Pullman’s arguments prevail. As Tim Waterstone declared in 1989, ‘Books are different’. And Sir Basil Blackwell that same year wrote in the Guardian, ‘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.’ Sir Simon Hornby, then chairman of W. H. Smith, championed the NBA. PN Review declared in those dark days, and declares again in these, ‘Success and efficiency can be variously measured: even in an age obsessed with margins and stock turn, they can relate to specialism, or to benefiting specific communities. Some booksellers may try to give excellent service, costly to the bottom line for single-copy and special orders. Some make substantial cultural contributions on tiny margins. Bookselling might still be a service as well as a business. The margins that spell the difference between survival and extinction are sustained by the NBA.’ All strength to Philip Pullman’s elbow.

This item is taken from PN Review 237, Volume 44 Number 1, September - October 2017.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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