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Hachette UK chief would back price regulation, BIC hears

The chief executive of Hachette would back price regulation to stop retailers selling books below cost price, delegates at the Book Industry Conference were told yesterday (17th May).

Tim Hely Hutchinson, who was one of the supporters of the abolition of the Net Book Agreement in the 1990s, said while he was "in my bones, a free trader", in some instances discounting had gone too far.

He said: "I'm a little less pro [the ending of the Net Book Agreement] now as we are in an age of the mega-retailer where we see extreme pricing, some below cost and it's done to run other people off the road.

"If the Liberal and Conservative coalition was to look at some slight regulation, like selling at below cost, then the Tim Hely Hutchinson of today would be quite supportive."

But at the industry question time panel, Waterstone's managing director Dominic Myers said he did not see price maintenance returning.

He said: "I don't think we can put the genie back in the bottle. I think it's clear consumers know the value of a book."

Myers said 65% of the chain's sales were for full-price books, but added he felt some publishers were pushing recommended retail price up too high.

Nic Bottomley, co-owner of Mr B's in Bath, said the independent sector needed to move away from calling for a return of the Net Book Agreement.

"I don't see any indication that it's likely to return and I think independent booksellers need to deal with the market that they have... £7.99 for a paperback is extremely good value for money if it's a book that the customer is going to enjoy."

During a short presentation to delegates, Hely Hutchinson gave a grim prognosis of the trade, saying that suggestions declining book sales were due to the weather or economy were misguided.

He said: "From my perspective, the cause of the decline, especially as we see it in non-fiction, is principally routed in a wide range of digital impacts."

He added more content available online or services like the BBC iPlayer were causing consumers' free time to become more stretched.

Myers discussed recent changes at Waterstone's, with a move towards more range buying and local choice of books. He said distribution through its hub had improved, but added: "Most of the stories that were generated about the hub [last year] were actually true."

Myers called for more help from publishers to discuss marketing plans "way, way" ahead of publication. Bottomley also said publishers could do more to help bricks and mortar booksellers. He said: "It's time for publishers talking a good game and not delivering to put up the goods if we are both going to grow."

Atlantic managing director Toby Mundy said the trade faced the short term danger of the new coalition introducing VAT on books. However, he was optimistic that demographic changes would help the trade, given the current health of the young adult market.

He added: "People are consuming more text than ever before. The printed book does have quite a bit of life in it yet."