Renowned writer Philip Pullman has called for a reintroduction of a minimum price for books to protect independent bookshops, calling them “the lantern bearers of civilisation”. But while the Booksellers Association thinks the suggestion should be considered, the Publishers Association has argued that 'there is no prospect" of it happening and instead believes different measures are needed.
Speaking to the Sunday Times yesterday (30th July), Pullman, who is president of the Society of Authors, lamented the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement in 1997, which meant that all books were sold at the same price, aside from occasional discounting in special circumstances.
He said: “There is an insane, inhumane and perverted belief 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 added: “I very much want independent booksellers to survive and prosper. It’s not exaggerating to say that they are the lantern bearers of civilisation.”
He was speaking after indie booksellers slammed heavy discounting on pre-orders of his much-anticipated title La Belle Sauvage, the first in the Book of Dust series, set to be released on 19th October (Penguin Random House and David Fickling Books). The title’s r.r.p. is £20, but many retailers such as Amazon, Tesco, W H Smith, Waterstones and Foyles are selling it for £10.
At the time Tamsin Rosewell, bookseller at Kenilworth Bookshop in Warwickshire, said as much as she would like to, there was “no financial point" in stocking La Belle Sauvage because it was “so heavily discounted we can’t even buy it into the shop for the price that it’s being sold to the public elsewhere”.
Rosewell also lamented the abolishment of the Net Book Agreement and said the current approach, which enables retailers to choose their own prices, was "actually pretty close to chaos" and "enormously detrimental" to authors.
On Friday (28th July), the Society of Authors chief executive Nicola Solomon wrote an open letter to publishers printed in The Bookseller calling for them to beware that special sales or “ultra-high” discounted sales do not damage authors’ overall earnings or the market for full-price sales.
However, booksellers and publishers have clashed on their stances on the issue.
The Booksellers Association praised Pullman for raising the issue in support of independent bookshops and has said the suggestion of bringing back fixed book pricing merited discussion.
“Sir Philip suggests that it is time to discuss reintroducing some form of price control. We agree. The BA Council will be discussing this at its next meeting,” Tim Godfray, c.e.o. of the BA told The Bookseller.
However, Godfray questioned the likelihood of the UK’s competition authorities allowing to such a move and pointed out the danger of UK customers being tempted to use online websites abroad such as Amazon.com, to get cheaper books instead.
“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,” Godfay said. He added: “In order to work effectively, price fixing systems need the support of all the leading publishers.”
However, the Publishers Association’s c.e.o. Stephen Lotinga has dismissed any possibility of a reintroduction of a set price for books, saying "there is no prospect" of it happening. Instead, he said a better way of supporting indie bookshops was to lobby for a reduction in business rates, which threatens to leave 275 towns without a bookshop. He added that efforts also must be made to ensure greater fairness in the book retail market so that one company didn’t dominate sales.
"Publishers are entirely supportive of efforts to ensure there are as many independent booksellers as possible in the UK so that consumers have a real choice about where and how they buy their books,” Lotinga said. “The best way of achieving that is to make sure there is a level playing field in the book retail market so that no single company is able to overly dominate or behave anti-competitively.
"There is no prospect of a return to the net book agreement and we believe efforts are better focussed on matters such as supporting booksellers in their call for a reduction in business rates, which could make a genuine difference for independent retailers up and down the country."
Many European countries have fixed prices for books, including France, Germany, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands, with Belgium one-step closer to bringing the law to its country, as reported earlier this month by The Bookseller.