The Great NBA Disaster

John Sutherland

Wednesday, 27 September 1995 was not a day lacking in newsworthy events. A rogue Japanese trader had out-Leesoned Leeson by losing a billion dollars on Wall Street without his employers noticing; Clinton had successfully, as it seemed, bombed the Serbs and blackmailed the Israelis to the peace table; Humphrey the missing Downing Street cat had been found. What the Times chose to lead with on Wednesday morning was BOOK PRICING AGREEMENT IS SHATTERED, with the explanatory sub-heading ‘Discount War Begins on Top Titles’ and an unflattering mugshot of Sir Kingsley Amis over the caption: ‘Book Likely to be Cheaper’.

Other national papers, while noting it as something of interest, did not conceive the collapse of the Net Book Agreement and a 20 per cent reduction in the retail price of The Biographer’s Moustache as events of world-historical importance. The Guardian relegated the NBA story to Home News on page 3, with much explanation as to what exactly net books were. As interesting as the unwarranted prominence was the care which went into the formulation of the Times lead. The picture of Kingsley Amis seemed shrewdly chosen to forestall the ‘Lord Archer wins the lottery’, ‘lucky Stephen King’, or ‘not more cash for Martin’ reactions. Conservative values and Good English (virtues that Sir Kingsley and the Times share) would be the prime beneficiaries of the shattered book agreement. Inside, the op-ed page was dominated by a gloating ‘Good Riddance to the Net Book Agreement, says Geoffrey Wheatcroft.’ Wheatcroft wrapped up what was evidently a rushed piece with the Maoist-Thatcherite slogan: ‘Let a hundred flowers bloom, nourished by the marketplace.’ One hundred might be thought a parsimonious spray even in these new times.

Why the immoderate rejoicing in Wapping at a technical adjustment to the way the British book trade merchandises its wares? Salman Rushdie’s latest will cost £12 rather than £16 if you buy it in Dillons: so what? Hardback novels will still be prohibitively expensive. The book trade, although it is a useful export performer, is very small potatoes and rarely features significantly in the financial section of the Times, let alone on the front page. Leeson and Mr Iguchi between them lost more than its total annual turnover in 1994. Why was the Thunderer so excited?

One reason, as cynics noted, was that Harper-Collins, the publisher leading the charge against the NBA, is Murdoch-owned. Another is that the Times has strenuously opposed the NBA (or its equivalent) for 143 years or more. The paper’s opposition has taken the form of unwavering editorial hostility and, on occasion, outright commercial sabotage. If the Times was joyous on 27 September it was because it tasted victory in what has been one of the longer campaigns in its history.

Effective central control over the retail price of books originated in 1829, with the so-called Booksellers Regulations, by which a committee of London publishers formally agreed to boycott any shop supplying new books to the public at below the publisher’s posted price.[*] The arrangement suited all parties and was accepted as general trade practice. In the late 1840s, fired by the spirit of free trade, a small number of London booksellers (egged on by half a dozen younger publishers) flouted the Regulations by embarking on an all-out sales war. Establishment publishers felt that the retail network for their books, tenderly nurtured over the previous three decades, was imperilled. They invoked the Regulations to starve the undersellers into submission. The publishers’ boycott incurred the wrath of the Times, which offered a daily platform to the undersellers and supported their views with pugnacious articles and editorials putting the free-trade case. However, a majority in the book trade wanted the peace and quiet which the Regulations provided: the trade has always preferred ‘gentlemanly’ co-operation to rampant competition, not because they are commercially timid but because return on investment is very long in publishing and the appeal of the product is notoriously unpredictable. It is an apple-cart which is easily upset.

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[*] The account of organised price regulation in the British book trade from which I draw here is given in James Barnes’s Free Trade in Books (Oxford, 1964).