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The battle of the book prices


Richard Webster's investigation of Oxford combatants in the war over book prices leads to an ethical dilemma

The Oxford Writer, no 35, Summer 2004

IN MARCH OF THIS year the Society of Authors (of which Writers in Oxford is but a young and tender offshoot), launched a lively campaign to defend the practice of printing recommended prices on books.

The move to scrap prices on jackets was, it was said, being led by Borders who were allegedly being supported by W. H. Smith and – very surprisingly – by that one-time bastion of traditional bookselling, Blackwell’s. In other words the revolution (if revolution it was) had strong supporters in Oxford.

But so, for that matter, did the counter-revolution. One of the big literary guns wheeled out by the Society of Authors to defend the status quo was  WiO’s own Philip Pullman. He was part of a group of leading authors who issued a statement saying that any change could ‘put the future of writing in this country in grave danger’. Other signatories included J K Rowling, Monica Ali, Lady Antonia Fraser, Nick Hornby, Antony Beevor, Michael Holroyd,  and  P D  James.

Philip told the Daily Telegraph that if retailers won the day books would be sold like socks. ‘The whole literary scene will be impoverished and fewer authors will be able to make a living,’ he said.
In a ringing piece in the Guardian, he developed this view, although the analogy of socks was replaced by one with eggs: ‘The idea is that instead of being published with a suggested price, books should be published like eggs, as it were, so that the retailer alone would decide what to charge. But books are not like eggs. Every time we buy eggs, we are looking for the same thing we had last time; but every time we buy a book, we’re looking for something different. So when it comes to looking at the cost, we have nothing to go by, at the moment, except the recommended retail price. . . . If there were no RRP, how could we tell? We wouldn’t even know if the bookseller was charging more, rather than less. We don’t buy the same book 50 times a year; there is nothing to compare it with except itself. That would be an inconvenience. What follows from it would be a disaster.’
He went on to outline a bleak future in which authors’ royalties would fall  because they would have to be paid on net receipts rather than the cover price, and the rich variety of British literary life would vanish as ‘middling’ authors lost out to supermarket-backed, over-hyped bestsellers.

BUT COULD IT really be the case that the disastrous future outlined by Oxford’s leading author was about to be ushered in because of pressure from Oxford’s leading bookseller, aided and abetted by Borders, who also, of course, have an Oxford stronghold?
It was in an attempt to find out that I spoke to the manager of Blackwell’s Broad Street Shop, Philip Bell.
Blackwell’s, of course, is celebrating its125th anniversary. So gentlemanly was the book trade in Oxford once that when Basil Blackwell discovered that Parker’s, the bookseller further up the Broad, was in danger of going under, he actually resolved to come to its aid.  
Times have changed and one does not imagine that if Borders, say, fell on hard times tomorrow, news of their plight would bring a hefty donation from Blackwell’s current board of directors. But were the very booksellers who had fought to preserve the Net Book Agreement a decade or so ago  now set on erasing its last and perhaps most valuable residue?
Philip Bell seemed keen to play down this idea. It may well be that he worked at Dillon’s when its swash-buckling  boss Terry Maher launched  his attack on the Net Book Agreement by illegally discounting the entire Booker shortlist.
‘In those days,’ he recalls, ‘I did what Terry Maher told me to.’ But in his new role at Blackwell’s (after a spell managing the Oxford branch of Dillon’s) he seems the embodiment of diplomacy.
He pointed out that many academic publishers already produce books with  no jacket price. It is in relation to ‘trade’ books that the question really bites. And here he ventured that keeping recommended prices might be good because it provides a yardstick for customers to measure the bargains they are being offered. ‘I think it’s still a valuable guide, I think it’s still a useful element for our customers.’ This is far from being a ringing endorsement of recommended prices. But it is something.  
So does this mean that the great controversy generated by the Society of Authors earlier this year was a synthetic affair, a pre-emptive strike against a revolution which nobody had in fact ever threatened to carry through?
Tim Godfray, chief executive of the Booksellers’ Association, seems to think so. ‘The  Society of  Authors are saying “Hey, we’re really worried about what’s going to happen to authors’ royalties” and we are saying “Hey, why are you getting so excited about all this? Because you’re suggesting that there’s a great campaign and people are planning to do this, that and the other and we can assure you that nothing is actually happening at all.”’
That at least is what the BA’s Tim Godfray is saying for public consumption. But here The Oxford Writer’s intrepid reporter uncovers an interesting fact. Godfray also has private views: ‘Privately I actually think that change is going to come . . . this is just a private view, not for publication because I think the troops would get a bit excited in our membership were they to read this . . . But I think there may be a crunch point when something drastic has to happen
 . . .  perhaps in five or six years’ time.’

BY THIS POINT the intrepid reporter’s internal ethical committee has already convened a meeting. The question before it is this: What do you do when the person you are interviewing offers one view in public which seems to be at odds with what he says is his private belief? What do you do when somebody invites you to be complicit in misrepresenting his true views to the public? The only reasonable answer would seem to be that, if no undertaking has been asked for and none given, you should report faithfully what you have been told. Which is why Tim Godfray’s ‘private’ opinion, which conveys a deeply patronising view of his own membership, is recorded here.
It may well be that the argument about authors’ royalties falling if jacket prices were scrapped has been overdone. For years, contracts have allowed publishers to pay authors on net receipts whenever books are sold at the kind of high discounts which both wholesalers and the chains now routinely demand.   
But if jacket prices went, royalties would be eroded further. Worst of all, the supermarket philosophy of marketing would triumph, in which using loss-leaders to bamboozle the public’s perception of value would become more important than giving real bargains. Waterstone’s would become a kind of Tesco. And Tesco would rejoice.   

Which reminds me. When, a decade ago, outraged members of the BA protested at the admission of Tesco into membership of a specialist trade association, who was it who robustly defended this forward-looking decision?
I seem to recall that it was none other than Tim Godfray. □



For Anthony Beevor's article in the Daily Telegraph on book prices and the threat from supermarkets, click here. For the Telegraph's news report click here.

For Philip Pullman's Guardian piece, click here.

Indirectly relevant to the argument advanced here is Dominic Prince's piece on Tesco in the Spectator, 'How Tesco makes its millions' . Having set out to buy the same goods in Tesco as he had purchased the previous day from independent retailers in a Wiltshire market town, he found that his shopping basket cost 43% more from Tesco. He concludes:

'The results of my experiment were pretty obvious — we are all being done. We are being misled, brainwashed, cheated, and we don’t even know it’s happening. The trick has yet to be exposed, but there is nevertheless a very clever marketing trick being perpetrated and we are all the victims of the rip-off.'

To read the article, click here (but it's no longer free).