Jove! The cheap read invades Britain


LONDON -- It took nearly a century, but a real, honest-to-goodness, unregulated price war over new books broke out last weekend in the clubby, comfortable world of British publishing. Along Charing Cross Road, for $15.15. But at Books for a Change, a tiny, musty independent shop, they were charging the full publisher's price: $25.26.

"Those other shops, the big book chains, are selling Rushdie's book for less than it costs us to even buy," says Harold Howe of Books for a Change. "It looks like there is going to be a bloody battle between now and Christmas, and it looks like a lot of independent bookshops like ours are going to go to the wall."

The discount best seller has finally come to Britain.

Before Sunday, if a British reader wanted the newest Stephen King novel, or the latest by John Grisham, it was either pay full price or head to the library. There were no loud complaints from book lovers.

For 95 years, the price of books in Britain was regulated by a cartel of publishers and bookshop owners under the Net Book Agreement.

The price-fixing agreement set minimum prices for certain books. That ensured a healthy profit margin for publishers, who could then offer a wide range of titles, and protected independent bookstores. The agreement was great for the industry, but the consumers had to pay inflated prices.

The agreement began to fall apart earlier this year when one publisher sold John LeCarre's "Our Game" in supermarkets at 50 percent reduction. But last week, the cartel was shattered as one by one major publishers broke ranks and made the -- for the discount shelves. Quality isn't out -- yet. But quantity is in.

The book business in Britain is undergoing the same changes that swept publishing in the United States in the past decade, with the rise of chain stores and the push for discounted best-selling titles. Why, they're even selling books in supermarkets in Great Britain, a revolutionary concept in a country that still appreciates the gentleman bookseller.

Not everyone is thrilled with discount books.

The independent stores fear they will be pushed out of the market by the buying power of the chains. Authors wonder if the British publishing industry can continue to produce more than 80,000 titles a year in a cut-rate, cut-throat market environment.

And consumers are delighted to snap up best sellers at up to 50 percent off, but they are waiting to see if less-popular titles carry heftier prices.

In its lead editorial Sunday, the Independent on Sunday wrote that cheap books could come at a high price as big publishing houses and bookstores drove out the weak and, in the process, curtailed diversity.

The Independent said "the mood in much of the publishing and bookselling trade -- and particularly among what may loosely be termed the literary intelligentsia -- is one of gloom and apprehension. Why? Because these people are suspicious of the consequences of a free market, and are right to be so."

But Sunday, on the same day that Britain gave up some of the final vestiges of its imperial measuring system and switched to the metric system, the new publishing free market went to work.

Margaret Thatcher's latest memoir could be had in some shops for 40 percent off. At Waterstone's, they were practically giving away Martin Amis' novel "The Information," which caused a stir last January when the author received a $750,000 advance. Sunday, the book could be had for as little as $7.90.

At Books Etc. on Charing Cross Road, they were running low on copies of Robert Harris' new thriller, "Enigma." On Saturday, it went for full price. But Sunday, it was sold at 50 percent discount -- with the author's autograph, no less.

"The company line is that this is an aggressive approach to help people buy books," says Dominic Brendon, the store's deputy manager. "But I think that after the initial explosion, it will die out. People are prepared to pay full price for books."

Peter Hart, a computer programmer who says he buys more than 200 books a year, says "price won't make that big a difference.

"I buy books because I want to, not because of some discount," he says.

But nearby, Ruth Carpenter plucked off the shelves Jung Chang's "Wild Swans," which was selling at a 50 percent discount.

"I suppose this means you can take a chance on books by writers you've never read," she says. "Normally, though, I go in for second-hand books."

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