Banality at bargain prices

Following the demise of the Net Book Agreement, bookshop shelves are full of TV tie-ins and empty of scholarly work, says Martin Cohen

June 12, 2008

Are books just like cans of beans? Can you "pile them high" or sell them in pairs and triples, or even produce cheaper "generic" versions - same subject, different author, lower price?

Of course, the answer to all these questions is "yes". Ever since 1991, after attacks were launched against the old-fashioned (not to say elitist) view that it might be desirable to protect the range and diversity of books and booksellers, books have been just another product line. Six years later, when the Restrictive Practices Court re-examined the Net Book Agreement that had governed book prices for the previous hundred years, it now saw, in the glorious light of (economic) freedom, that it was "against the public interest", and hence illegal.

The outlawing of the agreement was not opposed by many in the streets. Indeed, it briefly seemed to stimulate the industry, with lower book prices and new kinds of stores offering wider selections along with cafes with comfy chairs to sit in when browsing. But ten years on, the cost in terms of diversity and depth is becoming unmistakable. Britain's knowledge base has eroded, and university bookshops are the place where the collapse in academic standards is most brutally obvious.

Take the cream of these, The Economists' Bookshop in Clare Market, just by the London School of Economics, and the Gower Street "department store" opposite University College London. Both shops now belong to just one company, Waterstone's (which is owned, in turn, by HMV).

Here, academics and students can no longer browse a wide range of titles because, as all shop or factory managers know, the longer the list of options, the higher the costs and the lower the profits. If business values determine book stocks (and they do), then everyone must buy the same books. Traditional publishers of the long toiled-over efforts of academics, such as Blackwell and Routledge, have yielded place to the briskly dashed-off efforts of celebrity authors and journalists, published by companies such as Penguin and Harper Perennial. Gone are the scholarly monographs and in their place are piled "key texts" and TV tie-ins.

There is no need now to look, say, for William Lamont's epic Last Witnesses: The Muggletonian History (1652-1979), although it was published less than two years ago (at £55). It is not there. Instead, on the shelf marked Politics, Philosophy and Religion we will find several copies of Francis Wheen's own "history", now five years old, How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World (list price £8.99, discount price £6.99 - you save £2.00). A little notice informs us that Darren Wadsworth, bookseller, found: "The subjects that Wheen covers is (sic) exhausting, politics, religions, business, nationalism." And so perhaps we may want to search instead for some quality fiction - say Vikram Seth's Beastly Tales from Here and There. This little hardback is only £5.99 and surely Seth himself counts almost as a celebrity, but curiously even this kind of book struggles to find its way on to the shelf. After all, once there it would have to displace some of the endless, endless supplies of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (now £4.19, reduced from £5.99 - save £1.80). Back at The Economists' Bookshop, it failed to do so. Harry Potter rules!

What does all this mean for academic writing? There are still publishers to be found. Indeed, they are increasingly desperate to print new titles, as bookstores refuse to take their old ones. But the readership is no longer there, because readers cannot buy what they do not know exists. They do not receive catalogues from several thousand UK publishers, still producing well over 100,000 new books a year - they try to visit the local bookshop and look at what is there instead. And now there is not much. Scholarly types will do better to browse in Tesco or Sainsbury's instead.

When The Guardian sent one of its more cerebral journalists into Foyles, once the largest book store in Britain, full of intricate corners and rickety staircases, and now a sleek grey metal and red plastic "super book store", it was only to test Foyles' staff with foolish complaints. A copy of James Joyce's Ulysses, he noted, was full of errors in spelling and punctuation. Flicking through the book, the bookseller stopped at the word "jawbo" on page 330. "That's not a word," The Guardian's agent provocateur said. "Mmmm," the bookseller agreed, and offered a refund. That's service! But when a community loses its knowledge base, it loses much more than the few pounds it is told it gains.

Martin Cohen is a philosophy lecturer and editor of The Philosopher. His latest book is Philosophical Tales (Blackwell, 2008).

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