Net loss is a big gain

October 6, 1995

Joe Sinyor welcomes the end of the Net Book Agreement. The end of the Net Book Agreement is good news for academic books - for their authors, their readers, and their booksellers.

Last week, the NBA, the 100-year-old publishers' agreement which fixed the prices of most books, died. After three major publishers - HarperCollins, Random House, and Penguin - pulled out, commentators predicted with horror the end of the book world as we know it: the end of the small bookshop, the end of literature, the death - or at least mortal injury - of a great industry.

So is it heresy to welcome the end of the NBA? I do not believe so. The National Union of Students reports that one in three students go short on food because they cannot make ends meet. The first question academics will ask, therefore, is "will the end of the NBA help my students pay their book bills?"

Almost ironically, for core textbooks there will be little change. Although a best-selling textbook can sell three or four times as many copies as a best-selling novel in hardback, in this part of the business the margins for booksellers are tightest, the discounts given by publishers are low. It is unlikely therefore that such textbooks will be discounted. This sounds surprising when we compare other English-language markets. In Australia bookshops offer a mandatory 10 per cent discount to students. But that is because the average discount given by publishers to booksellers is 33.3 per cent - much higher than the United Kingdom - and there is in that country a much tighter relationship between academics and their campus bookstore, so stores can buy much more accurately, instead of on the basis of "what we sold last year". (The reason for this last factor is that if the Antipodean academics are not heavily involved in advising the store as to which key texts should be stocked it is unlikely the shop will be able to supply them in time - many are imported and there can be a three-month gap between ordering the stock and receiving it). In the United States it is very rare for core textbooks to be discounted.

So, in our NBA-free environment, textbook prices will not go down, but they will not go up either. I hear a muted cheer.

But look more widely - at specialist monographs and supplementary titles, and the possibilities start to open up. Already the new trading conditions have been said to be the saviour of the hardback novel. Could it also be the saviour of the scholarly monograph? Take a typical example of a book with a print run of 1,000-1,500 copies and a first-year sale, mainly to institutions and libraries, of 600 copies. Few individuals can afford to buy their own copy - although there is clearly a demand for these important titles. A publisher colleague who often marks down the price of display copies on the last day of a conference reports a scrum as academics rush to buy the books they have always wanted, at 25 per cent off the publishers' price. Until now, booksellers have been constrained by the NBA from doing this apart from at the approved twice-yearly book sales. But what scope there is now for backlist sales, special subject-based promotions etc. Hit by falling library budgets, the scholarly monograph could enjoy a revival.

And then there is the "read-around the subject" title - essentially a discretionary purchase for the student. Again here is scope for a campus bookshop to home in on a subject area, run special "end of term" promotions focusing on vacation reading, "buy-two-get-one-free" offers, working closely with lecturers to target the right books at the right time. The campus store could even work with the student union bar to offer tokens with each book bought - thereby using one student essential (books) to fund another apparent necessity (beer). All of this could boost book sales.

In other English-language markets, such as Australia, the university bookstore has a monopoly on campus. In the UK, bookstores must compete for student custom, and the students again will benefit. Already campus bookstores compete to offer the most attractive "freebies" and "goodies bags" at freshers' fairs, and sponsor student competitions, and no doubt this will continue. Dillons will also be introducing student bursaries at selected universities.

It is in the interest of the academic community to have a thriving academic book trade. Academic books and bookselling can thrive after the abolition of the NBA.

Joe Sinyor is managing director, Dillons.

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