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Reading the market

David Self looks at how the collapse of the net book agreement will affect schools' buying policies.

Delia, O Delia, you're sweet and you're dear, But we've had your recipes right up to here!" So sing the cabaret duo Kit and the Widow. So also do many of the country's booksellers as the price war that is raging over her latest Winter Collection brings chaos to their trade. In fact, her book is merely the eye of a cyclone that has blown up following the collapse of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) - and it is a cyclone that is going to hit schools very shortly. Even if they haven't yet heard the gale warnings.

To some, the NBA (set up 100 years ago) was a scheme by which fatcat publishers agreed among themselves to keep prices artificially high; a last example of a "restrictive practice" which meant that books could not be sold at less than the price printed on them. To others, it was a necessary gentlemen's agreement which stopped the over-promotion of a narrow range of bestsellers and ensured the survival of a wide range of titles and specialist bookshops.

Then in 1993 one publishing group, Reed, unilaterally opted out of the agreement. Hodder Headline followed last year and when three more major groups dropped out this October, the whole scheme collapsed overnight. Literally, within 24 hours. The timing was not accidental. Several publishers had been reporting sluggish sales and worse profits. Ludicrously large advances (which had no hope of matching sales) had been paid to famous authors, landing other publishers in serious trouble. And the cost of paper has been rising dramatically. So publishers needed to cash in on the lucrative Christmas trade.

Hence the Delia dottiness. Her new book is priced at Pounds 15.99 - and it's popular. In its first week of publication last month, it sold more than 500,000 copies.

But not always at Pounds 15.99. One chain has been selling it as a loss leader at Pounds 9.99 (41p cheaper than its wholesale price). W H Smith, Sainsbury's and Woolworth are selling it at Pounds 10.99. The chains are also offering big reductions on other popular titles. So where does that leave the smaller booksellers who rely on the profit of such seasonal blockbusters to subsidise their year's trading? Worried is the short answer.

Mark Warner owns and runs a (very) small but classy bookshop in Norwich. He believes his customers visit him for the ambience and for his knowledge. "I'm not just a retailer." But will this continue? Will people be happy to pay for expertise and efficiency that has, in the past, come as a happy bonus? So far this season, he's sold 25 "Delias" ("About what I'd expect") and only one customer has come in, asked the price and left.

If individual customers are balancing commercial, aesthetic and moral factors when deciding where to buy their books, so too must schools. Once, it was simple. Each local authority had its designated supplier. Some still do have their supply departments with one contracted supplier (and these authorities may prove to be the clever ones). More often, with the growth of local management, individual schools and even departments choose their own suppliers.

Take two examples. At the City of Ely Community College in Cambridgeshire, the English department buys from Waterstones in Cambridge "because they deliver". Another department relies on the expertise and friendship of a small independent bookshop in Ely. At one Lancashire primary school, the PTA stocks the library with whichever books are the best bargains in Tesco or Asda.

But increasingly, and especially for non net text and course books (which have always been outside the NBA), schools are purchasing directly from publishers. Indeed, this method may now account for 50 per cent of their purchases - to the delight of the publishers who need offer no discount to a wholesale supplier.

When it comes to the supply of net books (for instance library books) schools with pupils of statutory age (that is excluding sixth form and FE colleges) have been able to hold a library licence which entitles them to a 10 per cent discount. The end of the NBA has killed off those licences: they will be no more. So how will school librarians get good value with their pathetically limited purchasing power?

The public library service is at least aware of the problem. As Hilary Hammond (Norfolk's Director of Arts and Libraries) points out: "There isn't a single librarian in this country with experience of an unregulated market."

But since it is now an open market, existing financial standing orders come into play which dictate that library services must start putting their orders out to tender. And politicians, believing that books are now "cheaper", may well want to cut budgets.

Traditionally, libraries have bought from specialist middlemen from whom there has been a licensed 10 per cent discount on the sale price - plus negotiable side benefits. Norfolk's latest budget was Pounds 1.2 million and with that power was able to win the equivalent of an extra 10 per cent discount in the form of "add-ons" such as labelling and electronic data to help with cataloguing. Library services with less spending power (such as those in the new smaller unitary authorities) may not get such help unless they form buying consortia.

The message of all this for schools is that (according to Hilary Hammond), "Small schools may find they can't get any discount at all" - unless they too form buying consortia.

The fact is that small orders are intrinsically expensive - and now prices are negotiable, schools may come to regret their recent reliance on direct purchasing. Educational publishers may decorate their catalogues with offers of discounts on class sets: they are not going to be generous when a head of department tries to order just six copies to top up a depleted set.

Consequently, to quote Julian Rivers (managing director of Bertram Books, a trade wholesaler): "Schools must decide whether they want the help of a professional bookseller to source them; whether they want the help of someone who can point out a book is not available till March and asks whether you want to tie up your limited funds till then."

But since the profit margin on non net (that is, educational) books is tiny, not every bookseller is excited by such orders. Hence the cleverness of those areas that have preserved centralised buying systems. They are the ones that will be able to extract the largest discounts from publishers (where direct purchasing is involved) and from middlemen in other circumstances.

The fact is, the demise of the NBA has led to a completely open market. The supermarkets have entered the game and could be getting discounts off retail prices in the region of 60 per cent from publishers.

The major bookshop chains are also ready to squeeze every discount they can out of publishers, especially on bestsellers. W H Smith and its subsidiary Waterstones have one central purchasing department at Swindon. An independent such as Mike Warner is wistful. "Swindon's buying power is mega."

But these discounts will be recouped elsewhere. As Warner adds: "Nobody's being altruistic. Publishers aren't going to let their margins go." Already trade paperback prices are rising. The Pounds 4.99 book may be a thing of the past. Pounds 5.99 will become the norm but with books priced at Pounds 6.99 so Pounds 1 can be discounted in the shop.

And as the book trade becomes just like any other, so the laws of supply and demand will come increasingly into play. To cover the "bargains", the price of "unpopular" or specialist lines will rise. As Hilary Hammond puts it, "The price of books not in great public demand will go up." Mark Warner agrees. "The real losers will be serious regular book buyers."

But it is not just trade titles that will suffer. One library supplier has already predicted that academic books will carry the biggest increase. I suspect that children's books will also be hit. Margins have always been low in this field (the average children's paperback being at least Pounds 1 cheaper than its adult counterpart) and publishers will doubtless be reconsidering this pricing policy.

Across the board, the number of new titles is already in decline. Some may think this is no bad thing. 80,000 new titles will have been published in Britain this year.

In the USA (where the population is four times greater) just 50,000 new titles will be published. If this were only publishers rationalising silly editorial policies ("If Snipcock and Tweed have a Mexican cookery book, so must we") it wouldn't be too bad. Rumours are beginning to circulate that publishers are deciding not to publish titles simply because Smiths won't take them. Swindon's buying power is indeed mega. Lastly, the publishers may take one very small step that will provoke really serious chaos. They may no longer print any price on their books.

After all, Heinz don't print a price on their tins of baked beans. So when we don't know where we're starting from, how will small booksellers, libraries and schools know where to start their bargaining? Even a hard-won 10 per cent discount becomes an unknown quantity.

But if you, with your cruelly limited funds, feel powerless in this new world, pray remember the author. Those of us who aren't Jeffrey Archer, Catherine Cookson or even the lovely Delia really are vulnerable.

David Self is a member of the Society of Authors and has written books for the adult, children's and educational markets.

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