Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Beginner's Guide to Becoming Rich

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

The Beginner's Guide to Becoming Rich

Article excerpt

The dedication page in Adam Mars-Jones's latest novel, Pilcrow, reads: "In memory of the Net Book Agreement 1900-1997, unglamorous defender of my trade." I haven't been as moved in a long while by an inscription.


Ah, the Net Book Agreement. Who remembers it now, except as a quaint anachronism, in these days when "price-fixing" is the enemy of that most sacred of individual freedoms, consumer choice? It seems hard to believe that one section of the market was once allowed for so long to dictate how its products were sold; harder still to picture a pre-download culture in which books were believed to be somehow special, rather than one form of entertainment competing among many. Mars-Jones, I suspect, speaks for many authors (and small booksellers) in his nostalgia for the NBA.

I remember reading an article about the collapse of the NBA in my final year at university and feeling perplexed by the strength of feeling among its defenders. Those who opposed abolition seemed tweedy and conservative (yet, confusingly, they included many authors and critics I admired), while those in favour spoke of making books accessible to more people by making them more affordable. I couldn't understand how anyone who cared about books and literacy could argue against this. New hardback novels or biographies were completely out of reach to me as a student, and to many other readers, too; if books were cheaper, surely more people would buy them. What was all the fuss about?

It turns out that I knew a lot more about reading books than about business practice or the behaviour of markets, and also that I was extremely naive. I thought the collapse of the NBA would simply mean we could all buy the new Margaret Atwood for a tenner--I did not predict that she would be shunted off the shelves by the "novels" of Katie Price and Kerry Katona, or that the ripple effect would mean the Atwood of the next generation might not even find a publisher.

Unarguably, discounts mean that more people are now buying new books than a decade ago, and those who would not previously have gone out of their way to visit a bookshop are finding them in music shops and supermarkets, as well as online. Yet, among authors and publishers, there is a distinct sense of shrugging pessimism about what it is that consumers are buying and the consequent fate of what is usually described as "serious fiction". …

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