Once upon a time, book prices in the UK were controlled by something called The Net Book Agreement. This didn’t have anything to do with fishing, but was a thingy that ensured that books (unless they’d been remaindered and sent off to clearance shops) could only be sold at the price printed on the cover. No “Three for Twos” in Waterstones, no “Half Price” stickers, and no mind-boggling Amazonian discounts.
There was much weeping and wailing over this – larger retailers wanted to be able to sell books at a discount, but it was argued that this would put smaller bookshops out of business, and quite likely cause plagues of locusts to darken the land.
Anyway, commerce won out, the agreement was scrapped, and Amazon and Waterstones went on to rule the bookselling market in the UK, though the supermarkets are now taking a growing share.
And yes, the smaller bookshops have nearly all gone – either closed or taken over by larger chains. How much of that was due to being unable to compete on price, and how much to being unable to compete on the convenience and near infinite stock of Amazon is one of those things that will no doubt be argued about by future historians.
But overall, speaking as someone who pays actual money for books, I’d say the removal of price controls has led to me buying a lot more of them.
So it’s with some alarm that I have to report an Evil Plot by some publishers. Yes, price controls are back! Not on printed books, of course, that wouldn’t do at all. No, it’s on eBooks, where they’re playing a different game. Some of the larger publishers are operating on what seems to be called the “agency” plan. Under this, sellers like Amazon, Waterstones and Apple are not buying the eBooks at whatever price they negotiate then selling them at whatever price they think will work best for them, but acting as agents who sell the eBooks at a price set by the publisher and keeping whatever proportion of the price has been agreed.
This is probably a Good Thing if you’re a publisher, but I’m not entirely convinced that it’s as good for customers. For instance, that Jasper Fforde book was actually more expensive in the Kindle edition than in hardback on the day it was published, and that doesn’t seem quite right somehow. I’ve noticed this with a number of recent releases – Amazon are still applying their usual discounts to new hardback and paperback books, but the Kindle versions are at a price the publisher has set. How this will affect eBook sales generally remains to be seen.
I expect some arguments between publishers and sellers to happen…
 Gnashing of teeth optional
 It was something like twenty years ago, so I may be vague on the details
 I remember needing to order a book from a shop. Waiting time was measured in weeks rather than the day or two we expect now…