After Pretending the Last 20 Years Never Happened, Phillip Pullman Calls for Return of Fixed Book Prices

Author Phillip Pullman has apparently reached either the age or stature that  he feels he no longer has to pay attention to reality.

The Bookseller reports that Pullman wants the UK government to reinstate fixed price book laws.


Renowned writer Philip Pullman has called for a reintroduction of a minimum price for books to protect independent bookshops, calling them “the lantern bearers of civilisation”. But while the Booksellers Association thinks the suggestion should be considered, the Publishers Association has argued that ‘there is no prospect” of it happening and instead believes different measures are needed.

Speaking to the Sunday Times yesterday (30th July), Pullman, who is president of the Society of Authors, lamented the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement in 1997, which meant that all books were sold at the same price, aside from occasional discounting in special circumstances.

He said: “There is an insane, inhumane and perverted belief that the market knows best, and that it is something natural, like gravity, which we can do nothing to alter. But of course we can alter the way the market works. It’s a human construction.”

He added: “I very much want independent booksellers to survive and prosper. It’s not exaggerating to say that they are the lantern bearers of civilisation.”

Pullman has the support of the UK Bookseller Association (who doesn’t think this is going to happen) but not the UK Publisher Association.

The UK’s previous fixed price book law was actually a “voluntary” one called the Net Book Agreement. It fell apart in the 1990s when bookstore chains decided they no longer wanted to play that game.

The NBA was later ruled illegal (which is why it would take government regulation to reinstate it).

There are a multitude of problems with this idea, the least of which is that Pullman wants to freeze the current bookselling industry in place in the hopes that it won’t change any more.

Good luck with that, and good luck with getting Amazon to go along.

At best, fixed price book laws would put more money in Amazon’s pockets – revenue they would use to offer better services.

Did you know that Germany’s fixed price book laws cover the retail price – but not the wholesale price? Yes, the larger booksellers like Amazon get better deals because they sell more books.

Enact a fixed price book law in the UK and Amazon will use the extra margin to offer services like free shipping and same day shipping.  Amazon has tried similar book-selling tricks in France or Germany at one point or another, and gotten spanked, so they are bound to try again in the UK.

Rather than preserve the legacy industry in its current form,  the new pricing law would merely inspire Amazon to invent new ways to get around it. Instead of disrupting their competitors on price, Amazon would focus on service and speed.

Or, Amazon might find some way to dodge the price controls by letting third-party sellers “sell” the books. That is exactly what Amazon is doing to get out of collecting sales tax here in the USA.

But do you know the worst part about this idea?

It’s not that it won’t work, but also that if it does comes to pass, in the long run it will prove to be counterproductive.

The Net Book Agreement limited competition in the UK book market for 90 years. When it was removed, many booksellers found they could not compete. They closed up because they had grown dependent on a command market.

If the UK enacts a new fixed price book law, it will set itself up for another mass extinction should the law be overturned.

However much Pullman and others might wish, you cannot ignore reality. they might as well order the tide to roll back, for all the good it will do.

image by @lifeinvisuals

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Tom Wood31 July, 2017

    It seems very odd that Pullman, of all people, would support a market manipulation that would make books (knowledge) more expensive, and therefore more difficult to acquire. The very religion that he mocked has a ceremony that parades their book around in the air, while teaching that the church alone can interpret it. By fetishising books as a medium of communication, Pullman is being a commerce-oriented hypocrite.

    How many independent bookstores have built a large vibrant online community where we can gather and interact? Which one will have the first virtual reality bookstore? When will independent bookstores offer the vast selection of Amazon, but with personal curation and staff recommends?

    Protecting print is not the way forward.

  2. Allen F31 July, 2017

    I’m all for it – after all, agency pricing on ebooks have helped trad-pub in the US so much. 😉

    As an indie, I can set my price for my ebooks/books to undercut whatever he sets his ebooks/books to – and Amazon and others won’t be able to save him from pricing himself out of the market.

  3. Robin31 July, 2017

    “they might as well order the tide to roll back”

    An early medieval king of England tried that. His name was Cnut but he was dyslexic.

    1. Nate Hoffelder31 July, 2017


      That story has been distorted in repetition. The original story was that he was wise enough to know he could not.

  4. Holger Ehling1 August, 2017

    Actually, Mr. Pullman is right.
    The end of the Net Book Agreement in 1995 has led to the demise of more than two thirds of the book shops in the UK. Germany, where fixed book pricing has been the law for more than a century, has a thriving and tremendously diverse book industry, with the average book prices LOWER than in countries without these regulations. This is because publishers and retailers are not gunning for maximum profits and prices, and don’t compete for market share by underbidding the competition, but they are looking for a sustainable level of pricing, which has seen book prices rising below inflation for most of the past two decades. Which is very beneficial for consumers.
    Mr Hoffelder argues that Amazon undercuts brick-and-mortar retailers through its purchasing conditions. Yes, they try that, but their margin is not much more than 2 or 3 per cent, and it is not a factor much debated amongst retailers over here.
    Tom Wood asks how many book retailers have set up “vibrant online communities”. Well, not many. But the point of a brick-and-mortar retailer is interaction with REAL people, not virtual conversations. Interacting with real people, injecting taxes, work places and cultural events into the local community is what matters in a society – nerds thriving on virtual debates and virtual friendships do not.

    1. Nate Hoffelder1 August, 2017

      There’s one key difference between UK and German book markets: thanks to its language, Germany is a standalone market, while the UK is a partner to the US and global English language book markets.

      Try to enact price controls in the UK and you will find people buying more books online from international sellers.

      You can’t really control book prices in the UK when there’s such a hug supply outside the UK.

    2. Allen F2 August, 2017

      “The end of the Net Book Agreement in 1995 has led to the demise of more than two thirds of the book shops in the UK.”

      How much of that was the internet in general? I know I found tons of things to do, see, and even read once I had a dial-up connection to the rest of the world.

      We ‘see’ Amazon, but there’s a lot more out there to attract the eye away from ‘reading a book’.

      “But the point of a brick-and-mortar retailer is interaction with REAL people, not virtual conversations. Interacting with real people, injecting taxes, work places and cultural events into the local community is what matters in a society – nerds thriving on virtual debates and virtual friendships do not.”

      Yeah, I liked getting snubbed by the jerk at the register when he saw I was buying something he didn’t care for, I can do without that kind of ‘interaction with REAL people’, thanks. As to ‘nerds thriving on virtual debates and virtual friendships’, I have friends and several beta readers that I have yet to meet face to face, considering we are thousands of miles apart we may never meet.

      “But the point of a brick-and-mortar retailer” – is to SELL goods – any other excuse runs them out of business (which seems to be what’s happening.)

  5. Richard Hollick1 August, 2017

    Well of course both sides of this story can be right.

    The Net Book Agreement certainly did support UK bookstores, and after its breakdown the number of shops decreased. (Of course they probably would have anyway. Nobody thinks wage rates and High street rents could be controlled by a Net Book Agreement.)

    But we no longer live in a world where (even if we think such supportive practices were a good thing) anything resembling the Net Book Agreement could be reinstated.

    Mr Pullman’s line perhaps ought to have been “Wasn’t it great when the Net Book Agreement meant that we had decent bookshops in almost every town, but while one may regret that we can’t ever get back to such a world, we need to rejoice in the fact that cheaper books mean more people are reading them.” There are lots of things we can’t get back to, and this doesn’t mean we are worse off overall.

  6. Eugene1 August, 2017

    Japan has a resale price maintenance system for books. But as the Japan Times reported last year, Amazon does exactly what Nate says it would do: “Amazon has to sell Japanese books at their cover prices, just as bookstores do, but Amazon Marketplace offers an outlet for thousands of independent book vendors who sell supposedly used books at bargain prices.” Amazon is not alone in this practice. “The national chain Bookoff does the same thing and the publishing industry tolerates it.”

    Perhaps more worrisome is that because RPM also covers newspapers, journalist Tetsuo Jinbo “claims the mass media feel beholden to the government, because without [RPM] it would be every newspaper and magazine for itself.”

    And from the comments: “In the UK, book sales increased (by 30% in the decade following the abolition of the NBA), so more people read more books and paid less for them, which is a good thing.”

  7. Holger Ehling1 August, 2017

    Sorry Nate, to contradict you again.
    You wrote: “UK is a partner to the US and global English language book markets. Try to enact price controls in the UK and you will find people buying more books online from international sellers.”
    While it is certainly true that the unruly sibling across the Atlantic is producing parallel editions of many books published in the UK, these books are banned from sales in the UK and the EU thanks to territorial rights clauses. So – US editions of a book published in the UK cannot be imported legally.
    Of course, UK territorial rights, which presently extend to the EU, will go out of the window following Brexit. But that is another matter.

    1. Nate Hoffelder1 August, 2017

      That applies to publishing rights, and you will usually find retailers going along because they don’t want to piss off publishers.

      But thanks to the doctrine of exhaustion of rights, it does not apply to third-party sellers.

      We have many, many sellers here in the US that would be happy to ship to the UK if the price was right. And will likely facilitate those sales for their cut (just like Amazon is happy to sell used books).

  8. JoolsM14 August, 2017

    Works in France. You should read this very interesting article.
    Something needs to. E done to stop Amazon monopolising and control book selling.


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