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".
You hear it anecdotally. Recently I asked a friend, an award-winning "literary" novelist whose books have received critical acclaim but not notched up the life-changing sales figures, what she was working on. "It's going to be a bonkbuster," she said. "I'm tired of having no money. I thought - what am I achieving with all this 'art'?"
James Meek's new novel, We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, opens with a tranche of truly appalling prose, which turns out to be his war reporter protagonist's attempt to write a bestselling thriller. The protagonist's old friend, a celebrated Celtic poet, has accepted a huge advance to write a teen fantasy series and now spends his days, to his own self-disgust, trying to decide the most plausible name for an elf. Most writers who aspire to literary fiction will recognise and sympathise with his predicament. (And lest I sound too high-minded, I should add that I write this as someone who last year abandoned the "serious" novel I was working on when I was offered considerably more to write a memoir about depression.)
Is any of this the fault of the demise of the Net Book Agreement? Certain genres of fiction have always been more popular than others and not many writers get to combine critical kudos with huge sales figures; those who crave both have often turned to genre fiction under a pseudonym, a trend revived recently by John Banville and Jonathan Freedland. But previously there was always room for both on a publisher's list, even if authors and publishers saw one as essentially subsidising the other. Now it's becoming harder than ever to get books published unless the publisher believes they will sell res pectably. So, rather than writing the books they want to write, more and more authors feel obliged to write the books they think the market demands. Hence the rash of novels called things like The Messiah Code, The Shakespeare Secret, The Alexander Cipher.
"You can make a fortune in this business, but you can't make a living," as wise impresarios frequently say of the theatre business. Now, more than ever, this applies to the business of writing fiction. Would some updated version of the NBA redress this imbalance? Is it even plausible today, or should it be left buried under Mars-Jones's regretful epitaph?
I can't answer these questions at the moment, because I have to get back to my work in pro gress: The Aristotle Conundrum.