CAMBRIDGE, England — Britons see themselves at the heart of the English-writing world. Books are so important here day-to-day that, along with food, they enjoy exemption from the hefty 15% Value Added Tax.
Recent statistics claim the average Briton spends 28 ($49) yearly on books; the average, much better-paid American, 33 ($58). Of British faith in the printed word, Anglo-American author Paul Theroux said, "In this complicated literate country you were expected to read your way out of difficulty."
Et cetera. But in an often green and pleasant land, a couple of publishing earthquakes are predicted. One isn't due till 1992, when that VAT exemption may be swept away in the next step toward the EEC single market.
Right around the corner, however, is defiance of the Net Book Agreement between publishers and retailers. Translation: Americanization of the book business. Something up with which the British may not put.
The Net Book Agreement is simple: The price of books is not discounted. What you see on the book jacket is what you pay.
Recently, one of the United Kingdom's biggest bookstore chains said it would shortly ignore the Net Book Agreement, discounting at first only the "fast-sellers," as the American book chains do. The Publisher's Trade Assn. has promised swift legal action if it does. Everyone is choosing sides.
Tim Waterstone, owner of another British chain, recently put his finger on the major difference between large British and American bookstores. The Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue, he wrote in The Guardian, "is a bookshop which its mother would not describe as being exactly a centre of literary stockholding."
Stockholding. From the prospective book buyer's standpoint, being able to enter something calling itself a bookstore in search of a specific book and to be likely to find it on the shelves.
Set aside used-book stores. Though London's Charing Cross Road may not be what it used to be, and maybe it never was, the cutthroat trade in collectibles is a separate matter here, as it is on La Cienega or Hollywood Boulevard. The stockholding difference Waterstone cites relates to the literary backlist.
Walk into any British high street (main drag) bookstore and be overwhelmed by books: not by displays of this week's top 10, but by sheer variety and mass. Begin with this week's new books. There are 55,000 new titles yearly in the United Kingdom (where there are about 55 million people), an average of more than 1,000 titles weekly, and it looks it on the tables near the front entrance.
Chances are you will know about several dozen of these before entering the store. All 12 of the London dailies are national newspapers, as are the eight Sunday papers, and they all carry extensive book review sections. So do your local daily or weekly, BBC radio and Channel 4 television.
This kaleidoscope of new books is dazzling. But British bookstores go on and on, aisle after aisle and level upon level (and rarely a remaindered book in sight), so that Waterstone's claim of 400,000 additional titles available in stock gains credibility.
If you want a Bruno Bettelheim title that wasn't a blockbuster when it was published a year ago, you will find it in the appropriate section at Heffers here, and all the clerks you encounter en route will know it.
The same will be true of books as various as "Lyrics on Several Occasions" by Ira Gershwin, Gent, or a collection of Kenneth Grahame's letters to his son, or the early Virago novels, or Wendy Cope's poetic parodies. The business of a bookstore is having books on the shelf so you can buy them.
No haunted bookshops that ooze to life after midnight, these, personned by moldering wraiths: instead, quietly bustling venues where thousands of titles, available beyond one's wildest dreams, cry out "Buy me." An invitation to overdose for most American book lovers. And the backlist books stay in print.
The NBA argument is partly over whether discounting the biggies will hurt the bookseller and book buyer. Yes, says the Publisher's Trade Assn.: At the end of the day, the books must balance. Reducing the supersellers' price will mean increasing the backlist's. Waterstone: "Nobody wants to see Rousseau's 'Confessions' rise from 4.95 to 7.50 in order to provide the room to discount 1 off the new Jilly Cooper."
And new, as-yet-nonblockbuster authors are unlikely to wish prices on their works higher, worse yet find themselves lopped off entirely because the ledgers need to balance. It is arguable that British publishers are more willing than their American counterparts to take a chance on new talent because of Net Book Agreement.