(written by Linda Bennett of Gold Leaf)
People who are old enough to remember President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 nearly always say they can remember where they were when they heard the news; similarly, members of a different generation remember precisely what they were doing on the day in August 1997 when Princess Diana’s death was announced.
For those of us working in the publishing and bookselling industries (and, again, of a certain age!), a similar indelible moment occurred when the demise of the Net Book Agreement [NBA] was first made public in 1996. At the time, I was attending the Scottish Library Association’s Conference in Glasgow – so the delegates there were among the first to hear. It was on the second day of the conference that the axe fell. A speaker at the conference who had passionately defended the NBA on the previous day – I won’t name him, but he was the very prominent MD of one of the UK’s largest publishing houses – was one of the chief architects – or assassins, depending on your point of view – of its departure. “The Net Book Agreement”, he had proclaimed earnestly the day before, “is safe. It will be abandoned over my dead body.” This was well before the era of fake news; but suffice it to say that the gentleman concerned managed to survive – and I believe is with us still.
For those too young to know what it was all about, the NBA was the legally enshrined practice of price-setting their own publications by publishers. Booksellers and others selling these publications were not allowed to undercut the publisher’s chosen price, except in very particular circumstances: 10% discount could be offered to libraries and schools, and, with the publisher’s permission, old stock could be ‘remaindered’. New stock had to be sold at the correct price. At the time of its demise, the NBA had been in force for the best part of a century. It was designed to prevent booksellers from discounting each other out of existence – or other retailers from discounting booksellers out of existence. Technically it was a restrictive practice, and in 1996, when a Tory government had been in power for well over a decade, ‘restrictive’ and ‘practice’, when seen adjacent to each other, were two very dirty words.
Everyone in the two industries knew the NBA was controversial, of course: it had endured a few nasty moments down the years and, to be fair, it didn’t enjoy unanimous support. Everyone also knew, and hugely respected, the man who had been championing it, thus saving many booksellers from insolvency: Mr Tim Godfray, the already veteran CEO of the UK Booksellers Association. Tim was and is a tireless supporter of all above-board initiatives to support proper bookselling; I still have in my possession two of his iconic and well-reasoned pamphlets on maintaining the NBA (Books Are Different) and not introducing VAT to print (Say No to VAT on Books). He has prevailed on the latter issue, having campaigned against VAT on recurring occasions: VAT is still not applied to print books.
Why am I bringing all this up now? Because today, after 47 years at the Booksellers Association, most of them in the top job of CEO, Tim is retiring. Yesterday evening a farewell reception was held for him at the atmospheric, also iconic, London Library. The event was attended by 250 guests of Tim’s own choosing, from across both industries. Remarkably, he presented each with a handwritten letter telling him or her why they were special to him.
Tim has campaigned on many other issues to make life happier and more prosperous for booksellers and publishers. Latterly and most extensively, and in league with his counterparts across Europe, he has lobbied the EU and individual European governments to close the loophole that allows large online retailers to escape or greatly reduce payment of corporation tax. More joyfully, in 2013 he spearheaded the enduring and highly successful Books Are My Bag initiative, which is now in its seventh year. Academic Book Week eventually became one of the offshoots of this campaign.
In many ways, Tim will be irreplaceable: he has combined tireless hard work with a fine brain, ready wit, genuine sympathy and unfailing patience when listening to others. For those of us who have known him a long time, it has been a comfort just to know he is there. He will leave a large hole in the fabric of our universe. Yesterday evening, however, he hinted that he may come back – at least in a part-time capacity – in another guise. I’m sure we all hope so. Vale atque Ave, Tim!