The Customs of the Trade
The first serious challenge to the Net Book Agreement came from an unlikely source. In the first few years of the twentieth century, The Times was in serious financial difficulties. Although the paper which John Walter had started as an advertising sheet for a new and improbable typesetting process in 1785 had become the voice of the Victorian establishment, it had suffered badly from competition in the 1890s. There were many reasons for this; unfortunate libel suits had cost a great deal of money, The Times was unable or unwilling to invest in new printing technology, its price was high and its style was distinctly old-fashioned in a world in which Newnes, Harmsworth and Pearson were creating a new kind of journalism which was affecting even The Times’s rivals among the serious newspapers such as The Daily Telegraph.1 In an attempt to overcome these problems, John Walter, the owner of The Times, installed Moberley Bell as manager at Printing House Square. He had many ideas for the revival of the newspaper’s fortunes; these
included The Times Literary Supplement, one of his abiding successes, and The Times Book Club, which almost brought total disaster.2 The origin of the Book Club can be traced to two American booksellers, Horace Hooper and W. M.Jackson, whom Bell met in 1897.3 They had their background in the very different book trade traditions which had developed in the United States, where direct selling by mail was almost a necessity given the vast distances between cities in that country and the great difficulty of travel between them. They also brought with them a knowledge of the advertising techniques which had been developed in the USA to support mail-order operations.4 It was quite unlike the staid world of British publishing, and to Bell it spelled the salvation of The Times.