LONDON — BRITAIN'S hitherto sedate book trade is suddenly a battlefield, and small booksellers say they will be the first casualties of a price war.
For nearly a century, publishers in Britain have agreed to restrict price competition. Now, faced with weaker consumer demand and rising costs, a group of Britain's top publishing houses, book-store chains, and supermarkets has withdrawn from this arrangement, known as the Net Book Agreement (NBA). Scores of titles are to be discounted by as much as 50 percent.
John Murray Brown, who has run a small independent book shop in north London for nearly 20 years, says: ''I foresee a price war in which shops like mine won't be able to match the discounts offered and will be squeezed.''
But Tony Campbell, trading director of the Asda supermarket chain, which has lately been selling titles published by Hodder Headline at a 50 percent discount, says: ''We have dragged the publishing industry kicking and screaming into the 20th century. This is great news for shoppers.''
THE collapse of the NBA was heralded on Tuesday, when Harper Collins, Random House, and Penguin Books all said they were leaving it. W.H. Smith, Britain's biggest bookseller, with one-quarter of the market, immediately announced that it would cut prices too.
Its decision triggered Asda and other supermarket chains to say they would undercut any price W.H. Smith or any other bookstore chains offered their customers.
Asda already sells John le Carre's ''Our Game'' in hardback for u9 ($13.50) instead of the full price of u17 ($25.50), and Stephen King's ''Insomnia'' in paperback for u3 ($4.50) instead of u6 ($9).
The NBA was worked out among publishers 95 years ago and was Britain's last major example of restrictive trade practices sanctioned by law.
''The idea was to ensure that the widest possible range of books was available to the public and that small booksellers would not be driven from the market by big operators,'' says Tim Godfray, chief executive of the Booksellers' Association.
Mr. Godfray conceded that it had become harder and harder to sustain the NBA in ''the difficult economic conditions of the last five years.'' The recession, which began in the late 1980s, put heavy pressure on publishers and booksellers.
Reed publishers quit the agreement in 1991 and were followed in 1994 by Hodder Headline. Both found that discounting paid off. Hodder Headline's sales shot up by 78 percent and authors' royalties by 60 percent.
''This is a sad day,'' says Trevor Glover, managing director of Penguin Books.
''There will be a terrible flurry of activity, price wars, and the erosion of slender margins. The range of books available will be affected and smaller booksellers will not be in a position to compete with supermarkets.''