MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD

THE FOLLOWING comes not out of my mailbox but out of Robert Moss'. Moss is the co-author (with Arnaud de Borchgrave) of the best-selling political thriller The Spike, and alone wrote another thriller, the current Death Beam (Crown). The letter was sent to Moss by an American business executive. "I was reading The Spike on a recent trip to Helsinki and Leningrad. You might be interested to know that when I went through immigrations/customs at the Leningrad airport I was pulled out of the group with which I was traveling and held with another man for approximately 30 to 45 minutes because each of us was carrying a copy of The Spike in our briefcases! The customs officer demanded to know why I was reading such a book and before the short (which seemed very long) period was over, we had four or five Russian officials interrogating us about the book. My response to each question was: 'It's a novel. It's about the CIA and the KGB and since I'm not finished reading it, I don't even know who wins!' They finally returned our respective books to us but noted our possession of them on our entry visas so that we would be sure to leave the country with the books in hand."

Our advice to Americans traveling to the Soviet Union: whatever you bring with you to read, make certain it's wrapped in a Mark Twain dust jacket. We hear that Twain is very big with the Soviets.

Meanwhile, Moss has had copies of Death Beam hand delivered to President Reagan, White House chief of staff Ed Meese and Secretary of State Alexander Haig. The author says that the space weapon described in his novel could make the MX missile look like the Model T Ford and that the beam weapons, if viable, would not only be more effective but cheaper. Copies of this book may have already fallen into the wrong hands, so get ready to duck.

PASSING THROUGH

AS YOU ENTER the offices of E. P. Dutton on lower Park Avenue, you cannot fail to notice a singular glass case housing an ancient set of precious relics. There where you can see but you cannot touch are enshrined Pooh Bear and Piglet, Eeyore and Tigger, Tanga and Roo, the original stuffed animals played with the original Christopher Robin (who is not in the glass case). These little fuzzy playthings were the inspiration for A. A. Milne's classic and beloved Winnie the Pooh books. Dutton is the House that Pooh Built.

Pooh may have built it but John Irving is adding on a garage and a patio complete with brick barbecue and jacuzzi hot tub. I found Jack Macrae, president of Dutton, in the happy dilemma of trying to decide whether or not to go back to press immediately with a fourth printing of The Hotel New Hampshire. The novel, just out, has 325,000 copies in print and is already No. 1 on the B. Dalton best-seller list. "You're damned if you do and damned if you don't," said Macrae, referring to the fourth printing, "but we almost certainly will." What makes him so sanguine is the fact that more than two-thirds of the copies of Hotel are in retail outlets, not wholesale. The stores, not the warehouses. "Usually its the other way around, and these are the copies you get back."

But what I had come to see Jack about was not Irving but the new "freight pass-through" plan that appears to be gradually taking over the industry. Random House has adopted it, Harper & Row has adopted it, Morrow is "on the verge" and now it's also being used by Dutton.There is actually no overall industry master-scheme; each publishing house has arrived independently at its own plan and each plan has its own variations.

The problem: it costs so much to mail or ship books these days that independent bookstores, which in general pay freight both ways, have been suffering. Lawrence Hughes, president of William Morrow, points out that, on June 30, 1971, the postal rate to mail 10 lbs. of books was 77 cents. On June 30, 1977, it had gone up by 41.5 percent to $1.09. On June 30, 1981 the cost was up to $2.43, a rise of 123 percent over the last four years alone! That's an increase of 30 percent a year, considerably higher than the current rate of inflation. This extraordinary rise in the book rate has been a bone of contention between publisher and bookseller for years, and now the publishers are taking some action. "We're doing this for the smaller independent bookseller we all care about," Macrae told me.

The solution: to build a freight charge into the price of every book -- a small amount the bookseller gets to keep on every book sold. In the case of Dutton the charge is 3 percent. When they cost out a book to determine what its cover price should be, an automatic 3 percent will be added on and printed as the cover price. The dust jacket will be coded so that the bookseller can see Before and After prices. Example: a $9.95 book will have a cover price of $10.25. The book is invoiced to the bookseller at $9.95, the author gets a royalty on the cover price of $9.95, and if -- God forbid -- the book should come back to the publisher it is credited at $9.95. But if the bookseller sells it for $10.25, he gets to pocket the 30 cents difference to defray the cost of shipping. This will encourage booksellers to retain books on their shelves; it is an incentive that ought to help keep down returns.

In the case of William Morrow, which is not yet committed to a freight pass-through plan but "is on the verge of deciding to do it," in the words of Larry Hughes, the surcharge is a flat 50 cents on books of any price, trade or juvenile, paperback or hardcover. Random House's surcharge is also 50 cents, but doesn't include juveniles, for example. Morrow, which expects to implement its plan on books published after January 1, 1982, will print a small symbol on their jackets to indicate that there is a 50-cent built-in surcharge for the bookseller.

"This plan in no way penalizes the author," stresses Dutton's Macrae. "None of this money --not a penny -- sticks to us. And we expect that it will benefit the author by giving the bookseller the incentive to keep the copies in the store and sell them harder." Macrae also pointed out that almost every other industry -- "that blouse you're wearing, for example" -- has freight charges already built into the price as part of the overhead and that the book business is finally getting into step. Larry Hughes say, "I know that every publisher's plan will be slightly different and that will drive the booksellers crazy, but that's America."