One of the maddening things about being a foreigner in France is that hardly anyone in the rest of the world knows what's really happening here. They think Paris is a Socialist museum where people are exceptionally good at eating small bits of chocolate and tying scarves.
In fact, the French have all kinds of worthwhile ideas on larger matters, which deserve a hearing. This occurred to me recently when I was strolling through my museum-like neighbourhood in central Paris, and realised there were seven bookstores within a 10-minute walk of my apartment. Granted, I live in a bookish area. But still: Do the French know something about the book business that we Americans don't?
I was in a bookshop-counting mood because of the news that Amazon has delayed or stopped delivering some books, over its dispute with the publisher Hachette. This has prompted soul-searching over Amazon’s estimated 41 per cent share of new book sales in America and its 65 per cent share of new books sold online. For a few bucks off and the pleasure of shopping from bed, have we handed over a precious natural resource – our nation’s books – to an ambitious billionaire with an engineering degree?
France, meanwhile, has just unanimously passed a so-called anti-Amazon law, which says online sellers can’t offer free shipping on discounted books. (“It will be either cheese or dessert, not both at once,” a French commentator explained.) The new measure is part of France’s effort to promote “biblio-diversity” and help independent bookstores compete. Here, there’s no big bookseller with the power to suddenly turn off the spigot. People in the industry estimate that Amazon has a 10 per cent or 12 per cent share of new book sales in France. Amazon reportedly handles 70 per cent of the country’s online book sales, but just 18 per cent of books are sold online.
The French secret is deeply un-American: fixed book prices. Its 1981 “Lang law”, named after former culture minister Jack Lang, says that no seller can offer more than 5 per cent off the cover price of new books. That means a book costs more or less the same wherever you buy it in France, even online. The Lang law was designed to make sure France continues to have lots of different books, publishers and booksellers.
Fixing book prices may sound shocking to Americans, but it’s common around the world, for the same reason. In Germany, retailers aren’t allowed to discount most books at all. Six of the world’s 10 biggest bookselling countries – Germany, Japan, France, Italy, Spain and South Korea – have versions of fixed book prices.
In Britain, which abandoned its own fixed-price system in the 1990s, there are fewer than 1,000 independent bookstores left. One-third closed in the past nine years, as supermarkets and Amazon discounted some books by more than 50 per cent. “You’d have to be almost masochistic to go into a bookseller in the UK to buy a bestseller,” Mr Dougal Thomson of the International Publishers Association says.
The French treat books as something special. Some 70 per cent of French people said they read at least one book last year; the average among French readers was 15 books. Readers say they trust books far more than any other medium, including newspapers and television. The French government classifies books as an “essential good”, along with electricity, bread and water.
“We don’t force French people to go to bookstores,” explains Mr Vincent Montagne, head of the French Publishers Association. “They go to bookstores because they read.”
People in France have thought for centuries about what makes a book industry vibrant, and are watching developments in Britain and America as cautionary tales.
“We don’t sell potatoes,” says Mr Xavier Moni, co-owner of Comme Un Roman bookshop in Paris. “There are also ideas in books. That’s what’s dangerous. Because the day that you have a large seller that sells 80 per cent of books, he’s the one who will decide what’s published, or what won’t be published. That’s what scares me.”
The French aren’t being pretentious or fetishising bookshops. They’re giving voice to something we know in America, too. “When your computer dies, you throw it away,” says Mr Montagne. “But you’ll remember a book 20 years later. You’ve deeply entered into a story that’s not your own. It’s forged who you are. You’ll see only later how much it has affected you. You don’t keep all books, but it’s not a market like others. The contents of a bookcase can define who you are.”
The main thing my bookcase says about me is that I’m not French. Online retailers are a godsend for stranded expatriates. Like people everywhere fretting about Amazon’s global domination, I want to have my gateau and eat it, too: the option to buy online, but the pleasure of browsing in a shop. And I don’t want every book purchase to feel like a political statement. The French like having books delivered to their doorsteps, too, and they’re starting to read more e-books (which are currently just 3 per cent of the book market). Indeed, despite all their old-fashioned bookstores, they are aiming for something that sounds quite American: choice (here, they call it equilibre – balance). Unlike us, they might actually get it.
NEW YORK TIMES
The writer is the author of Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers The Wisdom Of French Parenting.