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. This occurred to me recently when I was strolling through my museum-like neighborhood in central Paris, and realized there were — I kid you not — 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 bookstore-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 41 percent share of new book sales in America and its 65 percent 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 or 12 percent share of new book sales in France. Amazon reportedly handles 70 percent of the country’s online book sales, but just 18 percent 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 percent 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 book-selling countries — Germany, Japan, France, Italy, Spain and South Korea — have versions of fixed book prices.
Even with the state’s help, French bookstores are struggling. Xavier Moni, co-owner of Comme Un Roman in Paris, says he can afford to give 5 percent off only every 10th purchase. More important than free shipping, he and others say, is that despite having extensive operations in France and elsewhere in Europe, Amazon pays taxes in Luxembourg, where corporate taxes are effectively low and in some cases largely avoidable. The European Union has begun an inquiry into Amazon’s taxes.
Still, there does seem to be a link between fixed book prices and flourishing — or at least still-breathing — independent bookstores. In Britain, which abandoned its own fixed-price system in the 1990s, there are fewer than 1,000 independent bookstores left. A third closed in the past nine years, as supermarkets and Amazon discounted some books by more than 50 percent. “You’d have to be almost masochistic to go into a bookseller in the U.K. to buy a best seller,” Dougal Thomson of the International Publishers Association says.
What underlies France’s book laws isn’t just an economic position — it’s also a worldview. Quite simply, the French treat books as special. Some 70 percent 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 TV. The French government classifies books as an “essential good,” along with electricity, bread and water. (A French friend of mine runs a charity, Libraries Without Borders, which brings books to survivors of natural disasters.) “We don’t force French people to go to bookstores,” explains Vincent Montagne, head of the French Publishers Association. “They go to bookstores because they read.”
None of this is taken for granted. People here 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. Moni. “There are also ideas in books. That’s what’s dangerous. Because the day that you have a large seller that sells 80 percent 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 fetishizing bookstores. They’re giving voice to something we know in America, too. “When your computer dies, you throw it away,” says Mr. Montagne of the publishers’ association. “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 only see 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. While I love walking past those beautifully lit bookstores in my neighborhood, what I mostly buy there are blank notebooks and last-minute presents for children’s birthdays. Online retailers are a godsend for stranded expatriates. Like people everywhere who are fretting about Amazon’s global domination, I want to have my gâteau 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. French people like having books delivered to their doorsteps, too, and they’re starting to read more e-books (which are currently just 3 percent 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 équilibre — balance). Unlike us, they might actually get it.
Pamela Druckerman is an American journalist and the author of Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting.