In America, the decline of the neighborhood bookstore is old news. In far too many cases, the competition posed by Amazon and e-books has been strong enough to drive even established bookstores out of business. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and in some European nations such as France and Germany, it isn’t.
France boasts an impressive 2,500 bookstores, and much of the country’s literary success has to do with a 1981 fixed pricing law that forbids retailers–even Amazon–to sell books in France at a discount more than 5% of the publisher’s list price. Fixed pricing also applies to e-books, allowing publishers almost total control over the price tags of their books in all formats.
Despite what many people think, publishers do not significantly mark up the price of their books. Publishing is not a huge money-making business. For the most part, book prices are a fair representation of how much it costs to produce a book, from paying the editors to the marketing budget to the production of the book.
In contrast to France’s fixed pricing model, the United States promotes only traditional wholesale and agency bookselling models. Both models allow retailers to set their own prices for books, which often means that they are significantly discounted from the publisher’s list price. Amazon often sells books so cheaply that they actually lose money… but then make it up in Kindle sales or increased sales of other products.
There’s another factor that gives France an advantage when it comes to maintaining its bookstores: a respect for literary culture. Bernard Fixot, owner of a small French publisher, said, “There are two things you don’t throw out in France — bread and books” (NYT).
French consumers are also more committed to the printed book than Americas. Only 1.8 percent of the general publishing market in France is e-books, while in the US it is 6.4 percent. More physical books sold equals more revenue for physical bookstores.
Looking to France
American lovers of literature would do well to look to France as a country to emulate in the Amazon vs. physical bookstores battle. There is clearly room for both sides to exist, as long as the prices are fair and everyone keeps the most important thing — the book — in mind.