July 11, 2014

Are the French right? Should we fix book prices in America?


FrenchIn a time when Amazon discounting has become so steep, hardly anyone is buying a book for the cover price, should the U.S. consider combating Amazon with fixed book prices?

These prices give independent booksellers a chance in a competitive marketplace, and would give publishers the opportunity to count on net numbers that are closer to, you know, the price it costs to publish a book, rather than a number an online retailer has made up.

Yesterday Pamela Druckerman, author of Bringing Up Bébé, shared anecdotal evidence from her time in Paris: she’s living near seven thriving bookstores, and wonders aloud in an op-ed for the New York Times whether the French know something about culture that Americans don’t. She’s talking about the recently-instituted Lang Law: the French don’t discount their books.

In her op-ed, Druckerman estimates that Amazon holds a 10-12% share of new book sales in France; it also holds 70% of online book sales, but that’s not as large as it sounds. (Only 18% of books are sold online.) The French government is on a mission to protect it literary culture.

As Zeljka Marosevic wrote a few weeks ago, the Lang law, or “Anti-Amazon law,” prohibits retailers from offering free shipping if they’re discounting a book even 5%. “It will be either cheese or dessert, not both at once,” a French commentator explained in the New York Times, in the most French way imaginable.

French Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti even offered a €9m plan to support independent bookshops. The French take their books seriously. Don’t we?

Germany has had a law in place to prevent discounting since 2002, and it’s given booksellers power to fight Amazon, enlisting the anti-trust authority to investigate the mega-retailer for violations. Mexico tried fixed pricing for eighteen months, to some success, as my colleague Sal Robinson reported last year.

Japan, Italy, Spain, and South Korea have all chosen some version of fixed pricing. Switzerland has investigated the idea. So why hasn’t the U.S.?


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.