June 22, 2012

The French: stubborn as ever


La Hune, a Parisian bookstore, receives help from the government to survive.

The New York Times reported this week that while digital books are reshaping the publishing industry and accounting for an ever-greater percentage of book sales in the US and UK, physical books and independent bookstores remain popular in France. There, e-books only account for 1.8% of the publishing market, compared to 6.4% in the US—but what accounts for the difference? Is the country entirely inhabited by people like my French grandmother, who’s managed to become adept at using a Samsung tablet, but instinctively turns up her nose at the sight of e-readers? The publisher of XO (a small, independent house), Bernard Fixot says that the French have always celebrated and appreciated writers: “In Germany the most important creative social status is given to the musician. In Italy it’s the painter. Who’s the most important creator in France? It’s the writer.”

Economic and legal factors certainly play a role as well. The French government offers subsidies to independent bookstores and has implemented price-fixing laws. The “Lang law,” established in 1981, forbids booksellers—including Amazon—from selling French-language books at a discount of more than 5%. And last year, watching as digital books became ever more popular elsewhere, they passed a law fixing e-book prices as well: publishers determine the price, and no further discounting is permitted. Unfortunately for ex-pats in Paris, this doesn’t protect English books. After 30 years, the Village Voice, an English-language bookstore, will be shutting its doors, while French stores like L’Usage du Monde in the tony 17th arrondissement, which opened just last year, are able to thrive. In fact, between 2003 and 2011, book sales in France increased by 6.5%. While the government’s support of the publishing industry is heartening, some say France is only delaying the inevitable triumph of digital publishing, particularly in light of the recent agreement struck between Google, the French Publishers’ Association, and the Société des Gens de Lettres; even the French national library’s president, Bruno Racine, says, “Many scenarios are envisioned. The least probable is certainly that of a victorious resistance of the paper book.”


Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.