24 7 / 2014
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?
France … 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.
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.
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."
Amidst America’s Amazon-drama, NYT’s Pamela Druckerman reflects on what the book world can learn from the French.
Still, one has to wonder whether the solution to one monopoly (the commercial) can ever be another (the governmental), and whether that’s truly in the public interest – the “public,” of course, being first and foremost readers themselves. There’s something hypocritical about the proposition that the books are an “essential good” on par with electricity – what government would ever price-fix electricity and deny its citizen the most affordable electricity possible?
This is genius