Fixed book prices (updated)

paid full priceFrance has passed anti-Amazon legislation. Publishing Perspectives reports:

On Wednesday, the French parliament passed a long-debated law that will end Amazon.com’s ability to offer a combined 5% discount and free shipping on books shipped to France, according to Livres Hebdo. 

France’s fixed book price law, dubbed “The Lang Law,” was passed in 1981 and allows for a maximum 5% discount under varied positions.

“The ‘Anti-Amazon Law,’ was created to prevent ecommerce sites like [the American giant] Amazon from stamping out the iconic network of independent French bookshops that currently struggle to compete,” wrote Livres Hebdo.

French Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti commented: “As we have just seen again, laws pertaining to the book economy always generate consensus, if not unanimity. This is a sign of our deep attachment to books in this nation, and it demonstrates the belief that France builds itself through its past and its future.”

Whatever your feelings about Amazon, let’s look at the law as one that has always worked to prevent any large retailer from offering significant discounts on books – such laws are found throughout Europe, and existed pre-Amazon.

There might be a ‘deep attachment to books in France’, but how is that demonstrated by a policy that makes books more expensive, and time-consuming to purchase? This is not, and never has been, legislation to encourage more reading. It is legislation to protect small bookshops from competition, with each other and with other retailers – that’s all it does. If legislation were passed that prevented retailers from offering discounts on bread, it would help out small bakeries, selling at high prices, but I wouldn’t expect it to lead, in aggregate, to higher bread consumption.

Does such a policy lead to more diversity in books? That has been claimed, but I don’t understand the reasoning. Small bookshops are commercial, not nonprofit, enterprises, and they will keep an inventory that generates profit. If price competition from Amazon and big discount stores is held in check by legislation, that doesn’t incentivize small bookshops to hold commercially non-viable stock – why would they?

In any arts policy, analysts need to ask ‘what is the goal of the policy?’ and, in turn ‘will this policy be the most effective means of achieving this goal?’ If the goal is to encourage reading, would noncompetition policy really be the best means of achieving it?

UPDATE: Quebec has decided to go the opposite way. Publishers Weekly reports:

Only five months after the Québec government announced it would go ahead with its innovative fixed pricing legislation on new books, the project is dead.

Following a spring election, the new Couillard liberal government axed the project last week. The announcement was made discreetly on a Friday, after the majority of Quebecers had left work to go on summer break.

Hélène David, Québec’s new Minister of Culture and Communications, said: “Rather than opting for a partial solution, such as price fixing for new titles…[we] will recommend targeted actions to obtain practical and measurable results.” The government gave no further indications as to what those actions might be. …

The Fixed Pricing Law on Books was to be evaluated after a three-year trial period, at which point it would have either been officially accepted or rejected. But the historical defeat of the Parti Québécois in the April 7 elections ended the short-lived dream.

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