Friday, June 22, 2012
The French Still Flock to Bookstores
PARIS — The French, as usual, insist on being different. As independent bookstores crash and burn in the United States and Britain, the book market in France is doing just fine. France boasts 2,500 bookstores, and for every neighborhood bookstore that closes, another seems to open. From 2003 to 2011 book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent.
E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market here, compared with 6.4 percent in the United States. The French have a centuries-old reverence for the printed page.
“There are two things you don’t throw out in France — bread and books,” said Bernard Fixot, owner and publisher of XO, a small publishing house dedicated to churning out best sellers. “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.”
A more compelling reason is the intervention of the state. In the Anglophone book world the free market reigns; here it is trumped by price fixing.
Since 1981 the “Lang law,” named after its promoter, Jack Lang, the culture minister at the time, has fixed prices for French-language books. Booksellers — even Amazon — may not discount books more than 5 percent below the publisher’s list price, although Amazon fought for and won the right to provide free delivery.
Last year as French publishers watched in horror as e-books ate away at the printed book market in the United States, they successfully lobbied the government to fix prices for e-books too. Now publishers themselves decide the price of e-books; any other discounting is forbidden.
There are also government-financed institutions that offer grants and interest-free loans to would-be bookstore owners.
The contrast between the fate of English- and French-language bookstores is playing out in Paris these days.
Next month, after 30 years in business, the leading English-language Paris bookstore will close. For a generation authors like David Sedaris, Susan Sontag, Raymond Carver and Don DeLillo gave talks and readings at the store, the Village Voice, on one of the chicest streets of St.-Germain-des-Prés.
“When Stephen Spender gave a talk, Mary McCarthy was in the audience,” Hazel Rowley wrote in a 2008 essay on the bookstore. “One evening Edmund White introduced Jonathan Raban, with Bruce Chatwin among the audience.” But the Village Voice could not survive the deep discounting of Amazon and sellers of e-books