Thursday, June 21, 2012

The French bookselling model: Nice idea, but bad for readers

"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."
Notice who wins in this scenario: Publishers and booksellers. Readers? Not so much. It's readers who benefit from price competition, after all.

Consider this: The list price of "Do Not Ask What Good We Do," Robert Draper's new book about the House of Representatives, is $28. If America had a French-style book law, nobody in the country could sell the new book for much less than that. Here, though, you can buy it from Amazon for $18.10--$13.50, if you buy new from one of the third-party sellers who operate on Amazon's site. I bought the book for $15, its Kindle price; in France, I'd perhaps have still paid $28, a printing press price for a cloud-based book.

What France's model does is price lower-class readers out of the market for new books; they have to wait until such books show up used. And that's not culturally crippling, I guess. But if you're somebody like me, with finite resources but a great desire to read current books, the French model would be a real hardship.

The alternative argument, I suppose, is that readers benefit when booksellers and publishers remain financially healthy to keep producing and selling books, and that's true enough. But that benefit is indirect--and keeps prices high enough that it's easy to speculate that France, for all its love of books, is actually selling fewer than it could or should because it keeps prices propped artificially high.

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