In a bid to bolster the province's book industry, Quebec's Minister of Culture has proposed to table a bill for a fixed book price (FBP) law. While many countries have adopted similar measures (notably France, which introduced a fixed book price in 1981) some view the notion of fixing book prices, rather than allowing them to be dictated by consumer demand, as anti-competitive and likely to do more harm than good.
We talked to Christine De Mazières and Catherine Blache at the French Publishers Association (Syndicat National de l'Edition/SNE) about the rationale for, and the results of fixed book price laws, assessing their effectiveness in delivering a sustainable book industry.
IPA: What does a FBP map of the world look like? Where are they in force, where have they been abolished and where are they being discussed?
SNE: At least sixteen countries have a Fixed Book Price – France, Germany, Austria, The Netherlands, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Hungary, Norway, Israel, Slovenia, Argentina, South Korea, Japan and Mexico (there may be other countries that we don’t know about).
The FBP was abolished in the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Finland and Denmark. It’s currently being discussed in Brazil, Poland and Quebec. Such debates usually result from the observation of the dispearance of a significant proportion of bookshops.
IPA: France has had a fixed book price law since 1981. What has its effect been on the book business? Do publishers, authors or readers behave differently with a FBP in place?
SNE: The FBP has played a big role in delivering industry stability and cultural diversity. We have 4,500 publishers in France, with 600,000 titles available and 75,000 new titles published each year. There’s a broad consensus that FBP has created a level playing field for retailers and has given readers and booksellers access to a wider range of books.
Regarding what’s “different”, we don’t have the phenomenon of best-sellerisation. In France, the top 10 bestsellers represent 2.5% of the market, whereas in the UK they represent 15.7% of the market.
IPA: What evidence is there that a FBP supports independent bookstores?
SNE: Look at the figures. France has 2,500 independent booksellers, that’s one for every 26,000 people. They represent 45% of total sales. It’s a very different picture in countries like the UK, where one third of independent bookstores have closed since 2005 and where independent bookstores only represent 4% of the market.
IPA: Proponents of FBP argue that it is the only tool that allows culturally significant (but commercially unattractive) booksto be published. Shouldn’t public demand dictate which books get published, rather than the public paying artificially high prices to subsidise specialist/elitist publications?
Put your preconceptions away, we’re not anti-market in France! Of course demand should influence price, and the customer should have access to, and visibility of, a multitude of offers. However the book is a prototype market and for trade books, one can never know whether there will be a consumer demand for original books.
The point is, the cross-subsidisation which the FBP was designed to deliver, works in practice, as evidenced by the number of titles and the number of selling points available. By creating a level playing field for all booksellers, the FBP allows readers to access a greater diversity of books compared to a situation in which they could only discover books through one retailer.
IPA: Do you believe that FBP should apply to e-books, and do you accept that dynamic, demand-driven pricing has a role to play in growing that sector?
SNE: Yes, FBP should apply to e-books, and it does in France, Germany, Israel, South Korea and Spain. This doesn’t mean that publishers can’t be imaginative and use dynamic pricing, simply that the mechanism is different.
In terms of the e-book sector in general, in countries without FBP you see an e-commerce actor monopolising the market (Amazon has 85% of UK e-book sales), who can sell at a loss to gain market share. With such a dominant stakeholder, you run the risk of censoring what the public can have access to.
IPA: Nowadays, price is a primary motivating factor for consumers. By preventing discounting and ensuring that prices are fixed, aren’t we hindering book access to lower- and middle-income readers?
SNE: Let’s look at the issue of pricing and affordability. There’s interesting price elasticity with books: if the price goes up by 1%, demand goes up by 1.5%. In France, the book price index has increased by half as much as the general consumer price index. In the UK, it’s the opposite – book price rises out-strip the cost of living and only best-sellers are cheap. Here, the book remains a non-expensive product (the average cost is 11.10 euros). And thanks to the multiplicity of channels, the public have access to a greater variety of books. It’s interesting to think about why major publishing groups in free price countries adopted the agency model for e-books.