How to Sell Books in France (Part III of the Study Trip Posts)
OK, so despite my best efforts, I don’t really have an overarching design to all of these posts about the study trip. I do have ideas about what I’m going to write about tomorrow (good/bad of eBooks and pricing) and on Friday (authors and business models), but I can’t actually imagine that reading these from one day to the next builds in any coherent, logical fashion. I’m just not that talented, or that clear on what my exact feelings are about eBooks, about the future, etc. It’s a lot easier (some would call it laziness) to just hone in on one aspect of the trip/discussions and try and explore that in ways that hopefully resonate with ideas from the other sections. (This is a long winded way of trying to defend the fact that post trips to Iceland, Frankfurt, Paris, and with Pasadena next week, and moving, and divorcing, and hosting events, and and and, my brain is a bit muddled these days.)
One of the concepts that I find extremely fascinating and fully support in theory, although tend to disregard in practice, is the “Fixed Book Price” law. This was established in France in 1981 as a way of protecting independent bookstores and encouraging publishing diversity. (As I said on our public panel, in the 80s, the French got protections to encourage literary culture, whereas we got Reaganomics. U.S. policy fail.)
(One other worth aside: when the French use the word “diversity” in relation to publishing, they’re talking about the publication of a broad range of titles, including books that have very little chance of selling, but are culturally valuable. Like poetry. Or, uh, translations from languages other than English. This isn’t about race—every single publishing person we met in France was white—or about sex or anything like that.)
It’s pretty self-explanatory, but the fixed price law ensures that any book is sold for the same price at all retail outlets. In other words, there is no discounting on books in France (rather, there’s a maximum discount of 5%). There are no insane prices wars (you hear me, Target?). And Amazon.fr sells 15 euro books for 14,25. Also, the fixed price law established a lower VAT on sales of books (5.5% in comparison to 19ish%).
Initially, people were very against this, claiming that it would prevent the not-so-affluent from being able to access literature (adding a dimension to Robert’s question about the digital divide and who can afford to read). And more importantly—to Americans anyway—this law eliminates one of the major competitive advantages for larger retailers. “If you can’t discount books, how can you get customers and market share? This is some communist-style shit . . .”
Although it was never really stated this way, the fixed book price law has prevented France’s noble book culture from devolving into the quasi-cesspool that we have here in the States, where celebrity “books” are stacked miles high and offered for 45% off, and people read a lot of crap (but not always) because it’s cheap and everywhere. Our book landscape is like a 180 to France’s: Whereas the French state that “books are not a commodity like any other,” a huge proportion of businesses and business people in America tend to see them as exactly that—a commodity plain and simple. (A commodity with crappy profit margins, but still.)
As stated above, the goal of the fixed price law was diversity. Diversity achieved by protecting the independent booksellers and independent publishers. Now although there are like 800 “points of sale” for books in Paris (the bookstore count was a number is complete dispute over the course of our trip . . . seemed that every day, someone would cut this in half, from “800 stores! We rock!” to “well, there are really only 400 bookstores“ to “there are maybe 200 real bookstores,” to “we really only deal with the 100 great indies.”), we didn’t actually meet with any indie booksellers during out trip. So, I don’t have a good sense of what the indies actually think about this law, but based on material evidence—like the fact that there are actually independent bookstores that are surviving—I think they’d approve. And that they like competing with FNAC (the major French bookstore chain) on categories such as presentation, selection, ambiance, rather than something so crass as price.
And this is just the start of government regulation and support of the book industry. There are also grants for bookstores and publishers, loans to expand stock, and a new designation for the absolute best stores in France. (More information about all of this can be found in Lauren Elkin’s fantastic article in the recent issue of Five Dials. She’s got all the details in a much more comprehensive way than I can present them here.)
Most of the ramifications of this law are obvious: there are more books available from more publishers at more bookstores. And publishers get to retain a lot of power, since they can set prices based on their internal costs, and the market pressures are a bit diluted since there’s very little price experimentation and adjustment.
Now, although I can’t prove this (yet), my belief is that the greatest impact of this law is that, relatively speaking, in France a wider variety of titles sell at a higher percentage of overall booksales than what we have in America. Let me try and explain this a bit more clearly: if you plot sales on the y-axis, and number of titles selling that many copies on the x-axis, in America you get an insanely steep drop-off, with a few books selling tons and tons of copies (Harry Potter, Twilight, etc.) and millions of books selling very, very few copies. In France, I suspect the general shape of the curve is the same, but not quite as precipitous. That the relationship between the “long tail” (so to speak) and the mega best-sellers isn’t nearly as huge a proportion as it is in the States.
I could be wrong, and I’m going to try my best to figure this out, but if I’m right, this—to me at least—would be the greatest argument for the fixed book price and would be numerical proof that this law increases reading and publishing diversity.
But—and this is the topic for tomorrow—the fixed book price law doesn’t apply to eBooks. So as eBooks grow in readership, something has to happen. Every publisher/retailer in the country wants the law to be extended to eBooks, and yet, there are huge issues in the marketplace with pricing eBooks at (or above) the price of a printed volume. Seriously, tomorrow is all price points and value added. This paragraph is just an intellectual tease . . .
So, anyway, to hit briefly on the actual topic of this post . . . One of the indie presses we met with was Zulma, a relatively young press that recently rebranded itself and changed its business model, cutting back on the total number of books it’s publishing (dropping from 30 to 12-15) and focusing more on international literature. They also redesigned their books, branching off from the traditional French style of plain white covers with just the author’s name and title of the book on the front cover and creating something extremely attractive. (The guy who does the Penguin Great Ideas series designed these.)
Our conversation with Laure Leroy was extremely interesting, in part because of her adverse reaction to eBooks and certain digital ideas. (I can’t get into it here, but there was an amazing website created for one of her books that is no longer available online because it was giving away the entire text of the 700-page book for free. I have my issues with this . . . tomorrow, tomorrow.) But what stood out to me was her advice on how to sell books in France. Rather than focus on reviews—which she claimed were totally corrupt, using the charming phrase “send the lift back up” to describe the back-scratching, incestuous nature of the review media—she claimed that getting the indie booksellers behind a title was by far the most important thing a publisher could do. So she works closely with the 800/400/200/100 great bookstores of France, sending them review copies, calling them, getting them to handsell certain titles, etc., etc.
This is not unlike what we do with Open Letter and did at Dalkey Archive Press. But imagine this sort of marketing strategy in a world where discounts don’t exist and people still talk to booksellers to get recommendations instead of trending like lemmings to the massive stacks at 50% OFF! (Sure, people still all read the same book in France—I’m not that naive. But there does seem to be a respect for literature that we don’t quite have here. At least not in certain, massively Midwestern parts of the country.) There’s a certain amount of power and respect for bookstores in France—something that’s being eroded here.
All told, I’d love for the fixed book price to exist in America. But introducing that into a congress incapable of getting us health insurance is as likely as building a bookstore on the moon. But one can hope . . .
Coda: Despite all my love for the consequences of the fixed book law, on the last day in France, we were in a bar/bookstore drinking wine, celebrating the closing of my house back here in Rochester, summing up and checking out the book selection. In addition to the absolutely spectacular L’abécédaire des super-héros there was a copy of the Penguin Classic edition of Georges Perec’s Species of Space that caught my eye. But at 11 euros (roughly one thousand American dollars), there was no way I was going to buy this. I mean, it’s only $10 on Amazon.com . . . If only they could knock off a few bucks, or at least barter on the price . . . If I could’ve Bittorrented that book right then and there, I totally would’ve.