Some Thoughts on Quebec's Attempt to Legislate Fixed Book Prices
As you may have read in yesterday’s PW Daily, this past Monday, a Quebec legislative committee opening a couple weeks of hearings on the idea of implementing fixed book prices in the province to benefit and preserve independent bookstores.
From the “Montreal Gazette:”:
Under the scheme, booksellers, whether big-box retailers or hole-in-the-wall independent bookstores, would all have to sell new books for a predetermined price during the first nine months after their release. Retailers that want to put certain titles on sale would be allowed to knock no more than 10 per cent off the price.
Writers, publishers and arts personalities including Michel Tremblay, Dany Laferrière, Guy A. Lepage and Denys Arcand are pushing for the measure as the only way to save independent bookstores, which are fighting for survival in an era of online shopping, e-books, big-box retailers like Costco and giant chains like Chapters/Indigo.
The provincial writers’ union says the move is needed to protect Quebec’s book industry, which employs 12,000 people and accounted for nearly $800 million in revenue last year.
In other words, the new Jonathan Lethem book, Dissident Gardens, which lists for $32.00 CDN, would be sold for C$28.80 (a 10% discount off that list price) at your local supermarket (as if a supermarket carries anything but 50 Shades and The Kite Runner . . . then again, I assume Montreal Costcos are much hipper than those found in River Falls, WI), at your local independent bookstore, at Chapter’s/Indigo, and at Amazon.ca. Currently, it’s listed for C$20.06 on Amazon.ca.
This pricing would last for the first 9 months following publication, after which time, the discounts could increase.1
Fixed Prices—which are extremely popular in Europe, especially in France, where most everyone involved in the book and culture industry points to these laws as the driving force behind the diversity and stability of French book culture as a whole—are commonly promoted by publishers, authors, and indie booksellers as a way of “leveling the playing field,” and is generally attacked by neo-con economists and conservatives as an “impediment to the free market.”
These arguments are all pretty standard and are rehashed in about every article, and clearly are driven by each party’s desire to survive: indie stores want protection so that you buy the new Game of Thrones book from them for more than they paid for it (remember the Harry Potter days when those books were loss leaders for most stores?), and AmaCostMart wants to sell a zillion copies of 14 select best-sellers for next to nothing while customers also buy cheese or a Segueway.
Before getting into the real knotty part of this, I’ll declare my bias here: I’m always all for fixed book prices. Part of this comes from personal interest, since fixed book prices also benefit small presses. (With these laws in place, bookstores, which stock 6,000 unique titles to TargetClub’s 300 max, are more likely to carry diverse titles from a range of presses. In the über-capitalist model, they tend to try and pimp the same 14 books that everyone is selling everywhere, which doesn’t help Open Letter.) But in addition to that, I think a fixed book price law is the cleanest way to protect the “cultural” part of book culture. At the moment, readers (the handful that exist) are faced with the choice of buying a book for the lowest price possible, or supporting a local business that, due to economic constraints, isn’t as literarily diverse as it could be, or as financially sound as one would hope. (In Rochester, this is a false dichotomy: I can buy Dissident Gardens for $16.77 or drive to Barnes & Noble in the dreaded suburbs and buy it for $27.95. Supporting that particular B&N, which means supporting the B&N Corporation, not that particular store, has absolutely no cultural value to me. So I’ll take the $11 discount. Or, you know, get a free signed copy from BEA . . . .)
Once you eliminate price as a driving factor in decision making, campaigns illustrating the benefits of supporting local cultural centers/bookstores could gain much more traction.
Readers are the most complicated piece of this puzzle though. On the one hand, these laws are designed to protect them by ensuring that they have access to a wide range of books, along with the cultural benefits that a physical bookstore can provide (readings, place for reading groups, writing workshops, general interaction among human beings) that a Wegmans can’t (yes, Rochestarians, I just went there). On the other hand, they’ll have to pay more for books, and if there’s one thing most people don’t like it’s books.
Again from the Montreal Gazette:
Despite more than three decades of government intervention, Quebec has the lowest reading rates of any Canadian province. Only 46 per cent of Quebecers read regularly, compared with 54 per cent for all Canadians, according to a 2005 survey by the Canadian Heritage department. Broken down by language, 57 per cent of anglophones in Canada read regularly while only 43 per cent of francophones do so.
In 2005, the average Quebecer spent $37.10 a year on books (excluding school books), compared with a high of $50.16 in Ontario and a low of $25.72 in Newfoundland/Labrador.
critics say the proposal is not only futile but would actually kill book sales, especially of made-in-Quebec books.
Fixing prices and limiting discounts to 10 per cent would result in a 14.2-per-cent drop in book sales, while sales of Quebec titles would plummet by 17.6 per cent, the Institut économique de Montréal warns in a recent study.
Another random side-effect could be the increase in sales of ebooks. Which Kobo would love, but which likely would have next to no impact on independent bookstores. So the whole idea could help preserve Quebec’s book culture (which is what I think could happen), or turn everyone into ereading fanatics in love with John Locke novels (or something like that).
Two final thoughts: I’ve read a number of post-apocalyptic books recently (including the first two parts of Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy on audiobook and Brandão’s And Still the Earth) and one of the constants in this futuristic worlds is the total disregard for reading specifically, and culture generally. It’s all rational science, free market money hoarding economics, and a total disinterest in the human condition as related through words and images. None of this seems far-fetched to me, given the fact that less that half of the people in North America (probably less than a third, to be honest) read books on a regular basis. (Probably 90% of these readers read 50 Shades, The Hunger Games, etc., which is totally fine, but in terms of statistics, I think that less than 10% of North Americans read books outside the best-seller lists on a semi-regular basis.) And I think something is lost because of this. Be it an understanding of others, a source of information and ideas that stimulates you to think, a way of keeping the part of your mind alive that’s capable of imagining things, etc.
I think it would be interesting if all the anti-Amazon people like Melville House, the Big Four/Five/One, etc., would stop trying to take down a corporation for being a corporation (one that hits a lot closer to home than the far-more-evil Monsanto or GE or Citibank), and instead focus on some sort of fixed price legislation in the U.S. Sure, it’ll never pass because as a people we pride ourselves on selling out the future for short term economic gain, but is it really any more impossible than believing a blog post will cause everyone to stop buying things via Amazon Prime? I think that would be a more interesting debate, and one that could spill out into how other forms of media are consumed, such as music and online streaming applications, movies, newspapers and pay portals, etc.
1 I’m not sure if the proposed legislation would include a post-nine-month cap or not.