7 October 09 | Chad W. Post

Published by Hamish Hamilton in pdf format and distributed free of charge through their website, Five Dials is a pretty amazing publication that doesn’t seem to get nearly as much attention as it deserves. I mean, in just this 45-page issue there are pieces by Ali Smith, Geoff Dyer, Susan Sontag (on Camus), John Updike, Lauren Elkin, and Steve Toltz. And issue 5 (31 pages) has pieces by W.G. Sebald, Stephen Dunn, J.M.G. Le Clezio, Paul Wilson, and Alain de Botton. This is substantial.

(Case in point re: the lack of widespread attention: the Five Dials Facebook Page has a total of 59 (now 60) fans. This seems impossibly small for a Facebook page that’s been operating since May.)

Anyway, the article that really caught my eye in this latest issue is Lauren Elkin’s look at why there are 792 bookshops in Paris. Actually, this is more about the Parisian literary scene and how government regulations, fantastic sounding events, and a general attitude about books (le livre n’est pas un produit comme des autres or “a book is not a commodity like any other”) “keeps it literary” at a time when one out of every four French people claim to have not read a book in the last year.

If only 75% of Americans read a book last year . . . There’s an interesting statistic that Lauren pulls out: France spends 1.5% of its gross interior product on cultural activities, whereas in the U.S. that figure is 0.3%.

And in terms of that vast number of bookstores thing—here’s a bit of perspective:

A search in the Paris yellow pages for “bookstores” yielded 792 results: 101 in the 6th, 100 in the 5th—although these are the traditionally literary neighbourhoods; still there are 63 in the 11th, 28 in the 19th, 36 in the 16th. When you consider that there are only 10 independent bookstores in all of New York city, these figures are astounding.

There are over 3,000 independent bookstores in France, employing approximately 13,000 people. The largest French retailer of books—the Fnac—was founded by communists.

Nevertheless, French indie bookstores face a lot of common challenges—“high rents, low return on investment, high social fees to be paid for their employees”—all of which led to some seriously un-American innovative government interventions:

The Minister of Culture, Christine Albanel, introduced a “plan livre“—book plan—at the end of 2007 which aims to help out independent bookstores who fit a certain profile. The label “LIR”—librairie independente de reference—was launched in 2008. In order to qualify, there are a list of requirements, notably: the bookstore must not have access to a centralized warehouse from which their stock is replenished, the stock must contain a majority of books in print for more than one year, and the bookstore’s owner must have total autonomy over the bookstore’s holdings. Once the label has been bestowed, the bookstore becomes eligible for a variety of subsidies from the Centre National du Livre (CNL)—interest-free loans for development projects, funds with which to acquire stock (up to 500,000 euros per year of the CNL’s budget have been earmarked for this purpose), reductions on social fees for employees, tax relief, and funding to sponsor readings, festivals, and other activities. (The funding of the CNL increased in 2008 from 1.3 to 2.5 million euros.)

And this is all in addition to the “fixed book price” policy:

A book is not a product like any other, the French government affirmed when they adopted the Loi Lang, regarding the fixed price of books, in 1981. The law stipulates that the publisher has to print the price of the book on the back cover, and retailers are not allowed to offer more than a 5% discount on that price. It is the reason behind the quality of books published and the abundance of independent bookstores in France; it prevents large retailers like the Fnac or Amazon from putting small bookstores out of business; in theory it is also meant to prevent consumers from going to small bookstores to check out a book and then buying it in discount stores or, now, online.

There’s a lot more to her article than this “business of bookstores” stuff (which, yes, is my hobby horse, I admit), including a cool bit about the various book events in Paris, like Jacques Jouet’s “Attempt to tire out an author,” for which he spent four days writing a novel in the Place Stalingrad, or the Exercises de Style bus, “on which actors read from Queneau’s famous collection of ninety-nine versions of the same story: man gets on a bus.”

As someone who will be going to Paris for the first time later this month (actually as part of a study group to look at the future of publishing in France and America, so, um, that bookstore business obsession is pretty fitting), this issue of Five Dials has me all giddy. Definitely worth checking out . . . and becoming a fan of on Facebook.

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