Any bibliophile visiting Paris will be struck by the large number of bookshops in the city ranging from vibrant generalists to foreign language specialists. Compared to the UK, France has roughly triple the number of bookshops, despite being a mere 23 miles away and one would think, suffering from the same difficulties that cause our independents to struggle here such as high commercial rents and Amazon. So what is happening across the channel to facilitate such a seemingly a thriving indie book trade?
In 1995, the year I signed the lease on premises from which to start my own indie, The Golden Treasury children’s bookshop, the net book agreement in the UK collapsed. Under pressure from a few big publishing houses and supermarkets who were keen to be able to discount books, the agreement which had ensured retail price maintenance in the book trade, evaporated overnight. Critics of the agreement felt it was an outdated , anti competitive device but it certainly worked in favour of independent bookshops, a fact that did not go unnoticed by French legislators. In the early 80’s they recognised that their beloved indies were struggling and lost no time in passing the Lang Act – essentially a French NBA. When the threat from online retailers began to loom the Lang Law was extended to online book sales and in 2014, what is referred to as the ‘anti Amazon’ law was passed to prevent online retailers offering free delivery. This week Sarah Chayes book Thieves of State will set you back £17.81 on Amazon fr., £14.88 on Amazon UK and a mere £12.60 on Amazon.com Unlike the US and UK, French booksellers have more than one professional body safeguarding their interests. The most important being the Centre National du Livre (CNL) who have a multi million euro budget to distribute to bookshops for development and also support a scheme whereby bookshops can be awarded special status as bookshops of excellence, enabling them to qualify for tax breaks and interest free loans to develop their businesses.
Not that French booksellers are complacent about their future. Despite helpful legislation and powerful trade bodies they know there are threats looming from ebooks and the low wage structure that abounds in independent retailing which could threaten their businesses. The Plan Livre which aims to completely overhaul the industry and address some of these issues has been put together by a group of radical French booksellers in an effort to stem the tide.
Latest HMRC records show that Amazon paid a mere £11.9 million in UK tax on £5.3 billion UK sales in their last tax year. I know many independents run advertising campaigns to actively discourage customers from buying on Amazon however the French have gone further. They have actively sort to skew the playing field in favour of their indies, something that indies on this side of the channel can but only dream. It seems to me that the French sincerely value their bookshops in a way that perhaps we don’t in this country where many book buyers know the price of everything but the value of nothing and merely use their local bookshops as showrooms.
I am sure independent bookshop owners will be assessing how the recent Budget will impact on their businesses. How will the introduction of a new Living Wage and reductions in employer’s NI and Corporation Tax affect their profit and loss? Trying to control an aggressive competitor like Amazon through legislation might be a bridge too far on this side of the Channel, and whilst some businesses may feel the benefit of George Osborne’s Budget it would be great if government were able to show some targeted help for our indies and acknowledge that they are an important part of our culture. Or better still a governmental /publishing industry initiative ? Philip Gwyn Jones explored the subject of where all the money is going in the book trade at this year’s LIBF. The large publishing houses are making record profits whilst the rest of the trade struggles. Based on an article ‘ Indie bookshops alive and well in Paris’ by Sousan Hammad published on Al Jazeera May 2014