You could write a book (you, not me) about what it is in the French and the German national character that makes them regard book prices as something that should be regulated, while the British and the Americans see such an idea as a dastardly attack their liberties. Publishing Perspectives gets the ball rolling with interviews with a couple of European publishers. A second item looks at a wider selection of countries. I’m not convinced that their tag line “The French and German attitudes toward book prices originate in their long-standing cultural view on the importance of books as a bastion of culture” really explains anything. Most Anglo-Saxons could, if provoked, be expected to come up with a similar opinion. Yet there does seem to be greater state concern for the book trade in Europe.
In one way, the response to all this can be as simple as — well, autres pays, autres moeurs. They speak German, so why shouldn’t they like lots of braised meats, sausages and beer? And Resale Price Maintenance on their books too? The rate of literacy tells us nothing: A year ago Wikipedia‘s list of countries by literacy rate showed all four countries at a 99% literacy rate — a rate which seems way too high to me, but shows that they are all in the same sort of position. (Interestingly Wikipedia now doesn’t quote any rates for these countries, saying UNESCO numbers weren’t reported in 2015! Maybe this is a prelude to more realistic data in the future.)
I do suspect however that there is a connection between RPM and the number of bookshops. Any American who visits Europe remarks on the number of bookshops. Britain looks a bit more like America in this respect.* Do French and German book buyers each buy more books per year than their British and American counterparts, or are there just more of them per capita? One suspects the answer is yes to both questions, but some evidence would be nice. Is it just easier to keep a bookstore open there than in the English-speaking world? And if it is easier to keep a bookstore going, why is that? Nowadays in America we are approaching the state where a bookstore is viable only when it has owned for many years the building in which it is located. Business demands the highest return possible, so real estate companies will always end up pricing their retail locations out of the reach of small independent retailers. I don’t suppose all the dozens of bookshops within a stone’s throw of the Stefanskirche in Vienna are owner-occupiers; but there they are. Do European landlords cut bookstores deals? One doubts it, however much the consensus may be that book culture is an important national asset. Though the French government does keep trying to restrict Amazon’s ability to compete with the local book trade, I think the difference really resides in the existence of Resale Price Maintenance for books.
When we had RPM in Britain, up till 1995, the Net Book Agreement, as it was called, was always justified as being a measure designed to keep bookshops viable. We didn’t refer to independent bookstores back then — there was no other kind. And it is true that when the Net Book Agreement was in force there were many more bookshops in Britain than there are now. Of course there have been other forces at work too: we had just come through the Thatcher revolution which seemed to many observers a technique for killing off any business that was not a profit maximizer. But discounting, which is what this is all about, will naturally be easier for a large organization to sustain than a small one. The basic justification for discounting is that it increases volume, and by doing so brings in more money — less on each individual sale, but more in aggregate because of the vastly larger number of copies sold. The book shop I remember from my childhood in Galashiels could have discounted all its books without ever being able to increase volume to the level needed: there just weren’t enough people in the town who’d read a book even if you gave it to them for free. Is it better for the book lovers of Galashiels that they now have to travel the 32 miles to Edinburgh, or buy on-line? Sure, they get each book they buy for less (or perhaps not, after you count the cost of getting there) but I have to believe that the total experience is one of loss. It’s a loss which Europeans seem determined to avoid.
* I wonder if this perception is real, though. Jim Campbell in his NB column in the Times Literary Supplement of 11 March 2016 reports on “The London Bookshop Map” which has been being published since 2011. That year it showed 87 bookshops, the following edition 96, and this year 116. Of course some of this may be just better information gathering, but 116 book shops seems like an impressive number. Maybe the perceptual difference is simply that more European bookshops are able to locate in city centers (where they get seen by those American visitors) whereas in London they are spread about the outlying areas.