Moving from journalism into fiction writing, it sometimes feels as if I have gone from one dying industry straight to another. All I read about my profession is doom and gloom, and I sometimes wonder whether I’ve chosen a career that will be obsolete by the time I’ve established yourself in it. It’s the internet, or ebooks, or supermarket discounting, or big-chain conglomerates pricing out independents, or something else that will destroy literature as we know it.
So it was nice to read an article in the 8th issue of Five Dials about the French bookselling industry, which seems to be in fairly good health. There are a startling 792 bookshops in Paris, and 3,000 independent bookshops in France employing about 13,000 people. In New York City there are now only 10 independent bookshops.
This is not an accident. The French government (both national and local) has taken the view that books are not a commodity like any other, but are important enough to national culture to be given special status. Bookshops, too, are seen as valuable, desirable things, and 2007’s ‘plan livre’ set out a series of measures to help independent bookshops survive (e.g. tax relief, interest-free loans, etc.). There’s also a law preventing the big chains from indulging in massive discounting (it sounds a lot like the old Net Book Agreement in the UK, which was abolished in 1997). The City of Paris actively intervenes to protect the character of certain neighbourhoods, for example by buying up buildings and renting the retail space to bookshops for minimal rent. The idea is to stop gentrification and rising rents from pricing out the traditional businesses that make the place what it is.
French publishers, of course, are suffering from the economic downturn like anyone else. But they took on less debt than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, so have taken less of a hit. I’m sure that there are other problems and that the French publishing industry is not a perfect model, but it does seem to be in better shape than ours. Perhaps instead of penning more articles about the dire straits we’re in, we could instead look across the Channel and get a few ideas?