Learning from the French

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?

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There are 7 comments

  1. All this is true and we really think that books and culture in general should not be submitted to the same market laws as peas. So we try to resist.
    You know the funniest? Gallimard has been able to buy out their financial shareholders and become family owned again thanks to the huge profits they made on selling…Harry Potter

  2. Hi Emma
    That’s a great way of putting it. I do think culture should be treated differently from peas, and that unfettered market competition is not the answer to every single possible question. These days, unfortunately, it seems that’s a minority view.
    That is funny about Gallimard. I think it’s quite a long-standing strategy in the publishing industry, though, for the commercial books to subsidise the more literary offerings to some extent. The only time I think it’s a problem is when it becomes entirely about best-sellers and things like culture are forgotten.

  3. Wonderful post, Andrew! I love what the French government has done to protect independent bookshops. I lived in Shanghai for sometime and there was a cafe there called ‘The Figaro’ which was a place where literary gatherings happened – book club meetings, and author meetings and Book Crossing meetings and author talks and creative writing classes. I think there was one literary gathering every day of the week. The cafe manager, who was a literary person herself, used to come to most of these meetings. Then, suddenly, the owner of the property raised the rent and the cafe was priced out of that place and struggled to get a new place. It was a sad end to a beautiful, independent, literary institution. I can imagine how sad it will be when an indie bookshop shuts down. Three cheers to the French government for showing the way on what needs to be done. I also loved that comparison of culture and peas 🙂

  4. The Figaro sounds like my kind of place! Such a shame that it closed. There was a really good bookshop near my home in north London called Prosperos, and I was very sad when it closed recently. It was too small to do the sort of events you mentioned, but the staff were so friendly and knowledgeable. It really contributed to the local culture. It’s now been replaced by an ice-cream shop…

  5. @Andrew Blackman
    In city centres, when you’ve found someone to buy your shop, the city can decide to buy it instead of your buyer. It allows cities to interfere with the kind of shops they want in streets. It’s to avoid city centres with streets deserted from small grocery shops, book stores, cafés and streets full of banks and chain stores. If they have the money to intervene.
    Nowadays, independant book stores are more threatened by online stores than chain stores.

    PS: The fact that 25% of British libraries are threatened by cuts in public expenses made the headlines on the radio here. I’ve never seen or heard of a library closing.

  6. That sounds like a very simple solution, Emma, and very effective. It’s sad, though, that I really can’t imagine it happening here in London. When banks need to be bailed out or countries need to be bombed, there are unlimited billions available, but when it comes to culture and social programmes, suddenly it’s impossible to find a few thousand pounds and we must accept the need for cutbacks. It was Margaret Thatcher who said there’s no such thing as society, but all her successors seem to share the same misguided belief. So the bombs fall, and the libraries and bookshops close, and the banks announce record profits, and the people become so disillusioned and cynical that we can barely muster the energy to protest.

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