Saturday, December 4

France steps up battle against Amazon for bookstore survival

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Anne Helman, owner of an independent bookstore in the small town of Puy-en-Velay, in southern France, has seen the number of customers who prefer to buy books increase. in person rather than online.

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“I have never sold so many copies of Plagueby Albert Camus, “he explains.” The children wanted fantasy books. Adults wanted novels and classics, books about plagues and apocalypse. There is a renewed enthusiasm for shopping in local stores and supporting independent bookstores. It looks like a positive. ”

The French Government has taken advantage of this moment of greater support for independent bookstores to continue its war against the dominance of big technology. In an initiative that is mainly a blow to Amazon, a new law will establish a minimum price for the delivery of books, in order to curb what the Government calls “unfair competition” against independent bookstores by the digital giants who deliver the books for a price of only 0.01 euros (which allows them to circumvent the ban on free shipping).

During the confinement, the French Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, made the following appeal to citizens: “Do not buy books on Internet platforms!” Now, the French Parliament aims to end the competitive advantage of the online giants and thus set a precedent for other European countries that want to protect small bookstores. The minimum delivery fee, which has yet to be decided in negotiations with the state regulator, should take effect in 2022.

The approval of laws to protect the book trade generates an unusual political consensus in France and is something supported by the entire political spectrum in a context in which the debate has been escalating the tension ahead of the presidential elections next year.

Emmanuel Macron has affirmed that reading is “a national priority” and has extended the opening hours of libraries. The measure of forcing network giants to charge the same for shipping as small bookstores is part of the French notion of “cultural exceptionalism” that has long tried to protect independent booksellers from the ravages of the forces of the free market.

Unlike the famous “three-for-two” offers on UK novels, the French state currently sets the prices of books and readers pay the same for a new one, whether they buy it online or in a store. large bookstore or independent. The law allows a maximum discount of 5% on books. This formula has contributed to preserving the 3,500 independent bookstores in France – more than three times the number in the United Kingdom – which generate 12,000 jobs.

Although French law prohibits the free delivery of books, Amazon and other large companies that sell online have circumvented this rule by charging a single euro cent to ship a book. For their part, independent bookstores are forced to charge much higher prices for shipping to maintain their narrow margins.

“Local bookstores usually charge about 6 or 7 euros to send a book, so there is a considerable difference,” explains Géraldine Bannier, a member of the Democratic Movement (center) who introduced the law in the Lower House. “It’s about defending the diversity of places where people can buy their books. It’s very important to us.”

More than 20% of the 435 million books sold in France in 2019 were purchased online. What happened to independent French bookstores during the pandemic has greatly influenced the new law. France had three national lockdowns. During the first two, the bookstores remained closed, despite protests from writers and publishers. But during the second lockdown, in November 2020, the government reimbursed the small independent booksellers for shipping costs. The result was that small stores kept 70% of their business. “It became clear that shipping costs are an obstacle,” says Senator Laure Darcos (Republican group, conservative), who wrote the law.

In the latest lockdown, which took place last spring, books were considered essential items and bookstores remained open, with a record number of customers. Across France, independent bookstores posted a year-on-year drop in sales of just 3.3% in 2020, despite three months of strict lockdown.

Amazon has warned that the new law that sets delivery prices “will have an impact on the purchasing power of consumers” and will affect readers in small cities and rural areas. French politicians have argued that people who buy books online tend to live in large cities and urban areas, while independent bookstores are present in rural France.

Wilfrid Séjeau, owner of the independent Le Cyprès bookstore in Nevers (Burgundy), explains that during the second confinement he sent some 70 daily books, many of them wrapped as gifts. When his store reopened, he saw a notable increase in customers from the surrounding rural area. “People realized that certain things are precious,” he says of the bond that is established between the bookseller and the customer.

“A person can buy many books on Amazon, but also enjoy browsing in small bookstores. People usually put a book in their Amazon basket as soon as they are aware of its existence so they do not forget it. Now they tell us: ‘I stop doing that and instead I send you a list or book on your page ‘”. His turnover has risen and has allowed him to create two jobs in the two independent bookstores that he runs on the same street, as well as a stationery store.

Guillaume Husson of the French Booksellers Union (SLF) points out that the law tries to preserve bookstores as meeting places in urban centers, but also to protect publishers. “Independent bookstores do not sell the same as other outlets – they have more new novelists and more risky publications – that has allowed hundreds of publishers and writers to exist.”

Vincent Chabault, sociologist at the University of Paris and author of the book Éloge du Magasin: Contre l’Amazonisation (In Praise of Stores: Against Amazonization), recorded an increase in sales during the pandemic. According to him, the small independent bookstores, which continue to struggle, have become “the symbol of the resistance against online platforms and Amazon”, adding: “One thing we have learned during the pandemic is that digital capitalism has gone gaining ground and that it is necessary to preserve the places and moments in which we can be together on the fringes of the network “.

Back at the Le Chat Perché bookstore, located in Puy-en-Velay, Helman applauds this legislative initiative. When COVID broke into France, he came to fear for the survival of his establishment, but the period between June 2020 and June 2021 has been the most profitable in the last 23 years. He was concerned that customers had become so used to fast deliveries from the internet giants that it was difficult for them to adjust to the slower pace of ordering from an independent bookstore. “People are used to ordering something online and having it in their mailbox two days later. That’s the one thing that will continue to be difficult to compete with.”

Translated by Emma Reverter

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