A few days ago, I was fortunate enough to spend my afternoon strolling along the Promenade plantée, Paris’s High Line–style park, which predates its New York counterpart by nearly two decades. I don’t speak French, but as we were walking along, my companion, who does, noticed a bright red sign and started chuckling. When I asked him what it said, he translated: “This space is for strolling. ‘The practice of jogging is tolerated so long as it does not bother the strollers.’”
Without stereotyping too much, that sign seems to sum up so perfectly the essence of Frenchness and the country’s fairly low regard for most American imports (jogging is so very American). And I couldn’t help but think of it when I read the news that France has passed a law meant to protect independent bookstores and stop the monolith of Amazon from taking over book sales in the country.
This new law is actually an amendment to an existing one, called the Lang Law, which in 1981 secured the right of publishers to set book prices and limited the discount that booksellers could offer to 5%. That legislation was intended to stave off big chain stores, but now that Amazon has taken over as the harbinger of potential doom, the law is being adjusted accordingly. The new amendment, Reuters reported, bars online sellers from offering free shipping on discounted books. It recently passed the lower chamber of French parliament and is expected to make it through the Senate unscathed.
The French, it should be said, have a lot of bookstores — 2,000–2,500 for 65 million people, according to Reuters, versus 1,000 in Britain, whose population is roughly the same. And they apparently take them seriously. Alexandra Schwartz at The New Yorker offers more context:
Last week’s amendment, which is expected to glide easily through the Senate, was sponsored by four members of the conservative UMP, and won unanimous backing from both parties. … France has lately been operating at a level of political discord only slightly lower than ours, with heated fights over gay marriage, the rise of neo-Fascism, and headscarves, yet the status of the reader remains one of the few uncontroversial features of le patrimoine français.
Meanwhile, we have a Congress that can’t even get its act together long enough to keep itself in operation and a Justice Department that goes after Apple and book publishers for collusion without making any attempts to keep Amazon’s monopoly in check. The company currently controls some 65% of the ebook market in the US, while it has nearly a quarter of the book market overall. I couldn’t find figures for Amazon’s share of the book market in France, but Reuters cites a French parliamentary report that, unsurprisingly, says online book sales have grown, from 3.2% in 2003 to 13.1% in 2011.
Still, the question remains as to whether the new amendment to the Lang Law will actually do anything to curb that growth. Shipping costs on a book are fairly negligible, and for a price differential like that, I suspect the choice to buy a book online or in person has more to do with one’s preferences and habits than money. Laws and signs can only get the government so far; we saw a lot of joggers on the Promenade plantée last weekend, and none of them seemed the least bit concerned about interrupting our stroll.
Then again, preferences and habits are shaped by environment, and in my personal experience, convenience often factors into whether I buy something online or at a physical store. In that sense, the advantage may come in numbers: having many bookstores may be the best tactic for keeping the entire species alive. If by some combination of law and stubbornness, the French can rid Amazon of the tiny edge that free shipping gives them — even just the ability to excitedly advertise FREE SHIPPING! — it will be something to celebrate.
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