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French bookstores flourish, with help

Updated: 2012-07-02 13:48
By Elaine Sciolino ( The New York Times)

French bookstores flourish, with help

The French, as usual, insist on being different. As independent bookstores close in the United States and Britain, the market in France is doing fine. France boasts 2,500 bookstores, and for every neighborhood bookstore that closes, another seems to open. From 2003 to 2011 book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent.

E-books account for only 1.8 percent of the general consumer publishing market here, compared with 6.4 percent in the United States. The French have a centuriesold reverence for the printed page.

"There are two things you don't throw out in France - bread and books," said Bernard Fixot, owner and publisher of XO, a small publishing house dedicated to producing best sellers.

A more compelling explanation is state intervention. In the Anglophone book world the free market reigns; here it is trumped by price fixing.

Since 1981 a law has fixed prices for French-language books. Booksellers - even Amazon - may not discount books more than 5 percent below the publisher's list price, although Amazon fought for and won the right to provide free delivery.

Last year as French publishers watched in horror as e-books ate away at the printed book market in the United States, they successfully lobbied the government to fix prices for e-books too. Now publishers themselves decide the price of e-books; any other discounting is forbidden.

There are also government-financed institutions that offer grants and interest-free loans to would-be bookstore owners.

Beneath the surface there are predictions that France is only delaying the inevitable, and that market forces will prevail. Thirteen percent of French books were bought on the Internet in 2011.

An agreement that Google announced in June should allow publishers to offer digital versions of their works for Google to sell. Until now sales of e-books have lagged in France and much of the rest of Europe in part because of disputes over rights.

A 59-page study by the Culture Ministry in March made recommendations to delay the decline of print sales, including limiting rent increases for bookstores, emergency funds for booksellers from the book industry and increased cooperation between the industry and government.

On the third Sunday of every month an operation called Circul'Livre takes over a corner of the Rue des Martyrs south of Montmartre. A small band of retirees classifies used books by subject and displays them in open crates.

The books are not for sale. Customers just take as many books as they want as long as they adhere to an informal code of honor neither to sell nor destroy their bounty. They are encouraged to drop off their old books, keeping the stock replenished.

"Books are living things," said Andree Le Faou, one of the volunteer organizers. "They need to be respected, to be loved. We are giving them many lives."

The New York Times

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