France has an interesting law that bars heavy discounting on books. The law passed in 1981, and prohibits the sale of books for less than 5% below the cover price. A publisher typically offers bookstores a profit margin of between 30% and 40%. The idea behind it is that shops will be able to compete with large chains. Booksellers now hope that it will also protect them from a new threat: the electronic book.
"France has long believed that a book is not just business," said lawmaker Hervé Gaymard, who has published research on France's fixed book prices. "It's a cultural identity."
But small French book businesses fear a repeat of the price war that erupted when e-books arrived in the U.S. for reading on computers, e-readers like Amazon's Kindle and, eventually, tablets like Apple's iPad. Trying to compete with e-books, big retailers like Wal-Mart and Target allowed shoppers to buy printed books at steep discounts. Prices at smaller bookstores, already struggling against big chains, were massively undercut. Publishers, meanwhile, worried that the low prices undervalued their books.
E-books are fastest growing, but are still only less than 1% of the $2.2 billion book market in France (according to French Booksellers Union). Electronic readers are also not heavily promoted yet.
Booksellers are afraid that an anti-discounting law isn't going to save them. Some independent bookstores are banding together to create their own website, 1001Libraires.com, which is scheduled to start selling printed books and e-books at the end of next month.