France is trying to protect booksellers from Amazon. Is it a decade too late?

From Quartz:

French lawmakers are coming to the defense of booksellers who continue to lose business to major retailers like Amazon with a law that would set a fixed minimum delivery rate for books.

The bill, which was presented before the National Assembly today (Sept. 29), is the latest move to even the playing field for independent booksellers, who face competition not only from Amazon, but also French online retailers such as Fnac and Cultura.

“Small booksellers face costs that are far away from those of major retailers,” Géraldine Bannier, the law’s sponsor, said before the National Assembly. In the age of Amazon, she argued, booksellers have to make a choice between eating the cost of delivery themselves or charging their customers, in which case they may risk losing a sale.

French bookshops have for years been protected by a 1981 law that mandated books be sold at a fixed price, and not be discounted at more than 5%. The National Assembly passed another law in 2014 forbidding online booksellers from giving a 5% discount or free delivery to customers, though Amazon fought back by setting delivery fees at just 1 cent.

. . . .

Ryan Raffaelli, a professor at Harvard Business School who has studied how bookstores remain resilient despite Amazon competition, says that independent sellers tend to do well by “bringing people into physical spaces and creating spaces for conversation.” This has proven challenging for stores during the coronavirus pandemic, and some French sellers have suffered for it. The iconic Paris bookstore Gibert Jeune closed its doors in May.

No matter whether France’s law passes, Amazon will continue to take risks that independent booksellers cannot, Raffaelli says. The retailer is willing to be a “loss leader”—that is, sell products at a loss—because it can bring in revenue across other categories.

This approach paid off for the company between 2008 and 2018, when independent booksellers’ retail sales declined by an annual average of 3%, whereas e-commerce sites including Amazon and Apple boosted book sales by 5.6% and captured 16.5% of the French market, according to the SLF.

Still, Raffaelli says the latest French tactic is different from similar anti-competition lawsuits brought by US booksellers against Amazon because the legislation is underpinned by the belief that bookstores are not just a form of commerce, but a cultural product. Culture minister Roselyne Bachelot echoed the same belief after the law was passed by the French Senate in June, saying “a book is not a good like others.”

“When you think about a bookstore as a cultural product, that creates a different rationale for why you would protect an industry,” Raffaelli says. “If you truly believe that bookstores are a form of art and culture, then you can potentially approach how you regulate it differently than if it’s just about transaction and free trade.”

Link to the rest at Quartz

6 thoughts on “France is trying to protect booksellers from Amazon. Is it a decade too late?”

  1. Yes, 10 years too late.
    Amazon doesn’t compete solely on price. On many products they don’t compete on price at all. (Agency!)

    Ten years ago, the manhattan mafia got into bed with Apple to raise consumer prices and remove ebook price variation from tbe equation. The result? Amazon’s best competidors died, the best protection against Amazon domination (interoperable epub) was neutered in its infancy, and Kindle’s control was ensured.

    Whatever tbe IdiotPoliticians™ and their pet bureaucrats come up with to “level” the field will only end up highlighting Amazon’s other advantages, things no small B&M player can match. For example, Amazon is buying 100,000 electric delivery vans designed to their specs. (UPS is doing the same but they’re buying 10,000.) Their logistics system is already faster, cheaper, and more efficient than the commercial delivery services any bookseller has access to.

    So what are the idiots going to do? Mandate minimum delivery speed? Mandate a maximum catalog size? Mandate bad customer support? Ban customer convenience? Ban customer loyalty?

    Whatever they try won’t work because you can’t help tbose that won’t help themselves. And the only say to match Amazon is to join them; abandon the old ways and join tbe 21st century. Beating them? Unlikely.

    As the OP says, they’re 10 years too late. Ten years of satisfied custoers can’t be legislated away.

      • Many would say, “l’état c’est fou.” 😀

        And a bit self-absorbed and disconnected, as evidenced by the Australian submarine affair. They were warned and warned and didn’t get the message until they dropped the anvil.

        (Not the only dysfunctional regime out there, though. Between the gerontocracy follies and the Chinese weather, power, and real estate “issues” it seems nobody out there can walk and chew gum at the same time.)

  2. I’m trying and failing to work out what Raffaelli means when he talks about a “bookstore as a cultural product” or that “bookstores are a form of art”. Such words are kind of not unexpected from a Havard professor or a French politician ,but does it actually mean anything (outside the architectural field)?

  3. The bill, which was presented before the National Assembly today (Sept. 29), is the latest move to even the playing field for independent booksellers,

    There are no even playing fields in markets. Never have been. Never will be.

    How is Amazon supposed to compete with the independent bookstores “bringing people into physical spaces and creating spaces for conversation?”

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