|MillePages in Vincennes, just outside of Paris|
Q: I just read an article about how France has preserved its independent bookstores thanks to the French love of the physical book and strict rules limiting discounting. Is there really a "French exception" when it comes to books?
A: Yes, there is a French exception. And, as it is French, it is complicated to explain while being perfectly delightful to experience. For starters, books are in French. You'd be surprised how this limits predators from the US and UK. But, more to the point, publishing is highly regulated in France, with strict limits on discounts that keep book prices high, as well as a system of subsidies. Are high book prices good? That is a question that may merit debate.
Q: In the article I read the author claims there are seven bookstores within a ten minute walk of her house! Is that even physically possible? I mean, really, who walks?
A: Parisians! It's true. In Paris, you really can walk to a delightful little bookstore, just as you can buy warm croissants au beurre in the morning, or run over rain-slicked cobblestones to embrace your lover.
But this, unfortunately, is not the whole story. There are signs that the industry is struggling.
The economic and financial situation of independent libraries has been declining for several years. The number of books sold has been dropping steadily. Ebook sales, while tiny, have been increasing.
A: I'm sorry. Read the Ministry of Culture's report for yourself. 2014 Book Market in France: Key Figures
Q: It's in French!
A: Oui. Here's a table with book sale trends, by value and by volume.
Q: Where do the French buy their books?
A: Bookstores (including kiosks and airports) represent 22%; big cultural goods stores like FNAC another 22%; grocery stores and big box stores another 19.5%, internet 18% and book "clubs" and mail order (excl internet) 14.5%
Q: Is it true that the French are classier, more highbrow readers?
A: If you consider "Cinquantes nuances" to be more highbrow than "Fifty Shades", sure.
Here are the top thirty bestselling books in France in 2013. Judge for yourself.
Q: Hey! It's not all E.L James, Dan Brown, and Harlan Coban! I see Boris Vian, Fred Vargas, Jean-Christophe Rufin! Who's Marc Levy?
A: He's the bestselling living French author in the world, with more than 35 million books sold in dozens of countries.
Q : Oh. But the bookstores are ok, aren't they? I mean, please tell me they're making money?
A : Some are. But others are closing. The report doesn't provide details, only the average profit (before exceptional items) from a sample of 800 bookstores: 0.6%
Q: 0.6%? That doesn't sound very high.
A: It's not.
Q: But ebooks! They haven't really taken off, have they? The French still love real books, printed on paper.
A: Yes. They do. They really do.
But before you get too excited, remember that the Kindle is still very new in France. It arrived two years after it came to the USA, and - big difference - in France ebooks cost nearly as much as paperbacks.
Even so, ebooks sales are increasing, though from a very low base.
Q: Doesn't the fixed retail price protect paper books?
A: That's what many people are hoping.
And, it's true, if you take a snapshot of the present, it still looks ok, at least in big cities.
But the trend shown in the tables is cause for concern.