Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Swiss Book Prices: to Fix or Not to Fix

So. Like Germany and Italy, Switzerland used to have fixed book prices and then scrapped them. Then it reinstated them at the beginning of this year. And now there's a referendum to get rid of them again. Those in favour of fixed book prices say their purpose is to protect books as a cultural asset. Those against, including the Swiss Pirate Party, say literature is not under threat and does not need protecting.

Let's take a look at one country with which I'm familiar that doesn't have fixed book prices - the UK. Looters have been avoiding Waterstones like the plague, but over the last couple of decades the bookstore chain has become pretty much the last place on the high street you can buy literature. Why? Because they do cheap deals, for which they charge publishers zillions of pounds. Which means everyone ends up reading the same stuff in a scary literary world run by people with MBAs. And that independent bookstores go bust and small publishers have less of a chance on the market. And then in an oh-so-ironic way, the supermarkets have got in on the bookselling game and begun undercutting the chain bookstores in terms of both price and taste. Glittery pink books about flying ponies "written" by glamour models, anyone? Waterstones' latest reaction? Reintroduce centralised buying. Yay. Even less choice and variety.

Not being an economist, I have no idea whether it's a bizarre contradiction that a lack of state regulation (since Britain abolished fixed book prices) has not led to greater competition and greater choice for the consumer but to a near-monopoly. Maybe it's just me who finds that odd.

So now let's take a look at Germany, a land of evil state intervention. While the largest chain, Thalia, is present on most high streets, there are still plenty of independent bookstores on the ground. It's hard to find statistics but this 2007 NY Times piece on the subject quotes a figure of 2600. Independent publishers are, if not exactly flourishing, then at least holding their ground. And Katie Price's books have not been translated.

Now, books are not an expensive commodity in Germany. It's not in publishers' interests to set their prices too high, and there's still a subjective pain-barrier at around €20 for a hardback. Because they don't have to discount their bestsellers, publishers can keep prices for smaller print-runs low. But the best argument against the anti-fixed-pricers is libraries. If you can't afford to buy new books, buy them used or borrow them for free.

This is a bit of a rant, I admit, what with the lack of facts to back it up. So I won't attempt to suggest that the high quality and wide variety of German-language writing is due to fixed book prices. But on the other hand, nor can I see any evidence to uphold the argument behind the Swiss referendum - that fixed prices ultimately harm books.


X.Trapnel said...

My sympathies (in this as in most other matters) are with the Piraten, on general no-to-giving-private-companies-special-legal-powers grounds. But I think what you mention should give international readers (like me!), who know little about the distinct industry structure in particular countries, pause before weighing in too vehemently. Aside from general principles against granting private legal powers, one issue is: who do you fear more to gain and abuse market power? Publishers, or bookstores? It looks like you're more afraid of bookstores. By contrast, I'm more afraid of publishers. But I recognize that this is due to my mainly looking at academic publishing, and fearing overall concentration of "Big Content" and how that has and continues to shape legal stuctures.

A final thing to keep in mind: with a shift to digital, publishers are *already* privileged, and increasingly able to control distribution and pricing.

kjd said...

Gosh, X, I hadn't thought about academic publishers. I am indeed often shocked by their prices, but then I can hardly imagine there ever being a major discount market for academic publications.

Thanks for your very calm and measured comment, by the way. I always value them.