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Praise for the printed page: Will Amazon leave French bookstores in peril?

February 21, 2015 at 1:19 PM EDT
In France, even though the price of books was fixed years ago to prevent price differentiation, some worry the country's thousands of bookstores may now be in jeopardy as more customers flock to online retailers, such as Amazon. The online giant has come under fire by French booksellers who believe the way Amazon sells books is threatening their business and even undermining French culture. NewsHour's Megan Thompson reports.
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MEGAN THOMPSON: The French are proud of their great cultural traditions. Lingering at cafes, celebrating their architecture and fine art. And then there’s the French love of books. This is the nation of Voltaire … Victor Hugo … Emile Zola… Jules Verne.

PIERRE ASSOULINE: Books are very important in France. France is a very old literary nation.

Pierre Assouline is a well-known French author who’s written 30 books.

MEGAN THOMPSON: So they talk about books and literature the way we Americans might talk about sports or something like that,

PIERRE ASSOULINE: About baseball.

MEGAN THOMPSON: About baseball.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Books have a special status in France. A concept called the “cultural exception,” means customers buying books pay the same low sales tax rate as they do on things like food and electricity – because they’re all considered essential goods. And, it turns out, the French love their bookstores as much as their books.

PIERRE ASSOULINE: Readers are faithful and loyal to the writer. It’s obvious. But mainly, to a book seller. To the owner of a bookstore.

MEGAN THOMPSON: So it’s personal. It’s a personal relationship.

PIERRE ASSOULINE: Yes, it’s very personal.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But now some here fear the future of France’s 2,500 or so bookstores may be threatened as more and more customers buy their books online. And they’re buying from one online giant in particular: Amazon.

Amazon now accounts for around 10 percent of all new book sales in France, and is on track to become the biggest bookseller here soon. But some critics think Amazon’s gotten there in part by not playing fairly.

RENNY AUPETIT: It is, I would say, a thug. It’s a thug: someone who doesn’t respect the laws in place within a country and a country’s ecosystem.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Renny Aupetit owns a bookstore in eastern Paris. He says he has a problem with the way Amazon tries to maximize profits, including its interpretation of a law that’s helped small bookstores compete with big chains for decades.

MEGAN THOMPSON: In 1981, the French government passed what’s known as the Lang Law, which essentially fixed the price of books. The publisher prints the price on the back and no one can sell it for more than a five percent discount. So no matter where you go — to a small independent store, a large chain — the price is going to be pretty much the same.

MEGAN THOMPSON: But what the authors of the law didn’t necessarily foresee in the early 80’s was the coming of the Internet … and Amazon. When the company launched in France 15 years ago, like everyone else, it could offer a discount of five percent. But Amazon offered free shipping.

The French said that amounted to an unfair advantage over independent bookstores… especially when coupled with the convenience of shopping from home. So the French assembly passed a bill in 2013 forbidding any online retailer from offering both a discount and free shipping.

In an email to NewsHour, a representative for Amazon declined comment on the law. But when it first passed, the company was quoted in news reports saying: “All measures that aim to raise the price of books sold online will curb the ability of French people to buy cultural works and discriminates against those who buy online.”

When the law went into effect last year, Amazon agreed to charge for shipping, sort of. It imposed shipping charge of one cent. Some of Amazon’s other business tactics have also prompted criticism.

RENNY AUPETIT: As a citizen, I have an issue with Amazon because of the way it optimizes its taxes – the majority of its revenues are declared in Luxembourg.

MEGAN THOMPSON: EU regulators recently announced the deal Amazon struck to locate its European headquarters in Luxembourg may be illegal – a deal that’s minimized the company’s tax bill in France and other countries by millions of dollars.

Separately, in 2012, France slapped Amazon with a $252 million dollar bill for back taxes. Renny Aupetit says, if Amazon’s going to sell books in France, it should pay taxes at the same rate here that he does.

RENNY AUPETIT: Every time you choose to buy a book, you contribute to the place where you buy it. So if you buy it on Amazon, it makes Amazon stronger. But if you want to buy a book from someone who contributes to the economy of its country, so that there are hospitals, roads and so on, then you should buy it from someone who pays its taxes in France. It’s simple.

MEGAN THOMPSON: An Amazon representative told NewsHour, that as for the French demand for back taxes, “We dispute and will always contest this request” … AND, “Amazon pays all applicable taxes in every jurisdiction in which we operate and always will.”

MEGAN THOMPSON: But doesn’t Amazon have a positive role to play? People all over the world can buy French books.

RENNY AUPETIT: When Amazon arrived, it revolutionized the logistics of the book business, and I think that’s been beneficial. But as a citizen, I have a problem with Amazon. It doesn’t behave with a sense of civic spirit), and in France we care about this.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Despite Amazon’s problems in France, not everyone sees it as all bad. Author Pierre Assouline’s many books are sold on Amazon.

PIERRE ASSOULINE: I know– a lot of– a lot of people in a few places in France where you do not have any bookstores. And– thanks to Amazon they can read all the books. Even me, I have– very often I– I have ordered books on Amazon. // The ideal world, it’s world where you have Amazon, and the bookstores, like in France today.

MEGAN THOMPSON: And Bernard Terrades – who owns a used-book store in Paris’s latin quarter – says selling books on Amazon has helped him gain more customers.

BERNARD TERRADES: It’s had the benefit of increasing our popularity a little. Many people have discovered us thanks the internet. So it’s not all negative. They are also positive points. I have customers who live far away who have met me online and they now come to see me whenever they come to Paris.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Even still, Terrades says his feelings are mixed, because he feels he didn’t really have a choice. He says he had to sell on a big site like Amazon, because there was no way he could compete with a web site of his own.

BERNARD TERRADES: I will show up on the 20th page of search results. Nobody will ever come to my site so it’s mission impossible. I don’t have Amazon’s money to achieve this so I don’t have a choice: I have to be hosted by them. The system is not fair. It’s just business.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Back in east Paris, Renny Aupetit has made it his mission to help brick-and-mortar booksellers compete online. Five years ago he launched a web site, lalibrairie.com or, “the bookstore” dot-com. It’s a union of about 1800 booksellers across France that all sell their books on one site.

But there’s a catch: customers order books online, but must go to their local bookstore to pick them up. And that, Aupetit says, is where customers will find an experience they can never find online.

RENNY AUPETIT: We’ve noticed when people make an online purchase they stay an average of 2 minutes on the site, while when people come in a bookstore, they stay 1 hour, 2 hours or longer. We have armchairs, couches.

The bookstore is a place where people come and wander, get suggestions, talk about books. It’s not a place where you come with a very defined idea of what you want. So it’s a cultural venue in a way.

The concept I’m defending is, you can use modern communication tools but if everything is ordered from your home and delivered at your home and nobody talks to each other anymore, that’s not a society I want to live in.

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