When I moved to Paris in 2010, I’d already begun doing the majority of my reading on my Kindle. As a scout in New York, I’d been an early adopter of e-books and e-readers, happy to no longer have to lug heavy manuscripts to the gym or after-work drinks. Paris is a lot like New York—cosmopolitan, intellectual, and the center of the country’s publishing industry—so I was surprised when I realized most Parisians hadn’t yet seen a Kindle. People would stop me on the subway to ask questions about it. Some of them had heard of e-readers, but very few had seen one.
The Kindle finally arrived in France in October 2011, but French e-book sales have been very slow to get started and remain a fraction of the overall market. In the U.S. by contrast, the growth of e-book sales has been stratospheric, causing one reporter to declare, “2011 was the year of the e-reader, but 2012 was the year of the e-book.” But not, it seems, in France. Why was France lagging behind the U.S. and the U.K. when it came to e-book sales, and how were they resisting the march forward of the digital revolution in publishing? What made France so different?
The answer, as is so often the case here, begins with government involvement. By law, French book prices are set by the publishers and cannot be discounted. The Lang Law, first passed in 1981 and named for Jack Lang, the French culture minister at the time, forbids book discounting by retailers of more than 5%. It was initially put in place to help independent bookstores compete against hypermarchés like Carrefour and Auchan, Walmartesque discount superstores that arrived in the 1970s, putting pressure on the surrounding small businesses, including bookstores. But in France, books and bookstore culture were seen as part of its national heritage and something to be protected.
The Lang Law has had far-reaching implications for the French publishing industry. After its passage, no store could offer the kind of discounts on bestsellers that have been seen in the U.S. This has allowed for a vibrant independent bookstore culture, with 2,500 independent bookstores across France and 300 in Paris alone. Once Kindle arrived in the French market, French editors lobbied successfully to have the Lang Law extended to e-books as well. As long as the publisher of the book was French, all e-book distributors, including Amazon and Apple, would have to sell the e-book version at the price set by the publisher. As a result, e-books in France often sell for much closer to the printed book price than they do in the U.S.
The inability to discount also made France a difficult market for both Amazon and Apple to penetrate. Apple had something of an advantage, as it was already a strong brand in France, largely thanks to the iPhone. But Amazon wasn’t a well-known brand prior to the Kindle’s arrival. Jean Arcache, head of the French publishing group Place des Éditeurs, explains Amazon’s lackluster initial performance in this way: “Because of the strong network of local bookstores, Amazon’s 24-hour delivery service was not so important here, and you couldn’t discount, so as a result Amazon had only a 6% share initially on the print book market in France.” Where Americans learned about e-books from their Kindles, French consumers were less brand loyal from the beginning.
The general French suspicion of Apple and Amazon also played a part. They’re often referred to in the press as a “hegemony” or an “oligopoly,” and the French minister of culture spoke out strongly against Amazon specifically earlier this summer, calling it “a destroyer of bookshops.” When Kindle arrived, many French publishers decided not to work with Amazon, both because they weren’t certain the e-book market would thrive and because they had several other choices of e-readers within France. The French government even launched a 2011 program, 1001libraires , that would allow independent bookstores to distribute e-books themselves, though this program eventually failed. But still, there are relatively few French titles in the Amazon France Kindle store—around 100,000, as compared with 800,000 paper books. Some French publishers have chosen to forgo an e-book version of a bestseller entirely.
Though the Lang Law has slowed the proliferation of e-books in France, the deluge cannot be kept at bay forever. The world is moving toward e-books, and France must follow suit. The majority of this fall’s 555 new French books will appear in e-book form as well, as opposed to only 40% one year ago. Some publishers are being more aggressive than others; Éditions Bragelonne, a leading science fiction and fantasy publisher in France, created a dedicated department for e-books several years ago and offers most of their e-books at a slightly deeper discount than other French publishers. As a result, e-books already make up 5% of their sales, greater than the French average. Claire Deslandes, editorial director at the house, sees e-books as an eventual replacement for paperbacks and finds them more versatile in many ways. “You can do more with an e-book than you can with a mass market paperback,” she says. “The price is similar, but with the e-book you can make changes more quickly, and it’s easier to develop properties across platforms.” She’s working for the first time on the publishing side of two multiplatform projects, concepts that will have simultaneous rollout as books and Web series.
At Place des Éditeurs, which controls the Lonely Planet franchise in France, Jean Arcache mentions another surprisingly successful e-book area: the “pick and mix,” the ability to buy selected chapters or portions of different travel e-books. “If you are going to Australia, and you’re only going to the south, you can buy only the chapter on the south,” he explains, for a proportional price (if the section on the south is 20% of the book, you will pay 20% of the full price). This concept works very well in France, Arcache explains, because of the relatively high price of e-books there.
French publishing is beginning to acknowledge the undeniable growth of e-books and the digital publishing marketplace, but what makes France interesting is the diversity of this market. As an American, I think of e-books and Amazon as almost interchangeable, but that’s not the case in France. The market is shared fairly evenly among several different devices, with Amazon Kindle taking 30%, Apple’s iPad taking about 35%, in addition to a significant percentage of Kobo users (a device linked with Fnac, France’s largest chain bookstore), and readers who anticipate using no device at all but reading exclusively on their laptop. There’s a push in France for the government to support an open source e-reader called an MO3T (Modèle Ouvert 3 Tiers), which would allow e-books to be stored in the cloud and downloaded to the full range of possible devices, circumventing the exclusivity of Kindle or iBooks. So while I may see a few Kindles on the Paris metro these days, I also see a lot of paper books and a fair amount of other devices. Personally, I’ll take a little bit of government intervention to safeguard this diversity.