The Government of Quebec announced earlier this month that it will go ahead with a Parliamentary Committee to study the impacts of fixed prices for new book releases. The committee is set to begin hearing arguments for and against the new proposed regulation on August 19 following the parliamentary summer break. In a statement, Maka Kotto, Quebec’s Minister of Culture, said that “it is critical for us to have a public debate on this issue while keeping in mind that the book industry is Quebec’s most important cultural industry, bringing in $800 million every year.”
The hearings on fixed prices for new releases are a direct result of lobbying efforts by the One Price for Books campaign, launched on August 22 of last year. Organized by a roundtable of major book industry players and backed by several high-profile writers and artists, the campaign called on the government to fix the priceof each new book for a nine-month period following its publication to prevent operators of big-box stores from cannibalizing small bookstore sales with deep discounts. The measure is a way for Quebec to protect its bibliodiversity—that is, the 6,000 titles Quebec publishes every year despite its relatively small population (eight million) and limited readership—and to stop the spate of bookstore closings. The market share of Quebec’s independent bookstores has been waning in recent years, from 35% in 2006 to 28% in 2010. Meanwhile, chain operators have seen their share go up to a record 53%. The proposal would apply to both print and digital books, but at present e-books account for less than 5% of book sales in Quebec.
For the past 15 years, the industry has been requesting that lawmakers fix book prices. It was rejected outright in 2000 when the government feared that such legislation would increase book prices. For Jean-François Bouchard, president of ANEL, the influential French-language publishers association, “The time to act is now; Quebec’s book industry is fragile.” Indeed, 13 other countries have opted for some kind of regulation of book prices to protect their cultural industries, including France, Sweden, Mexico, Argentina, Japan, South Korea, and Germany. Other countries, such as Switzerland, Israel, and Belgium, have studied the question without adopting any specific laws.
The road toward fixed prices for books will not be without obstacles, however, as opponents and detractors maintain that such a policy would increase general book prices. While it seems logical to assert that fixed prices would lead to higher prices, in comparative studies analyzing book prices in both open markets and fixed markets, researchers have found that higher book prices were actually found in free markets. In free markets, giant book retailers exercise pressure on publishers to artificially increase prices of books so that when the books are discounted, they appear to be a great deal for consumers. However, this type of deep discount strategy has the adverse effect of increasing the average price for all books. Proponents of fixed prices argue that they have nothing to do with higher book prices; rather, the policy is aimed at avoiding bigger retailers being able to outmuscle smaller bookstores with extreme discounts ranging from 50% to 80%.
The Government of Quebec would also like to avoid a price war, such as the one that occurred in the 1990s, which saw several book chains disappear and others nearly bankrupted. Although the proposed regulation would fix prices for new titles for a nine-month period, it would allow for a 10% discount. Proponents feel that this type of hybrid system could benefit both small and large book retailers.