In Canadian publishing, all eyes are on Quebec. That's because the province is debating whether to fix the price of books. The argument for fixing prices, many say, is to ensure that the city's independent bookstores will still be standing at the end of the decade. A book industry coalition has been campaigning for a year now, hoping to implement a fixed book price policy for new releases that would disallow any reseller from slashing prices for at least a nine month period. During that initial nine months, resellers would be allowed to extend a maximum 10% discount to readers.

The book industry was finally heard from, officially, on Monday, in Quebec's Parliament Hill, as several proponents stipulated their views at the Fixed Book Price Hearings.

International implications

The French-language niche market in Quebec province, whose entire population is the size of New York City, is suddenly making big waves as it considers not only fixed pricing for books but as it reconsiders the entire model of book selling.

The hearings, which will last a week, are already churning out rich debates that go beyond the fixed book price and putting into perspective the cultural and economic crisis plaguing the music, book publishing, and newspaper industries in the face of the instant gratification Internet economy.

On the first day of hearings, the Parliamentary Commission heard from the Union of Quebec Authors (UNEQ), Quebec's Association of Public Libraries (ABPQ) and the National Association of Book Publishers (ANEL) among others.

All of those arguments were in favour of a fixed book price for new titles, insisting that Quebec's antiquated Book Law (Loi 51) is no longer sufficient to protect sinking independent booksellers. UNEQ's Sylvie Desrosiers said that 20 indepedent bookstores have closed shop in the past three years, while only four new stores had opened their doors.

The ABPQ, whose member libraries bought more than $24 million worth of books in 2011, mostly through indepedent bookstores, gave a poignant example of how independent bookstores are under constant atrack. In the small community of Lachute (pop 11,000), the opening of a Walmart meant the end of a once-bustling independent bookstore. But whereas the Walmart offers a 300 to 400 new titles, independent accredited bookstores must offer most of Quebec's 6,500 titles on top of a selection from the 30,000 titles flooding in from Europe. Since the bookstore's closing, the residents in Lachute must now travel up to 50 km to browse a selection of books that aren't just a bestseller hit list. The ABPQ notes that librarians themselves rely greatly on the expertise of booksellers and often use independent bookstores as showrooms for their future purchases.

For its part, the Publiser's Association (ANEL) strongly upheld fixed pricing for e-books, severely criticizing giant Internet book retailers for cannibalizing the market. In only the past year, the market share for online e-book sales from Canadian bookstores has fallen by 33%, while the market share for foreign companies, such as Amazon, has risen by 20%.

Though supporting the fixed book price policy, the ANEL admitted that such a policy has its limits and would be complemented with an aggressive promotional presence of Quebecois books in libraries and bookstores and that an ambitious national reading campaign should be launched to address Quebec's structural literacy and readership challenges.

Only the beginning

But many in Quebec are against fixed pricing for books, arguing that such a policy might hinder sales in a market in search of growth. Others metion that a higher price for books might limit access to middle- and lower-income families. Montreal's Economic Institute, a right-wing think tank, represents these views but is not alone in thinking that a fixed price for books is the wrong way to go for Quebec. It will have its say at the hearings next week.

In any event, if Quebec's average book price is $30 and booksellers are allowed to discount 10% instead of a 25% discount, that would mean that the difference (15%) would equate to an average loss of $4.50 for consumers. But what is at stake isn't a fistful of dollars, argue the pricing supporters, it is the future of a nations's top cultural industry providing over 12,000 jobs.