Restraints in Trade and Book Shops

To live in two countries is to make comparisons, instructive or not as the case may be. And since I spend an unusually large proportion of my time in bookshops, it is unsurprising that I compare the book trade in the two countries in which I live, Britain and France.

In Britain, booksellers are allowed to discount books as much as they like; France, by contrast, maintains a fixed price for books, as did Britain until the 1980s. The effects of this difference are interesting: what appears to be a restraint on trade actually improves its quality.

About twice as many books are published in Britain annually as in France, although this difference may be as much the consequence of the much larger Anglophone market as of the difference in pricing policy. In France, few books are published initially as hardbacks, and newly-published paperbacks there tend to be about the same price as their hardback equivalents in Britain. The mass-market paperbacks, by contrast, tend to be cheaper.

The most obvious difference in the trade, however, is the survival of the small independent bookseller in France. Even small towns in France have booksellers. I can compare the two towns in England and France where I live, which happen to have very similar populations, at least in size. In the French town, there are two booksellers, who make their own choice of books and whose stock is therefore not identical: it is worth going from one to the other. Furthermore, they contain no trash and their cultural level is high. In the English town, there is a single place to buy books, a chain store called W H Smith.  The difference is very striking.

The chain store purchases books centrally: and while it is true that there is a larger stock in larger towns, there is a similitude to the stores throughout the country. Once you have been in one W H Smith, you have been in them all.

Naturally, the store is interested in selling relatively few items in as large a quantity as possible; so that if you go into one of the stores, you get the impression that, in Britain, reading is merely the continuation of television by other means. There are immense piles of picture books about television series or the celebrities who appear in them. Beyond these piles are books arranged according to their position in the best-seller lists (I confess that the idea of being guided or influenced in the purchase of a book by knowledge that thousands or millions of other people have bought it is completely alien to me). A large proportion of these best-sellers are also about television, film or sporting celebrities.

Beyond the best-sellers come the books divided into categories such as True Crime Stories and, immediately adjacent, Tragic Life Stories, mainly about the sexual or other forms of abuse suffered by the authors during their childhoods, an appetite for reading about which seems to be inexhaustible in W H Smith’s public. It would be an exaggeration to say that you can find nothing at all worth reading in W H Smith (using the criteria of literary or intellectual worth), but it is not always easy to do so.

It is quite different in France. The booksellers there want to make a living, of course, but that is far from their only motive. They are all interested in books as such. They have a pride in what they sell, and often their advice is worth seeking. In W H Smith, a book is merely one of many different things that the store sells, and the assistants have no more interest in them than in the bulldog clips, envelopes or various types of glue that the store also sells: it would be pointless to ask the staff about books. The result is that cheap trash (I mean cheap in the aesthetic and intellectual sense, not financial) is not to be found in France, at any rate to anything like the same extent as in Britain, where it predominates.

The presence in small towns of real bookshops rather than chain stores raises their cultural level. Of course, it might be argued that their presence is a symptom of a pre-existing higher level of culture, in other words that the demand calls forth the supply rather than the other way round, but I think it likely that the relationship is more complex than that: dare I say dialectical. If you give people a diet of W H Smith trash, then trash is what, in the end, they will demand – and not only in books.

Effective choice rather than theoretical choice of books is thus greater in France than in Britain, even though the latter publishes twice as many books. And when one considers that 6 times as many books are now published in France annually as in the United States or Britain in the 1950s, and that even the most avid reader is unlikely to read more than 300 books a year, one cannot say that the French reader is much deprived or denied choice.

Of course, as an ever greater proportion of books are bought on-line, or in e-book versions, the difference I have described will decrease in importance. But even if bookshops are destined to disappear entirely (I certainly hope that they are not, though I recognize that my pleasure in browsing among physical books of whose existence one previously had no knowledge is increasingly a minority one), my point is general.

It is not that uncontrolled markets lead to monopoly or oligopoly, which then ought then to be dismantled in the interest of restoring a market. It is that, even if it is decided that the British system of bookselling is economically more efficient than the French (which let us grant for the sake of argument), there are other things to consider. Economic efficiency is obviously desirable, but it is not the only thing that is desirable. The degree to which other considerations may interfere with economic efficiency is a matter of judgment, but it is a judgment that has always to be made, for which no single principle will ever be adequate.