Online retailers, key among them Amazon, have upset this balance. In 2014, France’s National Assembly passed a law banning online booksellers from offering customers free delivery. In response, Amazon set its delivery fee beginning at just one cent. Independent bookstores typically deliver books for a fee of around $6.
Somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 stores sell books in France, according to the Ministry of Culture, and about 3,500 to 4,500 sell books as their primary business. Despite efforts to protect the book economy, many independent stores have struggled to stay afloat as business for Amazon and French online stores such as Fnac and Cultura has grown.
Just two online retailers — Amazon and Fnac — accounted for 80 percent of total online book sales last year, according to a recent report to France’s senate.
During early parts of the pandemic — before France exempted bookstores from lockdowns — the government reimbursed shipping fees. That support enabled bookstores to maintain around 70 percent of their business and was an impetus for legislative action, center-right Sen. Laure Darcos, who wrote the law, told France 24.
The National Assembly approved the latest legislation this month. The rule has yet to be implemented, however, and the minimum delivery fee is still under negotiation. The law, which gained the support of French President Emmanuel Macron, does not target any online retailers by name.
“This law is necessary to regulate the distorted competition within online book sales and prevent the inevitable monopoly that will emerge if the status quo persists,” France’s Ministry of Culture told Reuters in a statement.
In the meantime, Amazon has objected to the change and argued that it will have a negative impact on low-income consumers and those with less access to physical bookstores.
“Introducing a minimum shipping fee on books threatens customers’ equal access to books, as this will impact lower income readers living in small towns and rural areas,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “To date, online shopping has strengthened consumers’ equal and convenient access to books regardless of where they live.”
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.
Ryan Raffaelli, an associate professor at Harvard Business School who has studied independent bookstores, said in an email that the new legislation “aims to redefine the value of bookstores by reframing them as part of national culture.”
“Unlike price and inventory, areas where Amazon often dominates in the marketplace, the online giant will likely find it more difficult to compete against ‘community’ and ‘culture,’” he said.