PARIS — We French love our rentrée littéraire. But with the launch of this year's new literary season, dedicated in part to the memory of our American World War II allies, a new war is erupting. And the alliances seem to be changing. U.S.-based Trojan horse Amazon started the fight by targeting major French publisher Hachette in its battle to lower the price of e-books.
Strangely enough, as French publishers hope the new season will compensate for abysmal sales figures so far this year, the fight for literary prizes seems to be creating more passion in France than the power struggle between the two giants. Nine hundred American writers and 1,000 German authors have signed a petition to support Hachette, and publishers in Japan are also starting to react. But in France, for now at least, authors and publishers alike have remained relatively silent on the matter.
Amazon's offensive against Hachette — in which the online giant is basically trying to lowball Hachette on pricing, and strong-arm in distribution contract negotiations — once more poses the question of how important literature is in our societies, whether in printed or digital form. Just what's at stake for books, both aesthetically and politically, in a world dominated by screens and feeds, where algorithms, busy lives and the commercialization of exchanges are ever more present?
These three symptoms characterize Amazon, a fascinating titan that harvests the planet and is now asking Hachette, and soon all publishers, to make unfair sacrifices. The company led by Jeff Bezos enjoys an almost perfect monopoly in the world of online bookstores.
A bookstore in Auvers-sur-Oise — Photo: Alexandre Duret-Lutz
But despite its liberal and libertarian posture, its commercial practices suggest it is more totalitarian than anything else: "My beautiful customer, you'll always be the one who wins, with ever lower prices." It tries to distort Orwell quotes to its advantage, but at the end of the day, Amazon is the real "Big Brother" that is "watching you."
And in this bullfight, Europe contents itself with doing nothing more than throwing some ornamental darts, as France’s former Culture Minister Aurélie Filippetti complained. She has been replaced in the new cabinet reshuffling by Fleur Pellerin, someone who has long been won over by the digital economy.
The French digital divide
For the past two years, France has seen an unprecedented number of bookstores close. In 2013, Virgin went bust. This year, another chain, Chapitre, closed 57 of its stores. The book market is losing 2% to 3% every year. Online stores represent about 12% of the market, but their dynamic growth has slowed down for the first time in France.
As for e-books, their share in the revenues of French publishers is only 1%. Surprisingly, the e-book has yet to be embraced in France. The reason for this is often kept quiet. The primary French publishers, including Hachette, are also distributors, acting as the middlemen between retailers and publishers for the sale and transport of books.
Therefore, to develop the digital offer is to kill the middlemen and, eventually, French bookstores. No other country has as many independent retailers, free from all ties to any group and able to display and sell the books they want. This exceptional network is the first form of internal resistance to the Amazon invader.
Thanks to the law that ensures a fixed price for every new book and limits possible discounts, as well as to the open-mindedness of operators, this network of independent stores has managed to oppose the anxiety-provoking economic environment — with the joy that books bring to the people. After all, old Europe is the birthplace of Dante, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Montaigne, Goethe, and many others.
And Racine — Photo: Sharat Ganapati
The crisis that now threatens to hit publishers is the same one that is shaking European humanism, this ideal of balance and harmony that made us who we are. The regions where bookstores are closing, especially in the north and east of France, have become wastelands where extremist ideas thrive more easily than anywhere else.
Bookstores are the spirit of civilization, a place where ideas are put to the test, where conversation, courtesy and even quarrels allow us to rise. That is why there is a political issue behind the future of books. Our elected representatives must do what it takes to put the book back at the center of our societies, even though a demanding real world and an intrusive virtual one often put us off it.
When bookstores disappear, intelligence, curiosity and the democracy of ideas wither. Public broadcasters and politicians who are hooked on 24-hour news networks have forgotten that they are the ones who must pull the world towards intelligence and sensitivity to thwart the destructive and reactionary forces that surround us.
This goes beyond the dangerous liaisons between Amazon and publishers, and beyond the new literary season. We must fight barbarism with the sword of mythology: books. A whole lot of books, here and everywhere, and right now, is what we need against the moral and intellectual crisis that is dividing our country.