French booksellers battle with Amazon

Kai Ryssdal Feb 12, 2008

French booksellers battle with Amazon

Kai Ryssdal Feb 12, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: There’s nothing like sitting down with a cup of coffee and a good book. Retailers here have certainly caught on to that idea, putting those little cafes in their stores.

The French love their books no less than we do — and their independent book stores.

But is threatening that happy relationship, not by undercutting prices on the books it sells there, but for delivering them for free.

Anita Elash reports from Paris.

Anita Elash: Small bookshops like Atelier Neuf in Paris’ 9th arrondissement are as much a part of France as cheese and baguettes. French readers spent nearly $4 billion on books last year. More than $1 billion of it went to independent stores like the

It’s not just France’s literary tradition that’s keeping these small booksellers in business. It’s also the French tradition of price protection. It’s against the law in France to discount a book by more than 5 percent.

Mathieu de Montchalen is vice-president of the French Independent Booksellers’ Association.

Mathieu de Montchalen [translated]: We have created the conditions so that small booksellers can do their job, even in a small town, even with a small store.

But now, that cozy corner is being threatened. Not by the big chain around the block, but by online booksellers like They’re not only offering customers the 5 percent discount on books, but free delivery too.

Although French readers were slow to catch on, they’re getting the hang of it now. Internet booksellers pulled in roughly $200 million in sales last year.

Even longtime bookstore loyalists like historian Thierry Walton have been won over:

Thierry Walton: Je vais sur Amazon, d’accord…

Walton used to spend hours searching bookshops and libraries. Now, he buys most of his books through Amazon’s French website.

Walton: C’est totalement bouleverser…

He says Amazon and the other online booksellers have changed his life as a researcher. He pays the same price he’d get in a bookstore and he doesn’t have to leave the office.

When book lovers like Walton started using Amazon, booksellers knew they had a big problem, so they took Amazon to court. They argued that free delivery was itself a kind of discount and that it was bigger than 5 percent.

Late last year, a court ordered Amazon to start charging for delivery. Business development experts like Thomas Paris say the decision couldn’t have come at a worse time for Amazon:

Thomas Paris [translation]: They are at a key point in building their market and attracting new customers.

Amazon is appealing the decision and defying the court order. It has already paid a fine of 100,000 euros, or more than $150,000, and it’s paying another 1,000 euros every day rather than stopping free delivery.

But experts say it’s just a cost of doing business. They expect the case will be tied up in court another two or three years. By then, people in France may be just as addicted to Amazon as readers are in the rest of the world.

In Paris, I’m Anita Elash for Marketplace.

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