June 7, 2013

British booksellers call on government to follow France in fight against Amazon


When it comes to Amazon, why can’t the British government speak the same language as the French?

British booksellers and industry spokespeople are calling on the government to stand up for them and offer the same level of support that the French government promised to their own independent booksellers this week. On Monday, we reported how the French culture minister Aurélie Filippetti (aka ministre extraordinaire) announced a €9m joint plan with French publishers to support independent booksellers, and pinpointed Amazon as the biggest threat to these small businesses. She spoke with a wisdom and common sense that proved she had been listening to—and shared—the industry’s concerns: ‘everyone has had enough of Amazon’.

Now, quite rightly, British booksellers are demanding the same. Tim Godfray, chief executive of the Booksellers Association, has highlighted that Britain’s bookshops see Amazon as “the main threat to their business” and is warning ministers that if Amazon continues its “relentless expansion” more bookshops will close—there were 1,028 bookshops in the UK last year, down from 1,535 in 2005. He also warned that as more bookshops were driven out of business, it would have a domino effect on publishers and agents. Although this is true, I’m still surprised people have to keep pointing this out to the government.

While Filippetti has been working on plans which will invest money into modernising bookshops and helping them set up online platforms, considering whether to ban Amazon from offering free postage and packaging (which disadvantages bookshops) and generally showing how she will protect French literary and cultural life, Boris Johnson has been celebrating Amazon’s announcement to establish offices in London, Amazon has been earning more money from UK government grants than it has paid in taxes, and our culture minister Maria Miller has been…well, aside from patronising the arts world, it isn’t clear what Miller has been doing.

But UK bookshops continue to speak out. Jane Howe, owner of the wondrous Broadway Books in East London (check them out here) said:

 “We really need the government to do something to protect independent bookshops. We are the heart of the community – sometimes you are the only person that a customer has spoken to all week. If the government want to keep any type of integrity in any high street they’ve got to support small businesses. It would be really wonderful if they took notice of what France is trying.”

Her sentiments are shared by Keith and Frances Smith, bookshop owners who have already presented a petition against Amazon’s tax evasion to 10 Downing Street, and who I have quoted before as saying, “We are not happy to sit by and watch our high streets fall to pieces because of the sharp practice of a few companies and the inaction of our government.” Their voices have been joined by Philip Jones, the editor of the Bookseller, who is now demanding that the government “wake up”, and pay close attention to the French government’s actions:

“The publishing industry has been trying to tell the government that this isn’t benign growth,” he said. “They need to look more proactively to protect the whole high street.”

Could it be that the difference between the approaches taken by France and England is culturally driven? Jones remarked that it would be “lovely” if culture secretary Maria Miller defended the importance of books in our culture just as Filippetti did. He regretted that, “Books are thought of as high culture in France and Germany, they’re not really here.” Certainly, Boris Johnson’s gleeful outpouring that Amazon’s new office will be a welcome addition to ‘London’s continued growth as a leading global hub for tech talent’ show a government more interested in the internet than intellect.

And I saw similar attitudes yesterday, at a panel discussion entitled ‘The state we’re in’, which took place during the ICA’s Independents Day. Asked about Filippetti’s announcement, the Conservative MP Amber Rudd questioned the French minister’s motives, noting that France’s “exception culturelle” was behind the French government’s reasons for protecting booksellers and the French publishing industry. ‘Exception culturelle’ is France’s concept of treating culture differently than other commodities — namely to protect the French language, and by extension, the country’s cultural output against foreign meddling or take-over. Rudd turned her nose up at what she perceived as France’s snobbish attitude.

Thankfully, a member of the audience challenged her, suggesting that instead of seeing the French as snobs, resistant to change –linguistic and cultural– British politicians should learn from the pride France’s government takes in local and homegrown cultural offerings, and should take note that its bullish resistance means their small and independent businesses are supported and sustained.

If only our ministers could be persuaded.



Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.