December 9, 2013

How have fixed book prices affected Mexican bookselling?


El Pendulo bookstore in Mexico City.

El Pendulo bookstore in Mexico City.

It’s been five years since the Mexican senate voted to fix book prices, but in a recent speech, Marcelo Uribe, director of the publishing house Ediciones Era and vice-president of the Mexican Publishers Association at the time the law was passed, suggested that the experiment has had only mixed success.

Uribe was speaking at the Guadalajara Book Fair, where he received the Publishing Merit Award for his many years as an editor, writer and translator. However, he took the occasion as an opportunity to speak forcefully about the implementation of a law he was instrumental in getting passed.

And the news is not good. When the senate voted to fix prices for 18 months after a book’s publication back in 2008, it was intended to be a tool to combat years of bookstore closures and arbitrary pricing and discounting. But the law that was passed had no provisions for enforcing it, and so the situation has become ever more chaotic. Booksellers who follow the law are undercut by others who don’t, and the latter aren’t penalized — and this is an issue that’s particularly bad for smaller or farflung bookstores, which the law was meant to support in the first place.

Interviewed for an article by Yanet Aguilar in El Universal, Ronaldo Arnesto, head of the bookstore chain Librerías Dante, was adamant that the law wasn’t working: “I think it’s absurd and unjust,” he said, “It’s harmful to booksellers and it’s harmful to books.”

Uribe echoed this opinion at the Guadalajara Book Fair (which wrapped up just yesterday, with the fair’s biggest award, the FIL Literary Award in Romance Languages, going to Yves Bonnefoy), saying:

No country that operates a book law has committed the absurd error of trying to maintain discounts and a fixed price at the same time. All the effective book laws were born out of the clear and unequivocal desire to provide opportunities for books, booksellers, readers and for society to have democratic access to books, with more books that are more accessible.

To be fair, whenever nations institute fixed book pricing, there’s an enormous amount to balance and work out: in Israel, for instance, where a similar law banning discounts for 18 months passed its first hearing in the Knesset last year, debates rage on about whether fixed book pricing actually ends up hurting the more vulnerable players in the field.

Avi Shumer, the CEO of Tzomet Sfarim, one of the two bookstore chains that dominate Israeli bookselling argued in a Haaretz article earlier this year that, if the law goes into effect, “the famous authors who do well in any case will continue making money, but the publishers won’t release new books because they won’t sell at a high price.”

These debates have also been going on in Quebec this summer, as the province weighed whether or not to introduce fixed pricing to support its indie bookselling community in the face of giant internet retailers. Twenty independent booksellers have closed their doors in the past three years alone, according to the Union of Quebec Authors’ representative Sylvie Desrosiers, who spoke in parliamentary hearings this June.

Some of those who object to the idea argue that the stores’ inability to discount will hurt lower and middle-income bookbuyers disproportionately, and that it will shrink the market overall. Enforcement is also a concern: Blaise Renaud, the president and CEO of the largest Quebecois bookstore chain, Renaud-Bray, was interviewed for a Global News piece by Amanda Kelly on the subject:

“I own a store in Gatineau, so customers can just cross the river to Ottawa and buy their books there,” he noted.

Enforcing book prices would also extend to online sales.

Unlike Amazon and Indigo, Renaud-Bray’s warehouses are in Quebec, and so it would be the only company to have its online sales affected by the price regulation.

Still, the experience of France and other countries with fixed book pricing suggests that it’s not impossible to make this work. The obstacles are not so tremendous, and the gains are not so negligible, that it’s simply more pragmatic to let all the cutthroats go at each other, which tends to be the implicit argument underlying objections to fixed book pricing. Uribe’s call to arms — he called for a “larger and healthier book market, to bring books back to the people and recreate that space for a daily encounter with books” — is worth cheering on.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.