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Discount, and be damned - why the French found they needed a net book agreement

Those who hailed the recent demise of the Net Book Agreement as a victory for the consumer may well live to repent their jubilation. A cautionary tale: when book prices were decontrolled in France in 1979, it quickly became apparent that the consumer had not benefited. Which is why, after two years of turmoil and many bookshop closures, the price free-for-all was abandoned and a law was brought in on 1 January 1982 instituting a regime virtually equivalent to the Net Book Agreement. This prevails today, and is now deemed essential to a healthy book trade that gives value for money to bookbuyers.

The decision to abolish the recommended price system that had operated up to 1979 was taken by the economy minister, Rene Monory, with the aim of curbing the activities of discount outlets and encouraging competition. Under the new Monory Decree, control passed from publishers to booksellers, who were now free to price their stock. Publishers were not even entitled to print recommended prices on books or in advertising.

But instead of putting the brakes on the discounters, the new system gave them a massive boost. As Christian Bourgois, a publisher, said at the time: "They don't need to advertise because everyone is convinced they're giving huge discounts, even when they're only reducing the price of a few popular titles."

So small-scale booksellers, who couldn't compete, rapidly lost sales, not just on the latest fiction, but on the popular reference books that represented their bread-and-butter. This meant, said bookseller Marie- Pierre Galley, that ordinary bookshops could not afford to tie up capital by stocking slower-selling titles such as poetry, literary fiction or serious non-fiction.

Desperate booksellers upped the prices of these less "commercial" titles. The French Booksellers Federation had initially welcomed the idea of booksellers taking control of their destiny; they had second thoughts when many of their members,turnover plummeting, began reducing their stock and filling their shelves with stationery and gifts. Many small independents went to the wall.

Publishers were far from happy as books were returned in huge numbers: the Presses de la Cite group found its returns rate had risen by 5 per cent. Statistics revealed alarming discrepancies in types of books sold. "Titles that work in a self-service environment have done spectacularly well," explained the association's president, Jean-Luc Pidoux-Payot. "But books that don't lend themselves to mass-market distribution have done disastrously." A third of members experienced their first drop in turnover in real terms.

Drastic measures were taken. Famous publishing houses such as Le Seuil reported that they had to cancel titles. Many of their fellow publishers discontinued series or abandoned new projects.

The reduced range of titles was one of the negative factors highlighted in a February 1980 report in Que Choisir? (France's Which?). Originally staunch advocates of abolishing price controls on books, the magazine's publishers, the French Consumers Union, had now decided that the Monory Decree was bad news. Availability of books had decreased because of bookshop closures. And those not living near a large bookshop or book- stocking supermarket had to pay higher prices - always supposing their local bookshop had survived. There was growing concern at this undemocratic situation whereby the same book cost more in towns and villages than in cities. The novelist Francois Caradec fulminated that the "right of access to information is being undermined. Wherever you live in France, your newspaper and your television licence cost the same, so that should go for books, too."

Que choisir? calculated that price differentials could be as high as 112 per cent. And the survey showed average book prices were rising much faster then the retail price index.

The incoming president, Francois Mitterrand, urged action. Two years to the day from the introduction of the Monory Decree, the arts minister, Jack Lang, announced its abolition. The replacement Lang Act, outlawing discounts higher than 5 per cent and compels even supermarkets to accept customer orders, finds few detractors today. "It has protected books from the recession," insists Seuil's chairman, Claude Cherki. "Small bookshops can survive and afford to promote new authors."

Like other top publishers, he is bemused by the collapse of the Net Book Agreement. "I'm appalled," says Minuit's Jerome Lindon. "The public is bound to lose out, as it did in France."

It seems curious that British publishers do not appear to have learnt from the French experience - or to remember that all western European countries except Belgium and Sweden have fixed prices for books. David Campbell, who returned to Britain to relaunch Everyman after a long stint as international publishing director of the French publisher Hachette, shakes his head in disbelief: "I find it extraordinary to hear about the loss of the agreement dragging British bookselling into the modern world, when one of our major trading partners, with a strong book industry and strong cultural tradition, actually found out that price freedom was a disaster."