Quebec government considers plan to regulate price of books

QUEBEC – The days when you could pick up a cut-price paperback in a supermarket, or go online to buy the latest bestseller on the cheap may soon be over in Quebec.

In an effort to save small book shops, the Parti Quebecois is considering a plan to regulate the price of books.

The plan would ensure that when consumers buy a book, whether it’s sold in an independent shop, a large chain, online or as a digital version, they would pay approximately the same price.

READ MORE: Ebook sales in Canada plateauing: report

Concerns have been raised because the market share for small, independent bookstores has fallen from 35 per cent in 2006 to 28 per cent in 2010.

The Quebec Writer’s Federation has thrown its support behind regulation. Spokesperson and author David Homel told Global News that most people involved in the book industry are behind the plan.

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“Right now, the megastores are selling a very small number of books for very big discounts that independents and small chains just can’t offer,” he said.

He pointed out that if small booksellers close, it has an enormous impact on writers.

“I’ve never had a book launch or a reading in a superstore, but I have had many in a real book shop.”

WATCH: Extended interview with author David Homel on book price regulation

Last summer, several stakeholders in the book industry launched a campaign to raise awareness of the issue, called “Our books at a fair price.”

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One of the other organizations behind the campaign is the Quebec Writers’ Union (UNEQ), which noted that its 1,400 members are particularly concerned by the consequences of online and megastore price discounting.

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Danièle Simpson, UNEQ president said in a statement that “a policy of regulating the price of books is urgently required to ensure the survival of the network of bookstores across the province, which have been particularly weakened by a decline in sales.”

The union’s position is that with fewer independent bookstores, Quebecers’ access to a variety of books and literary works becomes limited.

“The status quo is no longer possible if we wish to avoid a loss of bibliodiversity,” said UNEQ board member Sylvie Desrosiers said on Thursday.

But the largest chain of French-language bookstores in North America and the biggest bookstore chain in Canada after Chapters/Indigo doesn’t believe that regulation would help with bibliodiversity, and it does not support book price fixing.

“We’re against the proposed regulations,” the president and CEO of Renaud-Bray, Blaise Renaud, told Global News.

He noted that global profits for Quebec distributors saw an increase from 4 to 6 per cent between 2004 and 2009, while booksellers’ profits decreased from 2.2 to less than 1 per cent.

“People didn’t question whether the regulation would help booksellers,” he said. “In fact, the measure won’t save the independent bookstores, it will just make the distributors even more money.”

Another serious concern for him is how the regulation would be enforced.

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“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.

READ MORE: Q & A: How will the country’s copyright laws affect Canadians?

The Quebec government’s plans come on the heels of similar legislation in France, called the “Lang Law” after the country’s culture minister at the time.

The law, extended to include ebooks in 2011, allows a publisher to decide on a price for a book, which is then printed on the back. Booksellers cannot legally sell the book for a discount of more than 5 per cent below the publisher’s price.

Those who support similar legislation in Quebec are asking for a discount limit of 10 per cent, for a duration of nine months.

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In France, the law has helped keep many small bookstores in business. Between 2003 and 2011, book sales in France went up by 6.5 per cent, even though, according to Nielsen BookScan, world book sales are declining.

But the fate of English and French booksellers in the country may not follow the same path.

Despite the Lang Law, an infamous English-language bookstore nestled in central Paris was was forced to close its doors in 2012.

Called the Village Voice Bookshop, it didn’t have one advantage that some French booksellers have: additional subsidies from a variety of agencies like the National Book Centre or the Association for the Development of the Bookstore of Creation. Such funding helps French booksellers set up and survive – and gives them a competitive edge over their anglophone counterparts.

Back in Canada, a parliamentary commission on the issue, spearheaded by Quebec’s Culture Minister Maka Kotto, is set to begin on Monday Aug. 19.

For those wondering what position the Retail Council of Canada’s is taking on the matter, they will have to wait until Nathalie St-Pierre, vice president of the Quebec division, goes before the commission on August 26.

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