Preparation is underway for the national vote next month in Switzerland. On March 11, citizens will vote on five different referenda. Among the proposals, a limit on the number of secondary residences per commune, an increase of the minimum amount of paid vacation to six weeks, and the regulation of book prices.
In Lausanne, the first billboards to go up were those sponsored by the committee supporting the single price for books. With their bright blue and red colors, the snow-covered Alps in the background and a young Heidi-like figure holding a book high aloft, the Oui Au Livre (Yes To The Book) Campaign first caught my eye on the way to work Monday morning.
What’s all this about?
The subject of the referendum is a law that was passed by the Federal Assembly of the Swiss Confederation in March, 2011 but was brought into question by a petition with over 58,000 signatures against it. As permitted by the Swiss Constitution, the final outcome of the law will thus be decided by citizens via a national referendum.
I’ve read the text of the law in French. According to the preamble, the law seeks to “promote the diversity and quality of the book as a cultural asset; guarantee that the largest possible number of readers have access to books under the best conditions.” To achieve this objective, it employs a surprising means: bookstores will be required to sell books at the price determined by the publisher or importer of the book. Discounts are allowed up to 5% of the fixed price for single sales. Larger discounts are allowed for sales of multiple copies of the same book or for public libraries or institutions with fixed budgets. The discounts generally range from 10-20% depending on the number of copies or the size of the library’s annual budget. Libraries with annual budgets of over 1 million Swiss francs can receive unlimited discounts. Unlimited discounts also apply to block sales of closely related works (series?) or subscriptions.
The law will apply to new books in one of the Swiss national languages and published in, imported to, or commercialized in Switzerland.
It may seem surprising that this law has received a lot of attention, but I think the cultural importance of books in Switzerland makes it a focal point for those concerned with the changes brought about by globalization, the Internet, and the digitization of media. It’s not surprising that publishers and bookstores are in favor of this law, but according to an article I read on the TSR website, the majority of authors and consumer associations are in favor as well.
It’s not often you hear interviews with members of the Pirate Party in Switzerland, but TSR took the unusual step of asking Pascal Gloor, one of the founders of the party, what he thought about the law. I’ve translated a few paragraphs of his answer that I found particularly relevant.
[TSR] According to the supporters of the law, bookstores, and especially independent bookstores, rightly play an essential economic and cultural role in the market for books.
[Pascale Gloor] Today, consumers want to be able to go to a single place and buy everything right there. The difference in price between the same book in a bookstore, in a large specialized retailer like FNAC or in a department store isn’t enormous, of order two or three francs. Consequently, frankly, I don’t think that the single price is going to encourage Swiss people to return to the bookstores. The world evolves, and it’s not the law that will change that.
[TSR] Independent bookstores, are they then, according to you, condemned to disappear?
[Pascal Gloor] I don’t think so. Some people will always agree to pay more for a better quality service. Look at Swisscom in the telecom sector: it’s the most expensive provider in the country, and still it represents two-thirds of the mobile market. A warm welcome, more relevant advice, a personalized offer, faster delivery, etc. it is this qualitative added value that can save independent bookstores, not the single price. But obviously, if your little bookstore doesn’t provide anything better than Amazon, it doesn’t stand a chance!
I remember when I first came to Switzerland over a decade ago. I was shocked to find that the price of an English-language paperback, usually from the NYT Best Seller list, was around 25 Swiss francs. Given the exchange rate at the time, that was about 35 dollars. Thirty-five dollars for a paperback! Of course, English is not one of the national languages of Switzerland and the market is arguably small, plus there’s the stock issue. I expected to pay a higher price, but over twice as much? Then I realized that it wasn’t just English-language books that were expensive, they all were. English books perhaps slightly more so.
Now it seems that everyone agrees that there is a problem with book prices in Switzerland: they are too high. On the other hand I think it quite remarkable than anyone thinks the answer to this is letting publishers and importers set the price for each book. They have a vested interest in keeping prices as high as possible. The text of the law contains a provision for an overseer who will watch the evolution of book prices and can step in if the maximum price deviates too much from that practiced abroad, however it’s hard to justify such a system, especially when the criteria for concluding that a price is abusive are difficult to verify (costs and fair profits) and when the overseer is considered to act in concert with interested parties.
On the other hand, I wonder if there’s not some confusion about the problem and its solution. Hardly anyone who loves books wants to imagine the end of bookstores. In fact, those in favor of the law play on this in their propaganda, in which they proclaim their goal is to save bookstores, lower book prices, and make books available as widely and to as many people as possible.
However, it seems to me that if people were serious about guaranteeing “that the largest possible number of readers have access to books under the best conditions,” they’d probably be better off supporting efforts to provide open/free access to books, online bookstores selling at the best prices and real copyright reform. [Swiss law is similar to that of other European nations, extending copyright to 70 years after the death of an author.]
I think the real reason people want to save bookstores isn’t because they believe bookstores are acting in their interests, rather it may be because bookstores provide a visible place to find books. Those of us who spend a lot of time online shouldn’t forget that we nevertheless live in the physical world. I think people wonder where they will find out about books without bookstores. You know, out of sight, out of mind. I think there’s something to that. It is hard to imagine how culture will flourish if you can’t see it. Books are a part of culture, and bookstores are a visible place where people can go to find them. I think many find it hard to imagine that Internet will replace that, or fear that we will lose something if there is no longer a place you can see and visit.
Of course, the obvious answer to me is libraries, but I think there may also be other ways to make books more visible to people in everyday life. If you read this article and have ideas or know of projects that bring books into other parts of the physical world, please leave me a comment. I think that would be a great topic for a future post.