E-books in France a non!starter

François Hollande, who was once photographed engrossed in French History for Dummies on a dinghy, will no doubt find that his holiday reading is scrutinised this summer. But if he is like most of the French population, he is more likely to be packing a stack of paperbacks than a digital reader.

E-books in France have been slow to catch on as readers overwhelmingly prefer the printed page.

Reading habits were back on the political agenda in France this week when Hollande’s government, vowing to protect the printed word and France’s bookish reputation, announced it would cancel former president Nicolas Sarkozy’s controversial value-added tax rise on books.

In contrast to the United Kingdom’s famous three-for-two deals, the French state fixes the prices of books and readers pay the same whether they buy online, at a high-street giant or a small bookseller. Discounting is banned.

The government boasts that price controls have saved small independent bookshops from the ravages of free-market capitalism, which was unleashed in the UK when it abandoned fixed prices in the 1990s. France has more than 3 000 independent local bookshops and 400 in Paris, compared with about 1 000 in the UK and only 130 in London. But online book giants are still eating into small bookshops, many of which struggle to stay afloat.

The next question obsessing the market watchers is whether old habits will change and the e-book will catch on in France. The state price-fixing rule has been extended to digital reading. But the change is not just a question of cost. Surveys have shown that the majority of French readers, like those in Germany, still prefer paper books to reading on screens.

Although sales of English-language e-books have grown rapidly in France — to about 20% of total book sales in the United States and almost 10% in the UK — predictions for this year are hovering at about 3% of the market. Some publishing giants are confident that e-book growth will come to France in time, but for now the paperback has the advantage. — © Guardian News & Media 2012

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