On August 22, 2012, 13 days before Quebecers went to the polls in one of the most hotly contested provincial elections of the past two decades, Quebec’s book industry launched its One Price for Books campaign (noslivresàjusteprix.com). The goal was to convince legislators to impose a single price on each new title for all booksellers and general resellers for the first nine months that it is available for sale, albeit with a provision for limited discounting. So far, the One Price for Books campaign is working, and the idea has gained such momentum that Pauline Marois, Quebec’s first woman prime minister, has announced that a parliamentary committee will meet to discuss the matter sometime in the spring of 2013. That could potentially pave the way for a law to be passed on a fixed price for books in the fall of 2013 or the spring of 2014.
The book industry in Quebec—authors, publishers, distributors, and booksellers—contends that it needs to be further protected if it is to face competition from big-box stores and gigantic digital book resellers. “If we do nothing, we could very well be caught in a price war between two resellers,” said Jean-François Bouchard, president of the biggest French-language publishers association in Quebec (ANEL). “That would mean that only a small minority of books—mostly bestsellers—would be sold. And little by little, independent bookstores would disappear, taking with them the diversity of their offer,” contends Bouchard.
Quebec’s book industry wants to protect what it calls bibliodiversity—that is, being able to offer a wide range of works by Quebec authors. Currently there are 6,000 books published every year in Quebec, and of these, only 300 to 350 French-language titles make it to the shelves of big-box stores. Many of those 300 books do not even originate from Quebec publishers, as the province is flooded every year with upwards of 20,000 titles coming from France or American translations. Thanks to Quebec’s Book Law, accredited independent bookstores must have a running inventory of at least 6,000 titles. This is one of the many things that hold together Quebec’s infamous Book Chain, a self-regulating book market that relies on the interdependence of each player. As the majority of sales of a new title occur in the first year, independent bookstores are at a disadvantage when big-box stores give deep discounts. The One Price for Books Campaign suggests capping discounts at 5% or 10% for the first nine months. “The goal isn’t to intervene just for the sake of government intervention, rather we are asking for state intervention in order to protect our culture in order to have a flourishing and living language,” explained Bouchard.
If the road toward a fast-tracked legislation looks good for the proponents of the One Price for Books campaign, the outlook for the government itself is more uncertain. Marois formed a narrow minority government on September 4, and minority governments have an average 18-month lifespan in Canada. But if the Marois government does stand on its feet long enough, there are strong indications that it will pass a fixed-price law for books.
With roughly a hundred independent bookstores in Quebec making a 1% operating margin, local authors making an average salary of $2,450 a year, and copyrights under constant attack, the notion of a fixed price for books isn’t really about making money, but rather trying to preserve Quebec’s fragile Book Chain and bibliodiversity.