Back in the day, you could tell a lot about the culture of a place by browsing its bookstores. Every high street in Britain had one, every German hamlet, tiniest French or Italian village. And even small towns in Canada boasted a homegrown bookseller or two. These weren’t just storefronts, they were windows into regional cultures and national languages.
The nostalgic vision of books as cultural products (not just consumer goods) and bookstores as guardians of literary creation has been pretty much wiped off most of the Canadian map. It’s no surprise, however, that it’s alive and well in Quebec, and resurfacing in the form of a parliamentary commission on the price of books. At issue in the commission, which opened Monday, is whether the government should fix a limit of 10 per cent discounts on newly published books and bestsellers sold in the province.
This question has had political resonance since 2000, when the Parti Québécois government at the time attempted to regulate the price of books through a measure modelled on the “Loi Lang” (named for France’s charismatic culture minister, Jack Lang) that many European countries adopted to avoid cut-rate discounting affecting independent booksellers and publishing houses.
Last summer’s election campaign reopened the debate, with strong pressure from Quebec’s cultural industry (in particular the union of writers, French-language publishers and independent booksellers) railing against big-box and chain-store discounts on bestsellers that lead to loss of potential profits and foot traffic for local retailers, and the difficulty of finding market outlets for smaller publishers.
Opponents may decry cultural snobbism – does it really matter if people buy books alongside bed sheets and bicycles at Costco? – but there is no denying the economic importance of books, representing the largest slice of the cultural industry in Quebec (over $800-million a year and 12,000 jobs). The Salons du Livre, huge annual book fairs in Montreal, Quebec City and many regional centres, are key events that attract thousands of shoppers and sellers. And, of course, there is the strong pull of cultural sovereignty at work: As these smaller bookshops and publishing houses fail, the argument goes, so too does the potential for nurturing new writers, showcasing local talent, fostering regional diversity and sustaining a market for “national” cultural products.
Still, despite the significance of cultural sovereignty, it’s an awkward matter for the current PQ minority to take on, which may be why the parliamentary commission is only starting now, late in the summer and without the National Assembly sitting. There may be some electoral gain in the urban left-wing of the party spectrum, such as Québec Solidaire supporters, and some pockets of regional resonance. But for the majority of voters – particularly in suburban and ex-urban ridings that the PQ hopes to attract and maintain – this is an issue past its due date. Consumers are now buying their books in big-box and chain stores – including the primarily French-language behemoth, Renaud-Bray – and will continue to do so online as well, where no price regulation can affect distribution from warehouses outside Quebec.
Given the economic and cultural significance, not to mention its relative fragility in a North American marketplace, Quebec’s book industry – from creation to distribution – would no doubt benefit from innovative policies to ensure a healthy competition among a variety of vendors, and the continued vibrancy of writers and publishers.
The question is whether price regulation, difficult to implement and controversial to maintain, is the only solution. This proposal, which the PQ had not been able to enact when it held a majority, may be destined to fail, but it does raise important questions about what governments should do about valuable cultural assets when the line between culture and commerce is blurred.
Antonia Maioni is an associate professor at McGill University.
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