In an attempt to protect Quebec’s dying small bookstores, the Parti Québécois government is drafting a new law to impose price controls on new releases.
The government announced on Monday that booksellers will be banned from discounting books more than 10 per cent in the first nine months of sales, limiting a tactic big-box stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco have used to take a big piece of the market.
If passed in the spring, the measure would expire in three years to allow the government to evaluate its impact, and it would also cover digital versions, Culture Minister Maka Kotto said.
“Hopefully, this will allow independent booksellers to regain some terrain in the Quebec book market, and will give them necessary resources to face the transition to digital,” Mr. Kotto said. “We want to allow book stores to face up to increasingly ferocious competition.”
However, Mr. Kotto admitted what the law can do is limited. He could not say how it might stop online retailer Amazon from selling cheap books in Quebec. “There’s not much we can do about the giants,” he said.
A coalition of independent booksellers and publishers launched a campaign more than a year ago for a minimum price on books. Élodie Comtois of the umbrella group Sauvons les livres said big-box sellers have created near monopolies on books and driven up prices in countries without price regulation.
She said the trend is well under way in Quebec, where 15 of Quebec’s 220 independent booksellers have gone out of business in two years.
“We’re hopeful this first step will allow small sellers to have a little oxygen,” Ms. Comtois said. “This measure does not punish consumers, not at all. In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, where independent sellers have gone all but extinct, book prices have actually risen. We want to prevent that here.”
However, the view is far from unanimous in the province – major homegrown sellers such as Québec Amérique and Renaud-Bray have denounced price regulation as counterproductive.
Blaise Renaud, chief executive officer at Renaud-Bray, said price wars are already very rare among French booksellers, who tend to follow suggested retail prices. English-language sellers are hard-pressed to compete with deep online discounts from outside the province, he said.
“How will they deal with Internet sellers in Ontario and the United States who will still be able to offer rebates to Quebec consumers?” Mr. Renaud said. “I think this will be very difficult on the English side.”
Mr. Renaud said people who buy books at Costco are generally making an impulse buy and are not likely to be pushed to a small bookshop. He says price regulation will only reduce sales at big stores and drive up the average price for consumers.
Ms. Comtois said Internet sellers such as Amazon have abided by the law in countries like Germany, France and Japan, which regulate book prices.
France is toughening laws to crack down on Amazon and other online sellers, which the government says dump books in the market to the detriment of small local book stores.
Some big national sellers such as Amazon and Indigo Books & Music declined to comment or could not be reached Monday.