"Where books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too." Heinrich Heine
In May 1933 when the Nazis wanted to hit at the heart of Jewish culture they didn't burn i-Pods or mobile phones, or any post-Weimar equivalent of today's technology toys.
They burned books.
In the UK the largest book retailer Waterstones, which operates 200 stores, has made what looks likely to be a successful £96 million ($175m) bid for the country's second largest bookseller, Ottakars. If the takeover succeeds the combined business (nick-named Wottakars by opponents) will control more than 25% of UK book distribution. More importantly it will control 50% of the 'literary' market if the mass market paperback titles sold through supermarkets are excluded. And crucially 29 of Ottakars stores are in the same towns as Waterstones, and will be subject to 'efficiency driven rationalisation'. Which in plain English means closure. And that is the 21st century equivalent of burning books.
Understandably authors, publishers, and agents are up in arms. Derek Johns, President of the Association of Authors’ Agents eloquently sets out the case against the acquisition last week in an open letter to the UK Government's Office of Fair Trading:
"The fewer players there are in the book retail sector, the more likely it will be that decisions about which books to stock and promote will become centralized and limited. This trend is already clearly apparent, having been hastened to a great extent by the rise in book sales through supermarkets, a development which the leading chain booksellers have felt obliged to respond to by promoting (usually price-promoting) a small number of books. And since books are a vital communicator of our culture, the long-term effects of all of this are incalculable."
Waterstones are owned by the music retail group HMV which has 542 stores worldwide. They are not noted for their literary vision. Instead they prefer to devalue books by offering them in 3 for 2 offers. Their objective is to use the same retail tactics in their bookshops as they use in their music stores. Well, as anyone who has visited an HMV store knows, they are not the kind of place you want to spend too much time in. Their commitment to literature was demonstrated by the recent appointment of a new Managing Director from the supermarket sector. Their short term approach to bookselling is shown by their online store, which is no more than a rebranded Amazon.co.uk. Their Head Buyer (who started as a sales assistant in an HMV record shop) prefers flaunting his musical taste for David Darling and the Wulu Bunun in the Sunday supplements to talking about boring things like books. I am not a fan of interventionist economics (or Ottakars, see footnote 2). But the only hope of stopping the equivalent of burning 29 bookshops seems to be intervention by the Competition Enforcement Division at the UK Government's Office of Fair Trading.
May 10th, 1933 showed that books are not just consumer goods, they are a key part of our culture. And that means their availability must be safeguarded. The French solution to the challenge of cultural protection is 'l'exception culturelle' - the cultural exception. The concept originated in 1993, during internationals negotiations preceeding signing of GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade). This was the first time intellectual property and subsidies to the arts and culture were discussed at international trade talks. The discussions came about because the US film industry specifically wanted the elimination of Government subsidies for the French film industry.
French film makers, and other leading intellectuals, argued that the arts should not be subject to the same market forces as other commodities, because they are at the centre of culture. The French proposed that subsisdies, and other protective measures, for the arts should be allowed. In fact they went further, and said they should be positively encouraged in trade agreements to help protect national identities. Canada, and other European countries, supported this argument, and 'l'exception culturelle' became an internationally accepted concept. The World Trade Organisation, which succeeded GATT, now accepts that culture is a commercial exception, and allows protective subsidies.
One example of 'l'exception culturelle' is an 11% tax on movie tickets in France which goes directly to film producers as a subsidy. The results are self evident. France produces 50% more feature films than Britain despite having the same population, and produces more than Germany and Italy combined. Recent French film successes have included Amélie, (poster to right), which was nominated for five Academy Awards in 2001, including Best Original Screenplay.
In Canada directives to protect national identity mean English Canadian radio stations allocate around half their airtime to Canadian artists, and French Canadian stations devote a similar percentage to French language music. France has introduced similar measures, and these received the support of major record labels who saw an opportunity to increase production of French music, rather than simply importing US and British product. This has resulted in stardom for French Canadian artists in France. These include Céline Dion, who exemplifies 'L'exception culturelle' with a personal website in English and French. There has also been a boom in French rap led by artists such as MC Solaar .
It doesn't matter what you call it. 'L'exception culturelle' not only makes sense, but it also works. The concept is essential if we are to protect the availability of good literature, and prevent irreparable damage to our culture. Monastic libraries were the guardians of culture through the Dark Ages. In the 21st century a diverse network of booksellers, from independent stores to multiples and online retailers, provides the same function. We must not let the naked profit motive destroy that, and everything possible should be done to prevent Waterstones acquiring Ottakars.
1. A valuable source for this article was Sixty Million Frenchmen Can't Be Wrong by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow (Robson Books 2003).
2. I am no great fan of Ottakars. The takeover was prompted by their own overblown corporate ambitions. Their web site was down while I was writing this article. Not for 30 minutes - for days! In fact I've just checked, and it's down yet again, so don't blame me if the links don't work. But two flawed players in a market as important as books is a lot less damaging than one.
3. The same 'cultural exception' arguments apply against the 'rationalisation' and 'repositioning' of public libraries. See my post Death of the library.
4. Waterstones and Ottakars are the McDonalds of book retailing. I prefer to dine out at friendly neighbourhood tratorrias like the award winning Aldeburgh Bookshop. Unfortunately they are a dying breed due to the increasing corporate clout of the Waterstones and Ottakars. As Michael Quinlan, Chief Executive of McDonalds said in 1994: "On any given day, McDonalds serves less than one half of one percent of the world's population. That's not enough. We're like Oliver Twist, we want more"
If you enjoyed this post take an overgrown path to The Bookless Mrs Beckham