Burning the bookshops

"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"

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Anonymous said…
Yes, we need more government subsidised films such as "Sex Lives of the Potato Men".
Pliable said…
For those that want to find out more about the comment above follow
this link for a relevant counter argument to subsidies for the film industry.

However, wasn't the mistake in these UK case studies inadequate control over what the subsisdies were used for, rather than a flaw in the principle of cultural subsidies?

Interesting that the French made it work, and the British didn't.
Berend de Boer said…
The French didn't make it work. In The Netherlands you also have lots more Dutch music. It started in the 90s and had not a lot to do with government subsidies. Just people who made better music.

Forcing people to handover money to a government which will then pass it on to their buddies to make stuff nobody normally wants to listen to is the ideal socialist society. Horrible.

Pliable, I'm sure if writers just wrote books that people want to read, we don't need that socialist scheme with its inherent cronyism. The market is the most efficient delivery of goods to men, why rely on something inferior?

Was Mozart's music any the less because he hard to work hard to make a living?

I find the idea horrible that government forces should give us good literature. I'm sure they can't.
Pliable said…
Berend, you make some good points.

But we should remember that many of the great classical composers, from Bach onwards, relied on different forms of subsidy. These usually came in the form of patronage from nobles, royalty or the church. This provided the financial infrastructure within which many of the masterpieces of our culture, from the B Minor Mass downwards, were created.

The understandable removal of this form of patronage has left a vacuum. My post attempted to look at alternatives, and I agree many are flawed.

But would the B Minor have been written in Mass within a 'market' system? I think not.
Pliable said…
....and I should have said the BBC has one of the largest commissioning budgets for new music, with an annual spend in excess of £350,000 ($630,000). This commissioning budget is larger than the turnover of many independent record companies, and results in some wonderful new music being written.

But it is a direct subsidy generated from the mandatory license fee imposed on every UK household.
Berend de Boer said…
If we want patronage, I would advocate introduction of flat tax. That would leave people with an interest in music free to spend their money on some noble goal instead of on the enormous burocracy associated with making government subsidies work and accountable.

Patronage isn't possible these days because you're severely punished if you earn money, i.e. you get taxed till you're poor again.

Would patronage have existed if the nobles had to pay 50% income tax? I think not.

But let me make an even stronger argument: what mainly government supported composer has made any lasting impact?

The BBC has indeed a large budget, but it spends it on its buddies and chums. Stuff that is supposedly art.

Bach and Mozart didn't set out to write art. They wrote beautiful music.
Pliable said…
The BBC license fee is effectively a flat tax, if you are a UK resident you have to pay it.

A number of composers who have received BBC commissions have made a lasting impact. Most obvious are Michael Tippett (Second Symphony and Vision of St Augustine) and Pierre Boulez (Rituel). Others include Panufnik, Arnold, Alwyn, Berkeley Peter Maxwell Davies, Harrison Birtwistle, and Marc-Anthony Turnage.
Pliable said…
Following news story throws interesting light on the French film industry.....

Penguins 'top' French films in US

The film follows the breeding habits of the Emperor Penguin
A documentary about penguins has become the most successful French film at the US box office, reports have said.

The March of the Penguins has sold $66.8m (£36.6m) in tickets since its June release overtaking Luc Besson thriller The Fifth Element.

The documentary is favourite to be named as France's entry for the best foreign language film at the Oscars, according to Screen International.

It follows Emperor penguins walking to their breeding ground in Antarctica.

Luc Jacquet's film is also the second most successful documentary in US box office history after Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 - the first documentary to make more than $100m (£58m) at the North American box office in 2004.

In the French version of the film - which was shot by a four-man crew over 14 months - actors' voices speak for the penguins.

However the US version has been reworked, replacing the actors' voices with a narration by Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman.

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