Amazon’s fast and cheap delivery model is under fire as France tries to protect independent bookstores with a minimum delivery fee on books bought online.
Amazon and other online retailers will start charging customers in France a minimum delivery fee of €3 when ordering books online from Saturday (7 October) when a new law comes into effect that’s meant to support independent booksellers.
Before, Amazon charged a single euro cent for delivery, no matter how much the total order cost. The new minimum delivery charge applies to all orders under €35.
The measure, dubbed the “Darcos Law” for author MP Laure Darcos, aims to give independent booksellers a fighting chance at competing with big tech companies like Amazon.
Most small bookshops in France operate on a small margin and can’t afford to cover delivery fees for customers, so they end up charging higher post office delivery fees – at least €4 to ship a single package.
By setting a minimum delivery fee for all retailers selling books, the government is closing a loophole that allowed big conglomerates to charge as little as €0.01. A 2014 law – nicknamed the “anti-Amazon law” had already banned free shipping on books purchased online.
The Darcos Law builds on a long history of the state’s protection of books, considered a major part of the French “cultural exception.”
Prices of French-language books (with the exception of second-hand books) were standardised in 1981, so that consumers pay the same price for the same book no matter where they buy it.
Even discounts are regulated – booksellers aren’t allowed to offer sales of more than 5 percent the normal price.
A mixed reaction
Amazon has been fighting against the directive in court since the law was first passed in 2021. In June, the company filed a complaint with the French Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, claiming that the legislation “conflicts with the law and the right of consumers.”
Until the Council of State makes a ruling, the tech giant must comply, and this week Amazon began informing customers by email that delivery fees would be increasing.
French readers flocked to social media to give their two cents on the measure, with a clear divide between those who saw it as a way to punish readers, and others who celebrated it as a victory for the little guy.
Brittany-based book editor and writer Bleuenn Guillou wrote on X: “Honestly there’s no good reason to buy your books on Amazon (I say this as someone without a bookstore near me and someone who reads and buys a lot of books), you’re just killing the business of bookstores for your own comfort and desire for 24 hour delivery (which is an aberration).
The US tech giant found an unlikely ally in an X user who describes himself as a French “Nationalist Militant”: “Thanks to the dirty leftist bookstores and the government that bends to their will! You’ll have to pay more for books ordered (on Amazon or elsewhere). A stupid measure that will surely result in a decrease in the number of books sold…”Several other users said they would continue to purchase books on Amazon, despite the delivery price hike.
The role of independent bookstores in France
France has one of the highest concentrations of independent brick-and-mortar bookstores in the world – with an estimated 3,500 shops, more than three times as many as in the UK.
Some of them are speciality bookstores, focused on a specific genre or on rare and historic books, and many host regular in-person events like book signings, talks, meetings and exhibitions.
More than just a place to buy books, these independent shops have become a gathering place to socialise with other book lovers and discover new authors, genres and stories.
Fiona, the owner of the Damn Fine Bookstore in Lyon, which sells primarily English-language books, says she decided to open her own shop in 2020 because she was having trouble finding the books she wanted to read.
“I’ve been reading in English for a very long time and I couldn’t find any selection in the indie bookstores that I liked,” she told Euronews Culture. “There were mostly just bestsellers and classics, and I thought maybe I’m not the only one in Lyon that wants to read something other than, like, Harry Potter or Jane Austen.”
Unlike French-language books, English-language books in France can be sold at whatever price the bookseller chooses. Fiona says because of that, she’s never been able to compete with Amazon on prices.
“I can’t fight against Amazon for the prices of books, but I can fight on other planes,” she says.
She hosts a bi-monthly book club where readers discuss either a single book they’ve all read, or different books based on themes. She also has a curated list of recommendations on display in the shop, which are often based on themes as well.
“The book club is something that people really enjoy because it’s a place where they can meet twice a month and talk about books and share their love of books, which is something you can’t really do when you’re in your home and buying on Amazon,” she said.
As for the new minimum delivery fee, she says it’s a step in the right direction, but that she doesn’t see people changing their habits too much. Indie booksellers just have to keep fighting to carve out their own unique space in the market by offering what big online retailers can’t.
“I was talking to colleagues who own bookstores across France and we all sort of agreed that the people who buy on Amazon aren’t going to stop because now the delivery costs three euros,” she said. “I don’t think it will change a lot of things, but it’s still better than nothing.”