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The threat to books

By MARTIN WALKER, UPI Editor Emeritus   |   Feb. 27, 2012 at 6:30 AM   |   Comments

ZURICH, Switzerland, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- How much do we value books these days? It is a question that the Swiss people will answer in a referendum March 11 and the country is bedecked in posters urging people to vote.

The question is simple: Should all bookshops be required to charge the same price for books or should the free market prevail, allowing large chains and supermarkets to sell books at big discounts that small and independent bookstores cannot afford?

Voter turnout will be high because there are other referendum issues on the ballot the same day, including one that would make a law requiring everyone to have six weeks of vacation a year and another to limit the number of vacation homes in any commune to 20 percent of the available beds. The goal is stop expensive resorts like St. Moritz becoming ghost towns of people buying holiday ski chalets that are vacant most of the year.

The book issue seems to be provoking the most debate and certainly seems to inspire the most posters. The "No" camp offers a red poster with a bookworm crawling from the pages of a book and saying "No to fixed prices." The "Yes" camp features a little girl, obviously designed to represent a Swiss national icon, the beloved heroine of the Heidi children's stories, holding up a volume and saying "Yes to the book."

This columnist must declare an interest. As an author who sells a lot of books in Switzerland (my last three "Bruno" mystery novels have all been Top Ten bestsellers) and whose German publisher is based in Zurich, I have trouble being objective on the issue. On this visit to Zurich I did a reading in one bookshop in the city and a book signing session in another.

But being close to this issue gives me a certain insight. Since my books are translated into 15 languages, I know a fair amount about how different cultures and companies run their book trade.

In Germany, where I'm also a best-seller, there is preisbindung, fixed prices that apply to all sellers of books. So the big chain bookstores like Thalia have to charge the same as a tiny village bookstore. The result is that just about every small German town has a bookstore that is like a small cultural center. They organize readings by authors and literary discussions and often do this very imaginatively, accompanied by music or singers, with glasses of wine and even full-scale dinners. Germany is heaven for authors.

My fictional hero is a French policeman in a small Perigord town, famous for its truffles and foie gras, for its cheeses and duck dishes and its love of fine red Bordeaux and Bergerac wines. So I have done readings that were followed by wine tastings and French cheese, accompanied by a guitarist singing French folk songs and even full-scale dinners in which every course had come from one of my books.

This is all very pleasant but even more striking has been to observe what such events and such bookshops have upon the local communities, where people of all ages from teenagers with smartphones to retired folk with hearing aids come together to attend and pay an entrance fee of $10 and more to do so. Those attending all seem to know each other, to love talking about books and literature and where the bookseller is seen to play an unusually strong cultural role in local life.

By contrast, in the United States and Britain, where there is no such price-fixing and the free market reigns, small and independent bookstore have largely disappeared. (There are some splendid exceptions, where the readings are just as good and the attendees know just as much about books as in Germany.)

Even the chains like Borders, whose discount pricing helped drive a lot of the mall stores out of business, have suffered. Borders itself closed as the iron laws of the market grind on. What Borders did to the small stores, supermarkets and Amazon and e-books have done to Borders.

In Britain last year, the latest Harry Potter was on sale in Tesco, a supermarket chain, for 5 pounds -- about $7.50. Small bookstores had to pay almost double that to buy copies direct from the publishers. Even the big chains couldn't compete. And when defenders of the free market say that there are now more places selling books in Britain, they mean supermarkets and kiosks selling a handful of best-sellers and little else. The range of titles and topics to be found in a traditional bookstore isn't available.

It may be that small bookshops face doom anyway with the rise of Amazon and the e-book, since the proposed new Swiss law cannot stop people importing books from a foreign-based Web site. But browsing on the Web isn't the same as spending an hour or two pottering around a good bookstore. And if like me you like to read in the bath, e-books aren't a good idea.

Naturally, people like to pay less if they can and books in Switzerland are expensive (less so in Germany). But books aren't packets of chips of bottles of ketchup. They are essential aspects of our culture and those who focus on price alone are like Oscar Wilde's people who "know the price of everything and the value of nothing."

Were I Swiss, I know which way I'd vote.

© 2012 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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