Since reading The German Solution: Saving Books by Keeping Them Expensive I have felt that I should write a brief post to get some things off my chest. This is mainly from a customer point of view, as I don’t know enough about the bookselling business to voice an objective opinion.
Having grown up in Germany I am well aware of how expensive books can be over there and personally I hardly buy any German books now. For starters, I would not buy German translations of English or American titles as I might as well read them in the original. But it’s also because I could not afford to buy all the books I consume if I lived in Germany.
What bugs me about Buchpreisbindung is this:
1. What about people who cannot afford to buy books at about 10 euros per book? How many books could you afford to buy and how many do you read on average per month?
At the moment I could afford about 2 paperbacks at 10 euros each. So if I wanted to read a book that’s a hardcover and costs 18 euros I could only buy one book for that month. Of course I would opt for a more difficult or thicker book just to make it last through the month then, rather than buy an easy read. So if you saw me with my hardcover 18 euros book you might think I’m very clever or well-read, but maybe I’m just trying to make it last longer by challenging myself. Who says that reading 15 Mills & Boons isn’t good for me instead?
2. A higher price suggests it’s more important.
Content doesn’t have to do anything with the price in the Buchpreisbindung scenario but in the end it’s just a book. It’s there to be consumed, not cherished (unless you are a collector or that book is one you’ll read several times because it’s so good). Culture should be accessible to everyone and a higher price makes whatever the goods are more inaccessible to poorer people.
3. People will shop elsewhere. Internet-savvy people will just order their books from a different country.
I have ordered German books in the UK and sent them over to family members and that was still cheaper than if they had bought them there. Crazy!
And before you say it – let me get to libraries.
Most libraries in Germany charge membership fees. These can range from 20 euros to 40 euros per year (depending on where you live) and there are normally concession available. Children can go for free but if you’ve lost adults earlier on you will have difficulties getting them in as parents. And chil;dren don’t normally come to the library by themselves, do they.
As a student I wasn’t a public library member simply because it cost too much. Yes, if they had had all the books I read it could have been worthwhile to join but they had hardly any of the books I wanted.
I am in favour of a proper apprenticeship for booksellers but that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Buchpreisbindung. If someone is meant to do a job well and with pride they need to be trained. If you don’t train people (in whatever profession) they are not going to be able to deliver a high-quality service, and they might move on as soon as something better/better-paid/better-regarded comes along. Train your staff!
And don’t get me started on Borders. They would have not survived with Buchpreisbindung either. They might have looked all shiny and grand to the customer but behind the scenes it was not like that. There wasn’t much expertise or value.
It’s all very well saying that Germany values reading and sees it as “proper culture” but don’t forget about who gets left behind, who doesn’t feel it’s for them (because it’s a middle class hobby), who can’t afford to get their hands on books.
PS. Apparently three in 10 UK children don’t own any books. In Germany it’s 13.7% (how did I get to 13.7%? See link1 and link2, and hopefully I calculated correctly). That’s only half of the number in the UK. But will that number stay constant once people have more financial difficulties?