French publishers voice concerns over rise in used book sales

By Sarah Elzas - RFI
Europe  Christophe EnaAP
© Christophe Ena/AP

French President Emmanuel Macron's announcement of a new tax on used book sales to protect new books is the latest proposal from a government with a history of intervening in the publishing industry to keep it afloat.

While the used book market is on the rise in France, the Emmaus charity – a third of whose online revenue comes from books – is raising the alarm over unfair competition from online retailers.

Macron has proposed adding a tax to used book sales, which he says would help publishers, authors and translators.

Speaking at the annual Paris book fair last weekend, Macron said that used books – most of which are sold on major online retail platforms like Amazon – posed a competitive threat to the price of new books in France.

Culture Minister Rachida Dati would give details of how this contribution would work at a future date, he added.

Used books on rise

Used books do compete with publishers, with lower prices that have become more attractive during times of inflation.

A study by the Culture Ministry and the French authors' rights association Sofia published earlier this month found that the number of people buying used books is going up, while the number of new book sales are staying flat.

Nearly 20 percent of books sold in 2022 were used, though the market value is much lower because of their lower prices.

By some estimates, the used book market is €888 million compared to the €4.3 billion market for new books.

Consumers' reasons for buying used books is driven by price, and not for environmental concerns, which could drive purchases of other types of second-hand items.

Tax should not affect price

The president of the French publishers' association, SNE, says a tax on used books would be minimal.

The used book market is dominated by “major international actors that do not pay taxes in France,” Vincent Montagne on France Culture radio last week, making reference to online retail platforms like Amazon, Rakuten or eBay.

The tax would only apply to them, he said, and not independent used book sellers, like the bouquinistes along the Seine in Paris, or charity shops.

French publishers are protective of their market, as they have the right to set the retail price of their books – including e-books – and sellers cannot offer more than five percent off the cover price.

This comes from a 1981 law passed in response to the threat posed to bookstores by the chain store Fnac and large supermarket retailers, which offered discounts on books that smaller stores could not.

Unfair competition

But the used book market is not subject to the same rules, and some resellers are concerned that they cannot compete in the face of online retailers.

The Emmaus charity, which started selling second hand items online via its Label Emmaus online platform in 2016, has launched a campaign calling out what it says is “unlawful competition” from platforms like Amazon, as well as Shein, Temu and Ali-Express.

A third of sales on the charity's online platform are used books, and it has seen a 20 percent drop in visitors at the start of 2024.

Called “all our books are equal”, the campaign juxtaposes the covers of two biographies, one Emmaus founder Abbé Pierre, and Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.

Director Maud Sarda attributes drops in sales to inflation, but also to the “harmful” strategies of the platforms, including constant advertisement, increasingly rapid delivery, and lower prices.

Last month the National Assembly passed a bill to make fast-fashion less attractive, including a ban on advertising for the cheapest clothes, and an environmental tax added to low-cost items. The Senate has yet to vote on the proposal.

Sarda would like to see laws that would prohibit free delivery, which has been prohibited for new book orders of under €35 since last year.

It is important to act, says Sarda, otherwise the Emmaus model of sustainable consumption will be compromised.

"There is an urgency to fight against these harmful sales practices and prioritise sustainable and fair [consumer] solutions, which run the risk, otherwise of disappearing well and truly."