Swiss booksellers and publishers are currently facing tough times, prompted by the economic crisis, online and discounter competition and e-books.
Many hope that a return to a fixed book price system will help solve their problems. Another way out could be specialisation.
“It’s the third year in a row that we are battling a fall in turnover. This is higher than in the rest of the retail trade,” Daniel Landolf, director of the Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association, told swissinfo.ch.
The strong franc, pressure from discount retailers, the lack of a fixed price system and e-books have caused a crisis in the industry, said Landolf. Huge structural changes lie ahead.
“We have all sorts of problems,” said publisher Francine Bouchet, director of Geneva-based La Joie de Lire publishers at her stand at the Basel Book Fair. “We make 70 per cent of our turnover in France and value-added tax has gone up there, also for books.”
Nevertheless, the Basel Book Fair, held earlier this month, showed that there was still interest in reading: there were 20 per cent more exhibitors and four per cent more visitors than the previous year, an indication of the tenacity of the Swiss book industry.
Booksellers and publishers are hoping that book sales could be boosted by the reintroduction of fixed prices for books, after the system was dropped in 2007. This was accepted by parliament in March but has been stalled by opponents.
They claim that fixed book prices go against consumers and will lead to a book cartel - and have gathered enough signatures to force a referendum on March 11 next year.
“Since fixed prices have been done away with, there has been uncontrolled growth in book prices,” said Anne Riesen, of Bern Zytglogge Publishers, another Basel Book Fair participant.
“Everyone is on a level playing field [with fixed book prices] and you don't have to lure people with discounts,” added Heinz Scheidegger from publishers Edition 8.
Both companies belong to the Swiss Independent Publishers Association which counts more than 20 members.
Diversity and protection
As for the Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association, it has decided to start a campaign ahead of the vote.
A fixed book price agreement would give the industry a certain protection from price dumping and discounter competition, said Landolf.
It would also protect the diversity of bookshops, he added, “so that we don’t end up like Britain where more than half of cities do not have a bookshop and are therefore culturally impoverished”.
Many see an opportunity for booksellers in specialisation. “The experience of the past few years without fixed prices shows that bookstores that have specialised or have positioned themselves in the market their own way have come through the crisis well,” said Fritz Hartmann, Swiss representative of the German Suhrkamp publishing house.
Switzerland’s largest bookseller Thalia Switzerland did not, however, have a single book on its stand - only e-books.
“We believe that digital reading is also going to grow in Switzerland and will be an important pillar for us in the future,” the company’s Irina Jermann told swissinfo.ch.
The other pillars to counter the crisis, which also affects big retailers, will be its online presence and an enhanced range of books, she added.
The book industry has been trying for years not to make the same mistakes that the record industry made over downloads, said Landolf. And it seems that smaller publishers have also jumped on the bandwagon - although hardly anyone is making a profit with e-books.
Digitalisation is of course a challenge, but as La Joie de Lire’s Bouchet put it: “fear is a poor advisor”.
“We have started digitalising all our literary titles. We are getting help from the Centre National des Lettres in Paris.”
Zytglogge is also getting into the digital game. “It is a great opportunity for books that are out of print or have only been published in small numbers,” Riesen said.
Scheidegger from Edition 8 is, however, convinced that the e-book will not replace the book. “In the coming years there will definitely be a coexistence of the two,” he said.
According to the Swiss Booksellers and Publishers Association, there are no reliable figures to provide an overall picture of how the sector is faring.
But the number of book stores is, however, decreasing every year. Federal Statistics Office figures show the number of book stores fell from 622 to 599 between 1991 and 2005.
In 2005 there were 415 traders in German-speaking Switzerland, 154 in the French-speaking part of the country and 30 in Italian-speaking Switzerland.
According to the Handelszeitung newspaper there were just 290 book stores active in German-speaking Switzerland by the end of 2010.
Figures from Media Control show a drop in turnover of more than 13 per cent between August 2010 and August 2011.
Publishers are not faring any better: Handelszeitung reported that nine publishers have had to close since 1990 while 20 were saved by being taken over by competitorsend of infobox
In March of this year parliament endorsed a plan to re-introduce fixed prices for in-store and online book sales in Switzerland.
The policy, which had been under pressure for nearly 20 years, was lifted for the majority German-speaking part of the country in 2007.
But a cross-party committee challenged the decision, launching a referendum under the slogan “No to expensive books”. The campaign gathered enough signatures and the people will vote on the issue on March 11, 2012.
In theory a fixed price system leads to non-price competition between booksellers to promote little-known or otherwise culturally interesting books rather than catering only to readers of blockbusters.
A fixed book price agreement exists in most European countries; notable countries without an agreement are Britain and the United States.
(Adapted from German by Clare O'Dea), swissinfo.ch