Marketing dispute slims the shelves in Paris bookshops

It is hard to find newly published books in Paris shops this spring. The shortage is not due to a sudden buying rush. The shop owners themselves are responsible. They are angry at a decision by the wholesale distributors to make them pay delivery charges on new publications. To put teeth into their discontent, the capital's bookshops have been boycotting new publications altogether.

The Paris storekeepers were not in the least worried about the shadow their action cast on the annual Paris book fair, which attracted 146,000 visitors and 900 exhibitors during its six-day run in mid-April. In fact, the shopkeepers would be only too happy if the fair were not held at all.

They disapprove of it because publishers sell books direct to the public at the fair, boosting sales through the presence of authors indefatigably signing copies of their work.

To demonstrate their feelings, the bookstore owners staged a protest march outside the Grand Palais hall, where the fair was held, and refused to take part in the show.

Despite this outburst of unrest, the French book world is far from dire straits financially. In fact, in comparison with many other countries, it is in relatively good shape.

The number of new books appearing last year hit 42,219, 15 percent above the 1979 figure. While at least one of the country's top publishers is suffering from declining business, another - the Flammarion Company - reported a 28 percent jump in sales last year. Pocket books are booming. Last year saw a 15 percent rise in the number published. A program about books holds down a prime-time television slot on Friday nights. France also has a President who is a fine writer and could well have made a literary career if he had not been such an accomplished politician.

But the man who has really brought joy to the French book business in the past two years is the minister of culture, Jack Lang. Mr. Lang has stirred an international controversy with his attacks on American commercial culture, epitomized in French eyes by the huge success here of TV's ''Dallas.''

For all the publicity generated by the minister's attacks on ''cultural imperialism,'' his most concrete achievement has been ''the Lang law.'' The law states that books must be sold within a 5-percent margin of the price laid down by the publishers. This means that the advantage of heavy discounting of books by big store chains has been undermined, and small stores can keep their retail markups.

Preventing stores from selling books cheaply might seem a contradictory action for a government that proclaims its desire to spread culture more widely through the French population. But Mr. Lang's law responds to growing concern among publishers and small bookstores that the activities of big price-cutting chains would destroy them.

Small stores had found themselves losing trade to the big chains and unable to offer competitive discounts. Publishers warned that, as more and more of their outlets went out of business, they would be able to issue fewer books and would increasingly become prisoners of the big chains.

Mr. Lang's law, which is due for review this summer, has the disadvantage of contributing to inflation at a time when the Mitterrand administration is trying to have French prices cut. The big bookstore chains have been hit hard. One of them, the FNAC group, which accounts for 8 percent of book sales in France, reports that volume sales have fallen 30 to 35 percent.

But the little stores, which keep books flowing into the small and medium towns, could not be happier. There remains, though, some question as to whether the Lang law will stand.

A large supermarket chain that decided to go on selling books at a discount was taken to court this spring. The judgment was that anything that threatened free competition was against the laws of the European Common Market. So the supermarket chain continues to sell books cheap, and the Lang law may be in trouble with the Common Market.

But French book publishers and small stores intend to stick by the law, even though it has meant a 12-percent increase in book prices in the past year.

Their stand is based on a desire to avoid getting into the same position as the American publishing business.

As Edouard de Andreis, with one of the top French publishing houses, Les Editions du Seuil, put it, ''The American situation at present is as follows: The sales of books is in the hands of several big chains. The publisher has to go to see them before publishing a book and ask, 'How many will you take?' If the number is not enough, the book is not published. We must avoid such a situation in France.''

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