The Quirks of Buying Books in Germany: Fixed Pricing and the ‘Buchpreisbindung’

I regularly receive promotional offers from a German book store chain called Thalia for discounts on their products (e.g. “12% off everything today!”). However, there’s always a little asterisk, and in the fine print you see something to the effect of:

*Not valid for use on books or ebooks due to the Buchpreisbindung.

Given this is primarily a book store, it seemed pretty strange they never sent me discount vouchers to tempt me to buy actual books. One day, however, I was placing an order and figured I’d just slap in the discount code to see if it worked. It did.

For a second I thought I had tricked their system. Then I looked at an old promo email and saw it mentioned discounts on Fremdsprachige Bücher (foreign-language books).

I do plan to read some German-language books eventually, for example: Die Haarteppichknüpfera sci-fi by Andreas Eschbach; and Momoa fantasy by Michael Ende, who wrote Die Unendliche Geschichte / The Neverending Story… but I am still working up to the challenge. So all the books I’d ordered were imported, English-language ones.

To test the theory, I added a german-language book to my cart. When I tried to apply the discount it warned me that because of the “Buchpreisbindung” the discount couldn’t be applied. I found this utterly bizarre… but also kind of fascinating.

What Is the Buchpreisbindung?

The Buchpreisbindungsgesetz (go epic German words!) is a law that requires all German booksellers to sell new books for a set price, and for no more and no less than that price. It also applies to printed music and cartographic products, and it’s been around in some form or other since 1888.

Once books have been published for 18 months, this set price no longer applies.
[Correction thanks to a comment below: Publishers set the prices for particular editions of a book, and can remove the fixed price restriction whenever they want. So while 18 months might be a typical period after which it is lifted, publishers can extend the set price for as long as they like].

The set price also doesn’t apply if the books are imported from countries without a Buchpreisbindung, if the seller is having a closing down sale, if the books are second hand, or if the books are damaged or defective. For more info (in German), see: Buchpreisbindung.

Why Does It Exist?

The reasoning behind it is that books are objects of cultural value. The set price is intended to encourage a varied selection of books, as well as to support a widespread supply of books throughout the country through smaller booksellers.

Nowadays, it is often seen as a form of protection for independent booksellers from behemoths like Amazon, so large companies can’t undercut them and put them out of business. In Germany, Amazon also has to abide by the Buchpreisbindung.

What Do People Think of the Buchpreisbindung?

As this blog post on Germanjoys argues, the difficulties facing independent booksellers in the USA and the legal cases there are prime examples of why a Buchpreisbindung like Germany’s is valuable. However, others argue that it is hard to find evidence that it actually works better than unregulated book pricing.

As for German friends and family I have talked to on the subject, I’ve had mixed reactions. Some find it infuriating that the prices are regulated and choose to use online second hand booksellers to get around it. Others say it has prevented Amazon and other big sellers from getting a stranglehold on the German market, which is a good thing. Others like the idea in principle, but say that it has not helped to prevent large chains taking over and smaller independent book stores dying out.

Are There Similar Book Pricing Laws Overseas?

Image: Countries With Fixed Book Pricing

Countries With Fixed Book Pricing. Image by Thibaulth Wikimedia (Public Domain CC0)

According to this Wikipedia article on Fixed Book Pricing Agreements, Many European countries have laws or business agreements for controlled book pricing, for example Austria, France, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal.

Many don’t, for example the UK, Ireland, Sweden, Finland, Poland and Switzerland.

Some non-European countries also have fixed book prices, for example Mexico, Argentina and Japan.

My homeland, Australia, had a book price law until 1972 when it was repealed. In spite of this, until recently books were consistently more expensive in Australia than overseas and always at certain price points, so it still felt like someone was setting prices. According to this article: Why are books so expensive in Australia?, it was the pricing model of Australian publishers for imported books that kept prices high, to the detriment of consumers and independent booksellers. Apparently prices have gotten cheaper recently… and who knows what will happen when Amazon starts up in Australia next year.

My Opinion on Fixed Book Pricing

On the one hand, I can see how consumers would find the Buchpreisbindung annoying (I was, after all, kind of annoyed when I thought I couldn’t use my discount vouchers!)… on the other, perhaps it helps to stop giant companies like Amazon undercutting everyone and taking over the market completely. I don’t like the idea of small book stores and publishers going out of business or authors being short-changed because one or two companies have all the power.

But… in my experience, small book stores in Australia often don’t stock much in the genres I like (fantasy and sci-fi), or seem to place much importance on them, so my attempts to shop in small independent stores often left me disappointed. And in Germany? Well, the big chains like Thalia are the ones that offer access to a wide range of English-language books. As for audiobooks… online providers like Amazon’s Audible are simply much cheaper and more convenient than buying a stack of expensive CDs in a bookstore. So in the end for a consumer like me, fixed book pricing wouldn’t necessarily change my behaviour… and I have to wonder how many other people choose big chains and online shopping regardless of price due to other advantages like the ones I mentioned.

So… I have mixed feelings. Given my tendency to buy imported, English-language books, it seems like the Buchpreisbindung will rarely affect me anyway. Still, I find it a fascinating example of a nation-wide regulation of book pricing.

Does your country have fixed book pricing or unregulated pricing? What do you think of fixed book pricing? 

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13 thoughts on “The Quirks of Buying Books in Germany: Fixed Pricing and the ‘Buchpreisbindung’

  1. Wow, I lived in Germany for 7 years and never really noticed this (admittedly, I was only buying German books for the last 3 years of that :P). Although there aren’t set prices for English books in Germany (or England/Switzerland, where I have also lived), I feel like there are still generally a standard price for bookshops, although Amazon definitely makes it cheaper. I would find it very annoying not to be able to take advantage of sales, but I think that forcing Amazon to sell books for the same price as Hugendubel or another major bookshop could possibly be beneficial; it might stop people going into a bookshop, seeing a book they like and then making a note of it only to go home and order it off of Amazon for cheaper.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting! Well, I guess it’s not something you’d notice unless you’re trying to use a discount voucher/sale offer on a german book. And I agree it’s pretty terrible if people use bookshops to browse and find books but then go buy those same ones cheaper online from a different seller, so if a fixed price stops that that’s a big bonus. I sometimes look up details about a book on my phone when in book stores (eg ratings, reviews etc) and I always hope no one thinks I’m Amazon comparing!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Once books have been published for 18 months, this set price no longer applies.”
    This is not correct. In fact, the set price apply as long as the publisher says so. The publisher can lift the fixation at any time.
    Noteworthy: a certain price applies always to a certain edition. A lot of books exist in different editions at different prices (the expensive hard-bound book versus the cheap paperback).

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    • I didn’t realise the publisher can apply the set price for as long as they want, even beyond 18 months – I’ll update the post to correct that. Thank you!

      And that’s interesting that the price is linked to the edition – it makes sense though, especially with hard-bound vs paperback editions. I was also wondering if the publishers set those prices or if they are regulated some other way?

      Thank you for commenting – I am looking forward to reading your book!!

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  3. Ah what an interesting law- I never knew such things existed anywhere to be honest- I’m glad you shared this cos I wouldn’t have known about it otherwise! I’m going to come down heavily on the “no regulations” side- because even though I value the worth of books and think it would be worthwhile for us to being willing to spend more on them, the results of regulations usually have the opposite effect. Instead of rewarding authors, they mean that consumers have less money to spend and so publishers have to be more selective about who they published… which inevitably means fewer authors get selected for publication. Also, having an unregulated market has resulted in a booming book industry in places like the UK. Additionally, like you said, independent places are incapable of stocking the variety of books that appeal to different people. Plus, it’s good to encourage the consumer to spend more widely- not just for the economy- but for the sake of books! Basically I want everyone to be a bookaholic- and the invention of cheap books allows people from lower income families to get access to books they wouldn’t otherwise get. So, yeah, I can see the good intentions behind this- but think that in the long run free market usually works best- especially if you consider the fact that books will be sold for full price if it’s a particularly good book! Sorry for rambling- that’s just my take on things.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts!! It’s nice to hear a decisive opinion (esp. because I am very indecisive on this issue!). You make a very good point about encouraging more book buying/reading in general through cheaper books. I also wonder if higher prices encourage not only less book buying, but prompt more downloading of pirated copies, buying of secondhand books, or borrowing of books instead… in which case people are still reading books but the author/publisher/bookstore gets no or less money for them. I know several students and low income earners who go these other routes. I’m not sure if they would buy the books instead if they were cheap enough, but I imagine the chances would be higher 🙂

      I guess my main concern is that I don’t want us to end up with one giant seller (e.g. Amazon) controlling the whole book market, because one company having that much power is worrisome. I try to spread my book buying around between companies for that reason (e.g. audiobooks from one company, hard copies from another, ebooks from several different ones depending on what they have avail). But perhaps fixed book pricing is not an effective way to combat one-company domination, maybe old fashioned competition could work too… I don’t really know! (or maybe in the future Google will just own everything and the world will be run by one massive company anyway 😉 )

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ahh that’s true- I didn’t think of people that pirate books! (I really hate the idea of that- even when I was in that position I could never bring myself to do it- if there was something on a list I needed to read, I’d stick myself on the wait list at the uni library or just not read it in time- but I digress)
        Ahh i completely understand that and it definitely bothers me too. Like you, I really don’t know the solution to this aside from generally trying to shop around and trying to get books from more independent places. The system may be imperfect, but the solutions can sometimes make things worse (just looking at how things have gone badly on a much bigger scale is what makes me so decisive about this 😉 )

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes I also hate the thought of pirating books! I know I say this from the comfortable position of being able to afford books easily, but I think I’d only consider pirating if I looked everywhere and couldn’t find any legitimate copies available to buy or loan, or could only find exorbitantly priced second hand copies (e.g. I once saw a book that was only avail for €90 second hand on Amazon! Must have been out of print). Though maybe at that point I’d just give up on the book altogether 🙂

          Perhaps I’d also consider it if it’s by an author who died several decades/centuries ago (and it’s not avail at the local library or cheaply elsewhere)… I wonder if that would still be pirating though? I guess it depends on copyright law and how the rights work.

          And yes, I totally agree that imperfect systems can often be made worse by supposed ‘solutions’! 😉

          Liked by 1 person

        • Ahh I do get that- and that does happen a lot with textbooks for uni sometimes- although professors that I had actually helped students pirate their books if that was the case! Otherwise, like you, I’d give up on the book altogether!
          Ahh well I think that’s fair too- especially cos if it’s 75 years since the author’s death, then it passes out of copyright. Or at least it’s supposed to Some people try to keep the copyright going after that (eg the people that owned the copyright for Austen kept it going till really recently) but in that case they’re cheating the system, so I don’t really care.
          haha yes!!

          Liked by 1 person

        • Yes I thought it was something like 75 years, but then I wasn’t sure because I remembered hearing about cases where there shouldn’t still be copyright in that case but there was… must have been something like Austen I guess, where they got around it. Totally cheating though, I agree!

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