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 Haarteppichknüpfer, a sci-fi by Andreas Eschbach; and Momo, a 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?
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?