Short shelf life for new book law

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There were lots of books under Norwegian Christmas trees again this year, even though book prices in the country remain the highest in the world. A new book law that would have continued protecting the industry from price competition has had a short shelf life in the current government, but consumers can’t expect much immediate relief.  

The custom-designed interior of a Norli bookstore, owned by publishing company Aschehoug. All three of the major book chains in Norway are owned by its three publishing giants, who have a huge stake in the sale and distribution of books in the country. PHOTO: Grid Design

The custom-designed interior of a Norli bookstore, owned by publishing company Aschehoug. All three of the major book chains in Norway are owned by its three publishing giants, who have a huge stake in the sale and distribution of books in the country. PHOTO: Grid Design

Norway has a heavily regulated book industry that allows publishers to set fixed prices on new books, and forces consumers to pay from double to four times the price of books in the US or Sweden. The idea is to promote literary diversity and encourage publishers to publish more books, since the economic risk is much less than that in a commercial, free market.

The new book law, approved by Parliament in June, looked set to enshrine the privileges enjoyed by the country’s three publishing giants, which also own its three major book chains. But with a new Minister of Culture from the Conservative Party (Høyre), Thorhild Widvey, the law now looks set to be scrapped before it could be implemented.

‘Offensive, modern policies’
“We have already set up a proceedure within the ministry for how we shall handle the matter,”  Widvey told newspaper Dagsavisen. Shortly before the parliament recessed for the Christmas holidays, her state secretary and former Aftenposten features editor Knut Olav Åmås met with book industry players after Widvey put forth a proposal to reverse the book law that was approved but not yet put in practice.

“The government will carry out offensive and modern policies for the benefit of authors, readers and the development of literature,” Widvey stated. “The goal is a wide spectrum of books offering diversity and quality … and broad access nationwide.”

Both the Conservatives and the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) voted against the new law when it was passed. Finance Minister Siv Jensen wants to open up the book market with free pricing, whereas the Conservatives will probably come up with a new book agreement that will continue to give the publishers exemption from competition laws. “We want to have a new industry agreement based on some from of fixed pricing. It won’t be free pricing,”  Widvey told Norwegian news agency NTB.

‘Held hostage’
The book law was hastened through before the election by former Minister of Culture Hadia Tajik from the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap). It would guarantee that all books, including e-books, will be sold at a fixed price for one year after publication, in all outlets. The aim is to prevent price wars between the different book outlets, to guarantee a steady income for publishers, and ensure a wide range of new titles coming onto the market.

Opponents think that the publishers, together with the book sellers, already have too much control of the book market and distribution. “Under the current arrangement, authors, readers and the small publishers are practically held hostage by the combined book corporations,” Canadian IT consultant Scott Remborg wrote in a recent commentary for newspaper Aftenposten.

The three main publishers Cappelen Damm, Gyldendal and Aschehoug own, respectively, Tanum, Ark, and Norli Libris booksellers. They also own the online book stores, whose prices, including for e-books, are far higher than rival online outlets Amazon and iBooks. This means they effectively control the entire distribution chain from author to reader.

The booksellers, meanwhile, take from 65 percent up to 74 percent of the shop price, considerably more than the 40-45 percent  typical in the US. This goes back to the publishers whose wealth and influence is concentrated in a few families, investors and media giants.

‘Protecting the language and literature’
The publishers say the new law will help protect the Norwegian language and literature, and ensure  breadth of book publishing and book selling on a national level. Many well-known Norwegian authors also back the law, which would mean booksellers take in more copies of their books, and give more favourable terms for returned books. They say it ensures diversity and quality on the shelves, not just bestsellers, and that when fixed pricing has been removed in other countries, it’s led to a kind of book death.

Many of the smaller publishers also want the law, because it will give them equal treatment with the big publishers.

Critics accuse the publishers of having an outdated investment in book shops, and of being slow to embrace e-books. Norway has more books stores per capita than any other land in Europe – a grand 618 in total. Oslo alone has 81 book stores, compared to just 26 in Stockholm, according to broadcaster NRK.

There have been decades of  book agreements in Norway, that give exemption from competition laws, tax cuts, as well as control over pricing and discounting of new titles, and has made the book industry a highly lucrative trade. It’s not unusual for a book to cost around NOK 400 or more (nearly USD 70).

The current book agreement runs out in 2014, and a new one will then need to be negoatiated between the Publishers’ and Book Sellers’ unions. It already allows the publishers to set a fixed price on new books in their first year, with the possiblity to give a discount of up to 12.5 percent in both book stores and book clubs.

Many authors meanwhile say that an agreement, unlike the law, gives no predictability, and keeps their position insecure. “The Conservatives have said that they want to carry on with an industry agreement, but that is just an exemption that means that we will continue to be lying on a needle all the time,” acclaimed Norwegian author Per Petterson told Dagsavisen.

newsinenglish.no/Elizabeth Lindsay