Americans who gave books for Christmas this year most likely found their shopping trips taking them into bookstores the size of a Sears Roebuck. A thoughtful observer cruising the aisles in these giant national chains may well note that they focus on pushing the same few blockbuster titles.
Consumer choice in literature may be eroding in the US, but across the Atlantic a handful of countries are battling to keep it.
Since 1949, the booksellers of "the German-speaking realm" - Germany, Austria, and German-speaking Switzerland - have operated under a system of fixed prices for books. The set price is listed in the three currencies - mark, schilling, and franc.
The booksellers see this as a cornerstone of their industry. Books are different, they say: not only cultural artifacts but essential to constitutional processes of freedom of speech and expression. Booksellers maintain that fixed prices protect full-service bookstores against general merchandisers out to make it big on bestsellers.
They also argue that because fixed prices help keep booksellers in business, they ensure that no consumer lives far from a bookstore. And fixed prices help keep a broad range of books in print - helping ensure consumer choice, they say.
But all this has come into question since Austria's accession to the European Union as of Jan. 1, 1995. The EU has nothing to say about fixed-price systems (either by law or by agreement within the book industry) operating within a given country. Nine of the 15 EU members have such systems in place. But insofar as the German system involves two EU member countries, it is potentially an unacceptable restraint on free trade. The European Commission has granted temporary permission to continue fixed prices but no final decision has been made. An Austrian book and stationery chain, Libro, is contesting the system.
"The European Commission is not very favorable" on fixed prices, says Anne Bergman, an adviser to the Federation of European Publishers, in Brussels, which favors price-fixing. "It doesn't want to interfere with national book-price laws. But it's not logical to allow fixed prices within countries and disallow them across borders."
The EU cultural affairs ministers debated fixed prices earlier this month without getting to the specific issue of the German-Austrian system. The matter is expected to be continued into the Dutch presidency of the EU, which begins in 1997.
"A fundamental question, is whether the EU sees itself as only an economic community" - in which free trade is the paramount value - "or whether it takes the Maastricht Treaty seriously and considers the cultural aspect of Europe, too," says Eugen Emmerling, spokesman for the German Publishers & Booksellers Association in Frankfurt.
"Price fixing" is outlawed in the US, but some statistics suggest that the system works in Europe and may validate consumer-choice arguments.
For example, the German-language directory of books in print - so-called deliverable titles, which a bookstore can order for a customer virtually overnight - has approximately 700,000 titles. The equivalent figure for the US, according to Reed Reference Publishers, which produces Books in Print, is 1.2 million titles.
Compare a language market of roughly 100 million native speakers of German with a US population of 250 million, and it appears that the German publishers are more than holding their own: With only 40 percent as many potential readers, they nonetheless offer nearly 60 percent as many titles. And at the Frankfurt Book Fair this past October, German publishers reported 67,000 new titles for 1995, versus 52,000 for the US. On the other hand, the US was reported as the world leader in retail book sales growth, 5.3 percent this year over 1995.
Observers comparing the American and European markets note that they have very different structures. The large chains account for nearly 30 percent of the market share in the US. By contrast, despite talk of concentration of the book trade in the hands of a few market leaders, "No bookstore in Germany has a market share in double digits," Mr. Emmerling says.
"Book markets are language markets," he says, echoing a cry heard across Europe. He stresses the importance of fixed prices for "middle-sized" language markets such as French and German as they seek to hold their own against English. In some areas, such as specialized scientific books, the battle may already be lost.
France, after experimenting for a few years with unregulated prices, once again has a book-price law. Portugal, an even smaller language market, just this year introduced new book-price fixing legislation. Sweden, on the other hand, with a population of 9 million, has had free book prices since 1970. "We feel this is the best way," says Kristina Ahlinder, director of the Swedish Publishers' Association. "We had 400 bookshops before. We still have them. We're not concerned about the loss of the Swedish language."