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Why are there so many bookshops in France?

The Local France
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Why are there so many bookshops in France?
Whiling away an hour or two in a bookshop is one of the joys of life. (Photo by DAMIEN MEYER / AFP)

France is believed to have as many independent bookstores as the UK and the US combined. is it just that the French like to read? Here's why virtually every town in France has its own bookshop.


France, a country of some 67.75 million people, boasts more than 3,500 independent bookshops according to figures from official bookstore watchdog the Centre national du livre (CNL) - and that figure is rising.

In comparison, the UK - a nation similar in population size - had a little over 1,000 independent bookshops in 2022, the Booksellers’ Association said, its highest number since 2013. There were, meanwhile, a reported 2,506 independent bookstores in the USA in the same year, figures that mean two countries with a combined population just a little shy of 400 million have about the same number of bookshops as France. 

The number of bookshops in France is on the increase, with 142 opening in 2022 and 140 opening in 2021, CNL said, its figures revealing that specialist bookstores make up 20 percent of the total figure, and that one out of six of those are children’s bookshops, and one in two specialise in comic books and graphic novels.

READ ALSO Why do the French love comic books so much?

Interestingly, CNL’s figures reveal that bookstores are opening outside high-footfall city environments. Half of all the bookshops opened in France since 2017 have been in towns with fewer than 15,000 inhabitants, and one in four have set up shop in communes with populations of less than 5,000.

But why does France have so many bookshops?


A nation of readers

There’s no doubt the French like a good book. And a bad book, for that matter. And an average book, too - everything from a hard-boiled pulp-fiction potboiler to a literary masterpiece. A CNL study found that 86 percent of people in France considered themselves readers in 2022 - five points up on the association’s figures from 2021.

With a 10 percent increase over the last two years, this rate is particularly high among 25-34 year olds.

But "these rather favourable trends mask certain weaknesses", CNL said in a statement, noting a decline in reading among the 15-24 age group, in which one in five claim not to pick up a book at all. In 2019, that age-group’s non-reading figure was eight percent.

Government help

But reading’s apparent popularity is not enough to support so many independent bookshops - especially in the age of Amazon (other online book retailers are available).

This is the point at which French law enters the conversation. 


In 1981, the French parliament adopted the Loi relative au prix du livre (a law on book prices), which introduced price controls on new books sold in France. It is often known as the Loi Lang, after Jack Lang, who was culture minister under François Mitterrand at the time.

It was a response to the growing threat posed to booksellers by chain store Fnac and supermarkets, which had been offering significant discounts on literature. Three-for-two deals, so popular in big bookshops in the UK, aren’t a thing in France for this reason.

The law gave publishers the power to set the retail price of books (it now also applies to e-books). Booksellers are not allowed to offer more than five percent off the cover price. For online orders, retailers are only allowed to offer this discount if the customer collects the book in store.

This doesn’t mean shops are never allowed to reduce prices by more than five percent, but there are strict rules governing when they can do so. To be sold for larger discounts, books must:

  • have been published more than two years ago;
  • not have been restocked for at least six months.

So if you're after a new release, you won't find any significant discounts.

More recently, online retailers attempted to circumvent price controls in France by offering delivery for as little as €0.01. In 2021, Parliament adopted a bill that set a minimum price for book deliveries to stop what the government said was “distorted competition”.

More than 20 percent of the 435 million books sold in France in 2019 were bought online - numbers that have risen since, as a result of the pandemic. 

France’s bookshop union the Syndicat de la librairie française (SLF), said that libraries - confusingly, that’s French for bookshops, while libraries are bibliothèques - in France lost 93 percent of their activity during the first confinement in March 2020, but quickly adapted to restrictive health conditions, with as many as 1,500 stores developing an online presence to allow customers to continue to shop with them.

France is not the only country where booksellers are required to charge a certain price. Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands are among the European countries which have laws regulating the price of books.

Other markets, including Denmark and Norway, are regulated by agreements between booksellers and publishers. In the UK, a business agreement set a fixed price for most books until it was abandoned in 1995.


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