A look at bookshops in Ireland and France


Jen Campbell’s The Bookshop Book, Roger Michell’s Notting Hill, Isabel Coixet’s The Bookshop, Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Corner … Bookstores and booksellers are not only in the streets but also on our shelves and our screens …

Last week many real-life bookshops across Ireland welcomed customers into their stores for the first time in almost two months, a few weeks after bookstores first reopened in France. A perfect time to celebrate the unique and central role of these magical places.

What can equal the feeling of walking into a bookshop, browsing around and leaving with the perfect book? At a time when it is so easy to shop online, what is the situation like for traditional bookstores, and are there differences between France and Ireland?

Bookselling in France and Ireland: different scales, similar landscapes

You are more likely to stumble across a bookshop in France than in Ireland: France is said to have one of the world’s densest networks of bookshops, with 2,500 to 3,000 independent bookstores against 146 in Ireland in 2017. In addition are numerous bookshop chains, superstores and other book retail outlets.1

Dublin has several independent bookstores. Chapters on Parnell Street is the largest, and not too far away are The Gutter Bookshop, Books Upstairs and The Winding Stair. Independent shops like these work alongside major bookshop chains. These have changed the bookselling landscape from the 1980s onwards. The British Waterstones, in Dublin since 1987, became a leading figure of the book retail industry over the course of the 1990s and 2000s. It still operates in the capital through its bookshop Hodges Figgis and has other outlets in Cork and Drogheda. These compete with the Irish Eason, which recently acquired the chain Dubray Books.2 Supermarket chains such as Tesco also started offering bestselling books at the end of the last century, further reducing the independent booksellers’ market share.3

France, where bookshops remain the main way people buy books, has a similar bookselling landscape. Chains like the Furet du Nord (and its recent acquisition Decitre) stand alongside large independent bookstores such as Mollat (Bordeaux) or Sauramps (Montpellier), followed by a plethora of smaller independent bookshops spread throughout the country.

Mollat, in Bordeaux (France) and The Winding Stair, in Dublin (Ireland)

Moreover, supermarkets offer a limited range of titles, while specialised superstores such as Fnac, Espaces Culturels E.Leclerc or Cultura see their market share rise as they set up more and more shops on the outskirts of city centres, where bookstores are rare.4

Already battling with rising costs, all book retail outlets are now also faced with fierce online competition, particularly from Amazon. According to a report by Jim Power economics, that company would ‘account for around 18% of total book sales in Ireland’,5 slightly more than in France, where its market share was between 12% and 15% in 2017.6

Resistance strategies

This new competition has spurred booksellers to implement various strategies to remain attractive.

Having their own online shop may seem to be the obvious solution but it is difficult and costly.7 But some independents have managed to successfully launch their e-shops, such as Galway-based Kennys, a major independent retailer of new, second-hand and rare books. 

There is also strength in unity: British Hive and French librairiesindependantes.com are online networks gathering hundreds of independent bookshops, offering them a visibility their own online stores might not have reached. Moreover, most of the other bookshops can be contacted online or by phone even if they don’t have their own e-shop.

In light of the challenges posed by running an online shop, most independent booksellers have chosen to focus on what they do best: welcoming, guiding and helping their customers, finding the right book for every reader. Book-related events are part of this philosophy that places human interactions at the heart of bookshops, with book launches, readings, signings, etc. that bring communities together.8

Sheena Wilkison launching Hope against Hope at No Alibis Bookstore in Belfast
(Northern Ireland)

Some booksellers even offer complementary social and cultural experiences in their stores: Bookworm (Thurles, Co Tipperary) sells musical instruments, has a coffee shop, hosts Irish language conversation and knitting circles; L’Oiseau Rare (Strasbourg, Alsace) combines bookselling, a café and an art gallery; while the owner of L’Obèle (Pléneuf-Val-André, Brittany) organises creative workshops, mainly for children.

Several bookstores also dedicate themselves to a specific genre or readership such as Tales for Tadpoles (Dublin) and Halfway up the Stairs (Greystones) or La Bouquinette (Strasbourg), which all specialise in children’s and young-adult books.

Although they have their own well-known online shops, chain bookshops also try to personalise customer experience in their brick-and-mortar stores, a challenge for these high-street retailers. This has been Waterstones’ strategy in the UK, where the chain has developed a more bespoke model focused on each community’s needs and expectations – through the books on offer and the events organised in shops.9

Like Eason or Waterstones, many French chains offer a variety of cultural products beyond books, including gifts, toys, games, stationery, CDs, DVDs, craft supplies … and even household electrical goods, especially since the merger of Fnac, specialised in cultural and electronic goods, and the electrical retailing brand Darty.10

Overall, the challenges faced by bookshops and the strategies implemented to overcome them are fairly similar in France and Ireland, although different brands and companies operate there. French booksellers, however, benefit from a particular law …

A game changer: the prix unique du livre

During the 19th and 20th centuries, price-setting agreements between publishers and booksellers were adopted in several countries. These meant that retailers were obliged to comply with the prices set by publishers, preventing them from offering excessive discounts to their customers. The ‘Net Book Agreement’, as it was called in the UK and Ireland, came to an end in the 1990s.11

France, on the other hand, reinforced its price-setting policy in 1981. The ‘Lang Law’ (loi Lang) recognises books as special cultural commodities, so that all retailers have to comply with the prices set by publishers and can only grant a 5% discount to their customers.12

As Catherine Blache from the French Publishers Association explains: ‘The main idea is not to prevent competition. It is to create a level playing field for all retailers and to avoid the dominance of a single actor.’ While some believe that fixing prices makes books more expensive, the supporters of this practice as well as studies led in Germany argue that it guarantees the quality and diversity of books and book retail outlets – which benefits booksellers, authors, publishers, and readers.13

French booksellers, who could not afford the same discounts as major chains, online retailers, or supermarkets, cherish this law, and it is seen as the main reason for France’s exceptional network of bookshops.14 Indeed, French independent bookstores now represent 22% of total sales against 4% to 5% in the UK.15

There has been some growth in the number of independent bookshops in Britain and Ireland in recent years, but it is slight, and bookstores need support if they are to survive.16 Fixed book prices could be one way to do this.

The challenges ahead

Today, the impact of the Covid-19 crisis is a major challenge for bookshops, which rely heavily on physical interactions with customers. However, booksellers have been very dynamic and imaginative during the epidemic, with digital initiatives or personal deliveries, for example.17 Only time will tell how the economy will bounce back. Meanwhile, traditional retailers are torn between online competition, unequal business rates and economic as well as political uncertainty16 – Brexit will be a major challenge for Irish booksellers, as around 75% of physical books sold in Ireland are published in and imported from the UK.5

E-books, for their part, seem less threatening now than ten years ago, when it was believed that they would cause the death of physical books. After a rise in e-book sales, they now represent around 20% of the Irish book market, as customers tend to revert to traditional books – when they are not required to stay at home, of course.18 Despite their current growth, e-book sales have never really taken off in France and account for less than 9% of the market.19

However, it is impossible to tell how technologies will develop in the next few years: Will a new e-reader revolutionise electronic reading? Will video streaming services take up so much of people’s time that readers will abandon their books? Will e-book subscription services such as Kindle Unlimited or Scribd change the bookselling landscape? Will audiobooks become more popular than print books?

What we do know is that bookshops are essential in France, in Ireland, and in every other part of the world, as booksellers encourage reading, stimulate curiosity, foster creativity, and enrich the cultural and social life of their communities.

Interestingly, booksellers seem to play the same roles and face very similar challenges no matter where they operate. Literature does cross borders and can help build bridges between different people and cultures.

Let’s hope that bookshops will continue to promote the writing, reading, buying, and selling of books … The best way to make sure it happens? Go and pay a visit to your favourite bookseller!

1 Jim Power economics (2018) Bookselling Ireland: The economic contributions to – and impacts on the economy of Ireland’s bookselling sector. Dublin: Jim Power economics, p. 4. Available from: https://www.booksellers.org.uk/getattachment/jointheba/jointheba/irishbranch/Jim-Power-Report-FINAL-FINAL-1st-May-(1).pdf.aspx?lang=en-GB [Accessed 21 April 2020].

La Rédaction (2016) Environnement sectoriel, combien de librairies ? Syndicat de la librairie française. 22 February. Available from: http://www.syndicat-librairie.fr/environnement_sectoriel_combien_de_librairies_ [Accessed 23 April 2020].

Radio France (2018) Salon du livre à Paris : avec 3 200 libraires indépendantes, « la France est un paradis ». Franceinfo [online], 18 March. Available from : https://www.francetvinfo.fr/culture/livres/salon-du-livre-a-paris-avec-3200-librairies-independantes-la-france-est-un-paradis_2662712.html [Accessed 21 April 2020].

Syndicat national de l’édition (2019) Les chiffres de l’édition 2018 – 2019. Paris: SNE, p. 6. Available from: https://www.sne.fr/app/uploads/2019/06/RS19_Synthese_Web01_VDEF.pdf [Accessed 21 April 2020].

2 RTÉ (2020) Eason completes acquisition of Dubray Books. RTÉ [online], 25 February. Available from : https://www.rte.ie/news/business/2020/0225/1117493-eason-dubray-deal/ [Accessed 22 April 2020].

3 Thompson, J. B. (2012) The growth of the retail chains: The peculiarities of the British. In: Thompson, J. B., Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Plume, p. 51-58.

4 Syndicat national de l’édition, Les chiffres de l’édition 2018 – 2019, op. cit., p. 6.

5 Jim Power economics, op. cit., p. 21.

6 Guerrin, M. (2017) « Amazon pèse lourd sur le livre mais moins en France qu’ailleurs ». La Matinale du Monde [online], 15 December. Available from: https://www.lemonde.fr/idees/article/2017/12/15/amazon-et-les-libraires-de-l-hexagone_5229976_3232.html [Accessed 22 April 2020].

7 Jim Power economics, op. cit., p. 24.

8 Moss, S. (2019) Unputdownable! The bookshops Amazon couldn’t kill. The Guardian [online], 6 June. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/06/amazon-booksellers-beating-odds-book-shops [Accessed 30 April 2020].

9 Studemann, F. (2019) How traditional bookshops survived the Amazon onslaught. The Irish Times [online], 11 June. Available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/business/retail-and-services/how-traditional-bookshops-survived-the-amazon-onslaught-1.3922290 [Accessed 22 April 2020].

International Publishers Association (2014) Global fixed book price report. Geneva: IPA, p. 2. Available from: https://www.internationalpublishers.org/images/reports/2014/fixed-book-price-report-2014.pdf [Accessed 23 April 2020].

Littoz-Monnet, A. (2013) The European Union and Culture: Between Economic Regulation and European Cultural Policy. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p. 104.

10 Gröndhal, M.-P. (2019) Fnac-Darty : Enrique Martinez mène le combat contre Amazon. Paris Match [online], 8 February. Available from: https://www.parismatch.com/Actu/Economie/Fnac-Darty-Enrique-Martinez-mene-le-combat-contre-Amazon-1603774 [Accessed 22 April 2020].

11 International Publishers Association (2014) Global fixed book price report. Geneva: IPA, p. 2. Available from: https://www.internationalpublishers.org/images/reports/2014/fixed-book-price-report-2014.pdf [Accessed 23 April 2020].

12 Syndicat national de l’édition (2017) Fonctionnement du prix unique. SNE. 16 November. Available from: https://www.sne.fr/prix-unique-du-livre/fonctionnement-du-prix-unique/ [Accessed 23 April 2020].

13 Blache, C. (2015) Fixed book price for a better competition. In: Syndicat national de l’édition. IPA Bangkok Congress, 25 March, Bangkok. Paris: SNE, p. 2-3. Available from: https://www.sne.fr/app/uploads/2017/11/Intervention-Catherine-Blache_prix-unique-du-livre_mars-2015.pdf [Accessed 23 April 2020].

International Publishers Association (2019) Fixed book prices: German studies shows positive effects on dissemination and diversity of books. International Publishers Association. 12 November. Available from: https://www.internationalpublishers.org/news/917-fixed-book-prices-german-studies-shows-positive-effects-on-dissemination-and-diversity-of-books [Accessed 23 April 2020].

14 Blache, C., op. cit., p. 2-3.

15 Despres, E. (2019) Vers un retour des libraires indépendants : défi relevé par ICI, la plus grande librairie indépendante de Paris. Bérénice. 18 January. Available from: http://berenice.fr/2019/01/18/vers-un-retour-des-libraires-independants-un-defi-releve-par-ici-la-plus-grande-librairie-independante-de-paris/ [Accessed 30 April 2020].

International Publishers Association, op. cit., p. 3.

16 The Booksellers Association of the UK and Ireland (2020) Independent bookshop numbers grow in 2019. The Booksellers Association. 10 January. Available from: https://www.booksellers.org.uk/industryinfo/industryinfo/latestnews/Independent-Bookshop-Numbers-Grow-in-2019 [Accessed 23 April 2020].

17 European and International Booksellers Federation (2020) Bookselling in times of health emergencies. EIBF. 31 March. Available from: https://europeanbooksellers.eu/press/bookselling-times-health-emergencies [Accessed 23 April 2020].

18 Jim Power economics, op. cit., p. 21.

Pope, C. (2017) Rise and fall of the Kindle: How real books are fighting back. The Irish Times [online], 22 May. Available from: https://www.irishtimes.com/news/consumer/rise-and-fall-of-the-kindle-how-real-books-are-fighting-back-1.3086282 [Accessed 23 April 2020].

19 Syndicat national de l’édition (2019) Les chiffres du numérique. SNE. 8 July. Available from: https://www.sne.fr/numerique-2/le-livre-numerique-en-2015-le-numerique-en-marche/ [Accessed 23 April 2020].

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