08/19/2013 06:13 EDT | Updated 10/19/2013 05:12 EDT

Quebec legislature opens hearing on price-fixing for new books

A Quebec legislature committee has started exploring the question: Are consumers getting too good a deal on new books?

The legislature launched hearings Monday on whether to regulate the price of books to stop big players, like Amazon or Wal-Mart, from offering new releases at a discount because small independent bookstores say it's damaging their business.

Quebec's minister of culture and communications is considering a suggestion by Quebec's publishers who want book prices fixed for nine months upon their release, and discounts limited to a maximum 10 per cent during that period.

The regulation would apply to print and e-books.

As the committee began its hearings in Quebec City, Culture Minister Maka Kotto indicated he would like to make a decision quickly so that book-lovers can know before the end of the year whether they will continue to enjoy cheap best-sellers.

The proposal does not have unanimous support.

The minority Parti Quebecois government would need the support of the two main opposition parties to legislate on the matter. The official Opposition, the Liberals, have not taken a position while the Coalition party has quickly opposed the idea.

The Coalition's Nathalie Roy says such a measure would reduce access to books for families, especially those in the middle class.

During an appearance before the committee, the union of Quebec authors, which represents 1,400 writers, called on the PQ government to move quickly to save small bookstores which it says are slowly disappearing.

The group's Sylvie Desrosiers said that 20 book stores in Quebec have closed since 2010 and only four have opened.

The idea carries unique cultural overtones in Quebec: proponents argue that there won't be anyone selling books geared to the smaller francophone market if the independent bookstores disappear.

Desrosiers said big-box stores offer at most a variety of about 300 titles but, by law, registered bookstores have to provide at 6,000 titles in seven categories.

There are about 135 independent bookstores in Quebec.

"They are the ones who take the risk of selling new unknown authors, who, if they become popular will end up on the tables of big box stores," she said.

"It's clear a big-box store is not a bookstore," Desrosiers added. "When you go there, the books are all over the place on tables, there's no service from anyone who could help you."

Smaller left-wing opposition party Quebec solidaire is sympathetic to that argument, with leader Francoise David saying Monday that smaller independent bookstores are essential to the development of culture in Quebec.

At least 12 countries have adopted fixed-book price agreements including numerous European countries, Argentina and South Korea. The United Kingdom had a similar policy for almost the entire 20th century until its Net Book Agreement was struck down in court in 1997.

A recent report for a free-market think tank argues against such a policy — saying it has been counter-productive in other jurisdictions.

It suggested one popular proposal for a permanent floor on book prices could result in a 17 per cent drop in sales.

"The adoption of a fixed book price policy would only discourage reading, especially among those Quebecers who are least likely to read," said the February report for the Montreal Economic Institute.

"The adoption of a fixed book price policy in Quebec would occur in the worst possible technological context, when inexpensive or even entirely freww cultural products are readily available online.

"This would only exacerbate a known phenomenon, which is the displacement of consumer spending toward other cultural goods that are seen as book substitutes. This is what happened in France, where the proportion of household spending dedicated to recorded music rose while the proportion dedicated to books fell."

It cites French research saying the household budget dedicated to books declined, from 0.46 in the 1980s to 0.38 per cent in the early 2000s.

It also says that the number of new releases has remained steady in Germany, which has a fixed-book price policy. However, in the United Kingdom, the number of releases has increased since the end of its fixed-book price agreement.