Amazon may never win the book market in Germany, thanks to a century-old agreement

Image: AP Photo/Jens Meyer
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Last week, rumors that Amazon may open hundreds of brick-and-mortar stores sent some booksellers and publishers into a panic. Amazon’s discounted prices have made it the US book industry’s Goliath, drawing business away from physical bookstores. But in Germany, the retail giant’s power is limited, thanks to an antiquated pact designed to democratize the book market.

In 1888, German booksellers and publishers agreed that publishers would set one price for each book, and booksellers would abide by it. The fixed-price promise aimed to reduce competition between sellers, and give lesser known titles a chance to flourish.

“The arrangement resembled a prenuptial agreement between both sides, based on trust,” Michael Naumann, former publisher and German secretary of culture, wrote in 2012.

The agreement became law in 2002. Today any retailers who sell off-price books are required to pay heavy fines.

On Feb. 3, a day after rumors of Amazon storefronts began to spread, Reuters reported that the German cabinet had agreed to include e-books in the fixed-price law, along with print books. The changes will need to pass the German parliament and federal council, but these are largely formalities, says industry site Publishing Perspectives.

The decision extends to all books sold to German buyers, regardless of the retailer’s origin or place of business.

Last year, German booksellers proclaimed a victory when its homespun e-reader, the Tolino, appeared to be beating Amazon’s Kindle in popularity. Though e-books accounted for less than 5 percent of the country’s book sales in 2015, the German cabinet’s latest decision comes as a sign that the country will uphold its long tradition of protecting literary diversity—no matter what changes are afoot for how we read or buy.