“We wanted equal treatment, not a race to the bottom. It sounds like a Pyrrhic victory for the entire book industry.”

The French have found a novel solution to the lockdown imbalance that has seen non-essential bookstores closed while supermarkets, because they sell food, have been raking in the profits by selling books alongside.

The French Booksellers Association (SLF) spotted that the supermarket chain Fnac was selling books alongside groceries (no different from the previous lockdown) and decided to protest the fairness of the situation to the government. And the government agreed.

Fnac and other chain-stores that have books sections must now close them off to the public.

The SLF recognised that this move leaves the door wide open to online sellers like Amazon, but still pressed ahead with the demand, with the promise that the situation would be reviewed in fifteen days.

Many booksellers reacted negatively to the news. One unnamed Parisian bookstore owner quoted by Actualitté said,

We demanded a review of the opening of bookstores, not the closure of Fnac shelves. We wanted equal treatment, not a race to the bottom. It sounds like a Pyrrhic victory, for the entire book industry. 

And that really sums up the bitter irony of the situation. To be fair to bricks & mortar bookstores, it’s now the situation that supermarkets and other stores cannot sell books, driving even more consumers to Amazon and to digital alternatives.

It also sets a dangerous precedent for the industry. Supposing the lockdown is extended and books remain exempt. The SLF can hardly then turn around and say it is okay for the supermarkets to resume sales while bookstores remain closed.

The longer this crisis continues – and realistically lockdowns at some level are going to push into next year, possibly even past Easter – the more damage to the bookselling and publishing industry overall. Supermarkets that treat books as a sideline will barely notice the hit. Bookstores that rely on book sales to survive will bear the brunt. And Amazon will be laughing all the way to the bank.