Consumerism v. “Producerism” in Bookselling

The all-powerful German train station bookstore lobby

In 2007, the comparative law scholar James Whitman wrote a fine article comparing the United States and Western Europe not on traditional social-welfare/laissez-faire grounds, but rather on the axis of consumerism and producerism. The U.S., he argued, can best be described as a consumerist legal culture, in which the law tends to favor protection of individual consumers (the demand side), rather than producers. Thus, American legal policy tends to favor policies which deliver lower-cost goods, even if they may result in consolidation and uniformity (i.e., Wal-Mart moves in and drives a bunch of local, family-run stores out of business, but delivers unbeatable low prices and convenient to the surrounding region). 

European policy, says Whitman, is characterized by "producerism": 

Despite all the global pressures to embrace economic consumerism, when continental Europeans gaze upon the modern marketplace, they remain much more likely than Americans to perceive rights and interests on the supply side, rather than on the demand side. Thus when it comes to basic labor law, they remain much more ready than Americans to think of workers’ rights as fundamental. When it comes to competition law, they remain more likely than Americans to focus on the rights of competitors to market-share, rather than on the rights of consumers to benefit from competitive prices. When it comes to the law of retail, they remain more likely to find ways to protect small shopkeepers against large retail outfits. I will offer numerous other examples too. In particular, I will argue that old guild and artisanal traditions are far more vigorous in Europe than they are in the United  States. Indeed, the strength of their artisanal traditions has much to do with the successes of continental economies, which are specializing in high-end, luxury, and precision goods. The net result is a continental Europe where artisanal traditions remain strong, where small shopkeepers benefit from important legal protections, and where workers’ rights are far more important than gender or race rights. Europe, I will conclude, is not turning into the United States.

Whitman also suggests things like store-hours regulations, limits on advertising and sales, and extensive and strict regulation of the trades (which means your average neighborhood butcher has had years of carefully-supervised training, and is likely to really know a lot about meat) are also aspects of "producerism." I can recommend the entire article (which you can download from the given link) — Whitman's prose is clear, and there is surprisingly little legalese in it and a lot of acute cross-cultural observation.

I also find that his interesting consumerist/producerist distinction pops up in a lot of my thinking about cross-cultural differences now. For instance, when I read this in the New York Times:

[American] book publishers and booksellers are full of foreboding — even more than usual for an industry that’s been anticipating its demise since the advent of television. The holiday season that just ended is likely to have been one of the worst in decades. Publishers have been cutting back and laying off. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it wouldn’t be acquiring any new manuscripts, a move akin to a butcher shop proclaiming it had stopped ordering fresh meat.

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Andy Ross, the former owner of Cody’s, told me that buying books online “was not morally dubious, but it is tragic. It has a lot of unintended consequences for communities.”…

Sales of classics and other backlist titles used to be the financial engine of publishers and bookstores as well, allowing them to take chances on new authors. Clearly that model is breaking. Simon & Schuster, which laid off staffers this month, cited backlist sales as a particularly troubled area. Michael Barnard, who owns Rakestraw Books in Danville, Calif., not far from Berkeley, was more critical of me. He said that I was taking Ms. Lesser’s work while depriving her of an income, and that I would regret my selfish actions when all the physical stores were gone.

In Germany, by contrast, there is a classic "producerist" regulation which is intended to preserve the viability of small publishers and bookshops, so that there's a "bookstore on every corner." It's called the Buchpreisbindung (g) or the "fixed book-price regulation." It specifies that, for the first 18 months after a book's release, it may not be sold by any retail outlet for less than the price specified by the publisher. The purpose of the regulation is to prevent large retailers from driving small local bookshops out of business, and supporting small or specialty publishers. Of course, it also means less price competition for the ultimate consumer — but that seems to be something most Germans are willing to accept. (Which is not to say that there is not active controversy over the rule anyway).

Germany is a place filled with dozens of tiny, specialty bookstores that seem to be able to coexist with the big chains like Mayersche and Stern-Verlag. Germany also seems to have an enormous number of small publishing houses everywhere. Some of them seem to be almost mom-and-pop operations. There are at least three "publishing houses" (cottages?) within a 15-minute walk of my home. This means that, to a bibliophile like me, that Germany is heaven. It is to book diversity what the Amazon is to biodiversity. If the fixed book-price rule has anything to do with that — and most booksellers seem to think it does — then I'm all in favor of this form of "producerism."

18 thoughts on “Consumerism v. “Producerism” in Bookselling

  1. Producerism comes from a concept where there is no government. Today there are producers, looters, and moochers. In the producerism society they have eliminated the looters and discouraged the moocher. The producerism society promotes property rights, contracts, and natural law. The hiarchy is the Bosses, (consumers), the leaders, (business owners), and the producers. Maximum freedom and the highest living quality is thus achieved.

    Like

  2. Producerism comes from a concept where there is no government. Today there are producers, looters, and moochers. In the producerism society they have eliminated the looters and discouraged the moocher. The producerism society promotes property rights, contracts, and natural law. The hiarchy is the Bosses, (consumers), the leaders, (business owners), and the producers. Maximum freedom and the highest living quality is thus achieved.

    Like

  3. I am a major book buyer, both as a source of pleasure and as a professional necessity. I find that as I become a more sophisticated book consumer that I take more of my business online because while booksellers are very valuable for some things, there are other things they don’t do well and sometimes cannot do at all!

    Amazon is getting a larger share of my business because it has invested a great deal in richening their metadata about the books (that is additional information about the book). Things like what other readers think about the book, how highly they rate the book. Perhaps more importantly Amazon shows lists of other books buyers of this book also bought, which is invaluable in finding alternative titles which may serve my needs better.

    There is a more recent publishing development which is significant within technical publishing, publication of books in pdf format downloaded over the internet. Usually these books are available at about a 33% discount on the dead tree version, and they are instant gratification. I can pay them via PayPal and be reading 5 minutes later!

    A further development some publishers have embraced is selling early versions of a book as it is being written. Each time the author releases a new chapter ia new pdf is made available to subscribers who have paid for early access. This often gives me the opportunity to converse with the author online and inluence the final content of book. Most importantly this gives early information to extensive information on bleeding-edge topics.

    A lot of this books simply can’t do!

    I still buy fiction and history books at bookstores, but usually purchase technical books if I first learn of them while browsing – it’s only fair to buy them at the bookstore. I often purchase older technical books I want through Amazon Marketplace, which often allows me to fill out my library with used editions at a considerable discount.

    Like

  4. I am a major book buyer, both as a source of pleasure and as a professional necessity. I find that as I become a more sophisticated book consumer that I take more of my business online because while booksellers are very valuable for some things, there are other things they don’t do well and sometimes cannot do at all!

    Amazon is getting a larger share of my business because it has invested a great deal in richening their metadata about the books (that is additional information about the book). Things like what other readers think about the book, how highly they rate the book. Perhaps more importantly Amazon shows lists of other books buyers of this book also bought, which is invaluable in finding alternative titles which may serve my needs better.

    There is a more recent publishing development which is significant within technical publishing, publication of books in pdf format downloaded over the internet. Usually these books are available at about a 33% discount on the dead tree version, and they are instant gratification. I can pay them via PayPal and be reading 5 minutes later!

    A further development some publishers have embraced is selling early versions of a book as it is being written. Each time the author releases a new chapter ia new pdf is made available to subscribers who have paid for early access. This often gives me the opportunity to converse with the author online and inluence the final content of book. Most importantly this gives early information to extensive information on bleeding-edge topics.

    A lot of this books simply can’t do!

    I still buy fiction and history books at bookstores, but usually purchase technical books if I first learn of them while browsing – it’s only fair to buy them at the bookstore. I often purchase older technical books I want through Amazon Marketplace, which often allows me to fill out my library with used editions at a considerable discount.

    Like

  5. It seems to me that book sellers may be experiencing many of the pressures which are tending to drive newspapers into insolventcy, although a less pronouced version.

    Unlike many traditional printed newspapers, the book trade will survive although in a mutated form. Thw triumph of the leftist columnists at Obama’s election in November seemed to me to be a tragicomic reflection of James Farrels “The Last Hurrah”, about the decline and death of an old-style machine politician.

    Even as they were cheering one observed the newspapers which sustain them dissolving underneath, and it appears that 2009 will likely be the final denouement for many formerly fine papers, including such icons as the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Boston Globe.

    I think the business model for newspapers is flawed in several respects. Notably, these proud politcally liberal bastions have repeatedly failed in their mission to provide politically neutral information and commentary to an audience which spans the spectrum of political views. This has angered many formerly faithful customers. The internet broke the news monopoly, so the customers left. Even the hallowed NY Times has not been provising value for money; there are times columnists I will pay money to read (such as Tom Freidman) and others which I use to wrap digital dead fish (Maureen Dowd). Most of them I’ll read but don’t care to pay much for. If the Times highlighted truly interesting independent columnists like Stuart Taylor (legal issues) or civil libertarian Nat Hentoff it would immensely strengthen it’s brand.

    Internet Age thrivers such as the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and even the London Times have a strong linup of interesting commentary, and I read them regularly.

    Like

  6. It seems to me that book sellers may be experiencing many of the pressures which are tending to drive newspapers into insolventcy, although a less pronouced version.

    Unlike many traditional printed newspapers, the book trade will survive although in a mutated form. Thw triumph of the leftist columnists at Obama’s election in November seemed to me to be a tragicomic reflection of James Farrels “The Last Hurrah”, about the decline and death of an old-style machine politician.

    Even as they were cheering one observed the newspapers which sustain them dissolving underneath, and it appears that 2009 will likely be the final denouement for many formerly fine papers, including such icons as the LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, and Boston Globe.

    I think the business model for newspapers is flawed in several respects. Notably, these proud politcally liberal bastions have repeatedly failed in their mission to provide politically neutral information and commentary to an audience which spans the spectrum of political views. This has angered many formerly faithful customers. The internet broke the news monopoly, so the customers left. Even the hallowed NY Times has not been provising value for money; there are times columnists I will pay money to read (such as Tom Freidman) and others which I use to wrap digital dead fish (Maureen Dowd). Most of them I’ll read but don’t care to pay much for. If the Times highlighted truly interesting independent columnists like Stuart Taylor (legal issues) or civil libertarian Nat Hentoff it would immensely strengthen it’s brand.

    Internet Age thrivers such as the Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and even the London Times have a strong linup of interesting commentary, and I read them regularly.

    Like

  7. sounds convincing, but the one thing that troubles me in this line of argument is exactly wal-mart: everybody writing about retail writes about the highly competetive low-price german markt for food-stuff, where wal mart could never get a grip on, and right now aldi (as german as can be) increases market share in the US with prices that are 10 to 15% below wal mart.

    Like

  8. sounds convincing, but the one thing that troubles me in this line of argument is exactly wal-mart: everybody writing about retail writes about the highly competetive low-price german markt for food-stuff, where wal mart could never get a grip on, and right now aldi (as german as can be) increases market share in the US with prices that are 10 to 15% below wal mart.

    Like

  9. I think booksellers need to learn to add value – to rethink their business in a fundamental way.

    One reason I don’t buy technical books at either London branch of Borders is that their stock is often dated and does not include the new stuff coming out. I use Foyles for that. Borders is better for fiction and offers a different mix of travel books and history than Foyles, so I use both of them for those areas. It’s convenient to do that as Borders is right across Charing Cross Road from Foyles, and Blackstones is right down the street.

    One thing I miss in London is a specialist technical bookstore with an informed staff. There are (or were) a few of them in the US, and I patronized them when I lived there.

    Like

  10. I think booksellers need to learn to add value – to rethink their business in a fundamental way.

    One reason I don’t buy technical books at either London branch of Borders is that their stock is often dated and does not include the new stuff coming out. I use Foyles for that. Borders is better for fiction and offers a different mix of travel books and history than Foyles, so I use both of them for those areas. It’s convenient to do that as Borders is right across Charing Cross Road from Foyles, and Blackstones is right down the street.

    One thing I miss in London is a specialist technical bookstore with an informed staff. There are (or were) a few of them in the US, and I patronized them when I lived there.

    Like

  11. Dirk is correct about the German retailers hurting Wal-Mart in the food business. My aunts regularly use Aldi, and I use Lidl in London. I’d be a regular shopper there and at Aldi if I had a car, as it is I go there every few weeks to stock up.

    The influence of Aldi/Lidl is clearly seen at the mainstream supermarket chains likr Tesco and Sainsburys in London; both have come out with very low-cost ‘value’ lines which are competitive with Lidl on price and quality. But Lidl still has a better range of low-cost goods.

    Like

  12. Dirk is correct about the German retailers hurting Wal-Mart in the food business. My aunts regularly use Aldi, and I use Lidl in London. I’d be a regular shopper there and at Aldi if I had a car, as it is I go there every few weeks to stock up.

    The influence of Aldi/Lidl is clearly seen at the mainstream supermarket chains likr Tesco and Sainsburys in London; both have come out with very low-cost ‘value’ lines which are competitive with Lidl on price and quality. But Lidl still has a better range of low-cost goods.

    Like

  13. Buying books online “was not morally dubious, but it is tragic. It has a lot of unintended consequences for communities.”

    Yes, and yes again. I for one will sorely miss that increasingly rare institution, the sole-proprietor corner bookstore.

    On the other hand, if books in general are digitalized and made available universally and cheaply through downloads on portable reading devices, this, too, will have consequences.

    I like to imagine the African boy in a dusty, out-of-the-way village reading Chekhov on a Kindle.

    Like

  14. Buying books online “was not morally dubious, but it is tragic. It has a lot of unintended consequences for communities.”

    Yes, and yes again. I for one will sorely miss that increasingly rare institution, the sole-proprietor corner bookstore.

    On the other hand, if books in general are digitalized and made available universally and cheaply through downloads on portable reading devices, this, too, will have consequences.

    I like to imagine the African boy in a dusty, out-of-the-way village reading Chekhov on a Kindle.

    Like

  15. I think people must understand that nothing exists in a vacuum. That is, there exists deflationary pressures not only in the retail trades (including booksellers) but in the economy generally, and these pressures have been going on for a long time now in some sectors.

    I used to believe in buying new books from booksellers. I also used to make a wage considerably higher than I do now. I have been ‘squeezed’ – higher productivity, lower pay. I still need books, perhaps need them more than ever. But I can’t afford to maintain high principals as I could do a decade ago. So I buy online, and when I can save a considerable sum I purchase used books.

    If and when society starts to uphold the interests of producers like myself and stops outsourcing my kind of work to India to drive wages down at home, perhaps I will be able to afford high principals. If Borders (or the conglmerate which owns it) have been outsourcing their IT work to India (as seems likely) then the collapse of their home markets might partially be laid at their own door, could it not?

    Like

  16. I think people must understand that nothing exists in a vacuum. That is, there exists deflationary pressures not only in the retail trades (including booksellers) but in the economy generally, and these pressures have been going on for a long time now in some sectors.

    I used to believe in buying new books from booksellers. I also used to make a wage considerably higher than I do now. I have been ‘squeezed’ – higher productivity, lower pay. I still need books, perhaps need them more than ever. But I can’t afford to maintain high principals as I could do a decade ago. So I buy online, and when I can save a considerable sum I purchase used books.

    If and when society starts to uphold the interests of producers like myself and stops outsourcing my kind of work to India to drive wages down at home, perhaps I will be able to afford high principals. If Borders (or the conglmerate which owns it) have been outsourcing their IT work to India (as seems likely) then the collapse of their home markets might partially be laid at their own door, could it not?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s