Danes are most interested in the cheapest pulp fiction novels, not outdated used books.
You enter an ordinary bookshop in Copenhagen. Colorful paperbacks and hardbacks line the narrow shelves. A metal spiral staircase leads up to the second floor where non-fiction books live. Behind the counter, a brown haired man talks on the phone loudly and quickly in Danish. The hardwood floors squeak as you walk around. You look around and see you’re the only customer there.
Bookstores are struggling right now to stay alive. With high book prices and customers turning to grocery stores to buy cheaper books, many are beginning to close their shutters.
Since 2000, the number of physical bookshops in Denmark has dropped from 423 to 338, with 18 shops closing down in 2012 alone.
Janis Granger, a professor of English literature at DIS explains one of the reasons why books are expensive.
“Danish is a minor language and the high prices allow books to be published and for Danish authors to get royalties,” she said.
The price to translate and print a book in Danish, a language read by only 5 million, is still the same as that to publish a book in Spanish or French.
Unlike in America, Denmark does have a fixed book price agreement. This takes the form of an agreement between publishers and booksellers which set the prices at which books were to be sold to the public. It has been a business agreement since 1837 and was amended in 2001. The book industry believes that this liberalisation of the Danish book market was what caused their crisis. Retail prices became unfixed, bookstores lost their monopoly on selling books, and supermarkets began selling books at reduced prices which forced bookshops to lower their own prices to try to compete.
On a Wednesday evening, while you are doing your weekly grocery shopping, you stock up on milk, potatoes, cheese. As you make your way up to the checkout counter, you see a shelf filled with the latest bestseller books. You toss one in your basket since it’s so much cheaper than the bookstore down the street.
Book store owners and employees feel it is hard to compete with grocery stores, especially with big book series like Twilight and Harry Potter.
Jørgensen said Denmark used to have strict set book prices but now grocery stores are free to set their prices as low as they want.
“Most new books should cost 250 or 300kr but grocery stores will charge 130kr. They lose money on the books but draw in customers.” he said.
Tom Nøregaard, author of the Politiken travel book “This Tour Goes to Copenhagen”, explains further how the grocery stores can charge such lower prices than bookstores.
“The supermarkets have a bigger cash flow, they can buy a bigger amount on the bestsellers and they can keep the prices down since they don't have to earn much on the books - they can earn their money on tomatoes and milk instead.” he said.
The financial problems of the book industry have been an issue for a while now. Authors, book shop owners and publishers have all voiced concerns that political interference is the only way to save their industry.
Lars Finne Larsson, an employee at the popular Danish bookstore chain Arnold Busck (in Helsingør) wants government intervention with the prices of books.
“It would be a big help if the government could set the minimum price books could be sold at, like they used to do,” Larsson said. “But that’s not going to happen. But I, of course, wish that would happen.”
Granger, the literature professor, is also supporter of government intervention for book prices.
“ I think it is okay for the government to fix prices to protect Danish authors so they get their royalties.”
She personally buys books from Danish bookstores such as Arnold Busch and Politiken’s bookstore. She also orders english books from Amazon.uk.
Larsson has noticed a recent hardship while working at Arnold Busck.
“I’ve seen a drop in prices. Books are selling for cheaper. It’s hard,” he expressed. On a Wednesday afternoon, there were just three people browsing in his shop.
Another factor that affects book prices is the 25 percent value added tax (VAT) on books. Denmark has the second highest VAT on books in the world.
Instead of interfering with the market, politicians have agreed to launch a series of initiatives that will “promote Danes’ desire to read literature,” Marianne Jelved, the culture minister, wrote in a March press release.
Martin Graae Jørgensen, an employee at the used bookstore Vangsgaards, feels strongly about the 25 percent VAT tax.
“This should be eliminated as soon as possible,” he said firmly.
He explained how the tax prevents Danes from reading. With Danish books costing over 30 dollars, it is simply cheaper for a Dane to watch a movie on Netflix for 8 dollars a month.
Jørgensen talked of how he was envious of France’s systemwhere book prices were regulated.
Vangsgaards has discount used books outside, in an attempt to draw people in.
Since 1981 the “Lang law,” named after its promoter, Jack Lang, the culture minister in France at the time, has fixed prices for French-language books. Booksellers may not discount books more than five percent below the publisher’s list price.
France boasts 2,500 bookstores, and for every neighborhood bookstore that closes, another seems to open. From 2003 to 2011 book sales in France increased by 6.5 percent.
If Denmark wants to encourage reading and save its bookstores then perhaps they should consider adopting a plan modeled after France. While Danish will never be as popular of a language as French, the government can still look for creative ways to make books more affordable. How many more bookstores need to close before the government steps in and makes a meaningful change?