Greece’s publishers, writers gather to protest against lifting of price controls on books

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ATHENS, Greece – Austerity policies in Greece have a new enemy — but it’s one which prefers intellectual debate to angry street demonstrations.

Leading Greek writers and publishers gathered at a bookstore in central Athens on Tuesday to express their opposition to the proposed lifting of price controls on books sold in the economically depressed country.

International rescue creditors are pressing for sweeping market deregulation that includes major changes to the sale of everything from bread to baby formula.

Critics from the publishing world say deregulation would hand market control over to chain stores, kill off small bookshop owners, and threaten publication of quality books in Greek — and ultimately, the country’s national heritage.

“It must be understood that human freedom is not the same thing as financial freedom,” publisher Stephanos Patakis said. “People who publish quality books are heroes and we should support them.”

Greek literary tradition traces its history back to Homer’s epics, composed about 2,800 years ago, and the country prides itself on the poetry of C.P. Cavafy, and Nobel Prize laureates George Seferis and Odysseas Elytis — although prose writers have made less of an international impact.

In Greece, a floor is set for the price of books — whether sold in bookshops or online — to help small domestic businesses. The practice, similar to ones also adopted in France, Italy and Germany, aims to keep foreign publishing multinationals from cutting prices aggressively and driving small Greek publishers and independent booksellers out of business.

The Greek publishing industry is small, peaking at just 151 million euros ($204 million) in sales in 2008 in a country of under 11 million people. Greek-speakers in the rest of the world are estimated at fewer than five million.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global policy watchdog, has recommended that the price controls be scrapped to make books cheaper and boost innovation.

Veteran crime writer Petros Markaris said small retailers were the backbone of good book appreciation, noting that independent booksellers in Britain have been disappearing due to deregulation.

“Now on the other hand in Germany, which has a regulated price … in small bookshops readers are on familiar terms with the owners,” he said. “Whoever thinks that readership will increase by deregulating prices is completely off target.”

Tuesday’s meeting was attended by several lawmakers and government representatives who said they had not yet decided whether to adopt all of the OECD recommendations.

And in keeping with the tone of the debate, a dissenter was invited to the panel of speakers.

“I buy books online because they are cheaper and I don’t think that’s a bad thing … Price obviously is a factor: look what happens when a book sale is on,” journalist and commentator Paschos Mandravelis said.

“Every time there’s change to the rules, the opposing argument is often one predicting catastrophe. People said we would starve when they changed the regulations for bakeries. And that didn’t happen.”

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