PARIS Regulation and a devoted book culture look set to cushion the impact on French publishers and booksellers of the impending digital revolution that has so transformed markets in the United States and Britain.
Arnaud Nourry, the CEO of Hachette Books Group, predicted that e-books would take off in France this year and that the market would benefit from the relatively late adoption of digital reading because it would benefit from lessons learned elsewhere.
Strict rules that prevent booksellers from cutting prices, and a love of books amongst the French, have convinced Nourry that the shift to digital sales will be much less traumatic than otherwise feared.
"My bet is that in the first half of next year we're going to see the first signs of the e-book market taking off in France," he said at the Reuters Global Media Summit on Thursday.
"I don't see why the French readers would not want to read in digital form, (but) I also believe it will go slower and perhaps not to the same point as other markets."
Sales of digital books have grown rapidly in the U.S. and Britain in recent years to around 20 percent of total book sales in the former and almost 10 percent in the latter.
In France, such sales remain almost zero, hampered by the fact that few e-reading devices have been available and few titles offered for sale.
That is soon to change. In October, Amazon (AMZN.O) launched a French-language digital book store and Kindle e-reader and France's number one book seller Fnac (PRTP.PA) partnered with the Kobo e-reader to push digital sales.
In France the transition will be slower than in the United States or the UK, said Nourry, predicting that e-book sales could be 3-5 percent of the market next year and reach 15 percent in the next three years.
E-books are also set to get a boost in France when the value-added tax rate applied to them is brought down from the current 19.6 percent to 7 percent in line with conventional books.
The book market is also more diversified in France, with less emphasis on commercial fiction books such as those written by Dan Brown and Michael Connelly, and a wider range of offerings on niche subjects like history and non-fiction essays.
Hachette's footprint, with about 30 percent of sales in France and 40 percent in the US and the UK combined, was also an advantage, said Nourry.
In France, print book sales are more profitable than e-books because of the regulatory framework, while in the English-language markets the opposite is true, given savings on printing and distribution.
"I've got the best of the two worlds," said Nourry.
Hachette, which is owned by conglomerate Lagardere (LAGA.PA), is the world's second-largest trade book publisher, releasing books in English, French and Spanish. Its bestsellers have included the vampire-themed Twilight series by American author Stephenie Meyer and in France the biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
Hachette competes with Penguin Books, which is owned by Pearson (PSON.L), and Random House, which is owned by Bertelsmann BERT.UL.
(Additional reporting by Gwenaelle Barzic and Marie Mawad; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)