Salon du Livre, 2010

Postcard from Paris 3: A revolution in French publishing 

In recent times, things have changed in French publishing, and for the better, too. This was graphically demonstrated to me not only by my own experience of French publishing, with a French edition of one of my (pseudonymous) novels coming out this month for the first time ever in my native language, but also by visiting the huge Salon du Livre in Paris (Paris Book Expo), the biggest French publishing event, which has some international participation but is overwhelmingly dominated by French publishers. 

Traditionally, French publishers have focussed on several strengths: literary novels, elegant and extensive non-fiction works, philosophical works, detective fiction, historical biography, regional presses, and BDs (Bandes Dessinees, or comic books/graphic novels), as well as some translations of select international authors. But it was a fairly narrow list and focused pretty much against general fiction and children’s and young people’s fiction, which were felt to be the poor relations – BD itself, though known here as ‘the 9th art’ and with a distinguished history from the early 1900’s onwards occupied a rather ambiguous place in French literary culture. Plus the withering impact of literary theory in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s caused a certain sterility and lack of storytelling verve in the French novel which saw readers turn away from it in droves and lose themselves in historical biographies and detective fiction instead (which has always been held in great respect in France, and earnestly discussed by analytical philosophers!). Every time I’ve come back to France since then, I was dismayed by the poor variety of books available in bookshops – especially, being a writer for young people, in the lack of variety in that area, for if children and young people don’t have exciting books to read – fun, entertaining books, not only books they HAVE to read for school – then they won’t become readers and the knock-on effect of that will be to make the literary culture more and more sterile. As well, if you don’t have good meaty intelligent general fiction, then you will also lose your general reader, and without them, it will all diminish to books dominated only by professional readers and critics. 

But that’s all changed. It was clear already a few years ago that things were loosening up and new influences coming into the literary culture but judging not only from the Salon du Livre but also everyday displays in bookshops, there seems to be an explosion in French publishing, both books in translation and French homegrown writing. General adult fiction has hugely expanded, with historical novels (a very big area again, just as in the 19th century), fantasy (which has mushroomed in last 10 years), family sagas, ‘chick lit’ and much more taking their place alongside detective fiction, thrillers, literary novels (which have now ditched theory in favour of story and character!) and much more. The massive queues for French popular novelists like Amelie Nothomb stretched for hours and hours, and the fantasy autograph queues stretched for meters and meters of black – clad Goths and eager young aficionados clutching the latest big tomes. The BD sector has also hugely expanded, and there’s even French manga now too! (French people seem to have a real fascination for Japan at the moment, both in food and books and general culture). But most pleasing of all to me was the sight of the huge explosion in children’s and young adult publishing, which is lively, vigorous, and buzzing with activity. My publisher at Albin Michel Jeunesse told me it was the ‘Harry Potter factor’ – – French kids, like kids the world over(and not a few adults!) discovered in the Harry Potter books that books could not only be fun but highly addictive, and they clamoured for more. Suddenly, lots of new French writers were being given a chance, books in translation by foreign children’s authors were sought – and years down the track, she said, it shows no sign of let-up. Certainly the crowds of children and teenagers clustered around the book stands at the Salon and waiting patiently in line to have books autographed testified to the excitement amongst young readers in France. It’s all a very good sign, and a wonderful contrast, for an author and reader, to the depressed publishing scene in the UK at the moment. Spooked by the financial crisis, the publishing industry there has been busily cutting its lists and cancelling contracts rather than take on new work – I was told by a British agent that currently they are selling many more books in translation than originating them in the UK! 

France has two advantages – first, the financial crisis did not hit it as badly as the UK; but secondly and more importantly, there is a law dating from 1980 which forbids the discounting of books by more than 5 percent of RRP. Free marketers may not like the notion, but not only are books no dearer in France than they are in countries where deep discounting is allowed, but it also makes book selling an attractive trade – independent bookshops and big chains and ‘grandes surfaces’ sell books at the same rate(unlike in Britain, where independent booksellers have practically vanished, and even the chains only have one standing now – Waterstones – and aggressive pricing on the part of supermarkets and online guarantees there won’t be small business bookshops reviving the sector any time now. ) Forbidding big discounts also guarantees publishers good returns. When to that you add an explosion in creativity, a willingness on the part of publishers to take risks with new authors and new genres, and an openness to the world’s literature as well, then you have an exciting, healthy and hopeful scene.

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