Publishing in France: Global Market or French Exception?

An insight into the French publishing industry:

Small publishers, booksellers, and bloggers all have their job cut out for them: to find credible influencers, who are more curious than search engines!

After many positive responses to last month’s popular article Holland: In Defense of the Book, this month our new Publishing Industry Insights series features an interview with another 2 Seas client Caroline Lépée, founder of the French publishing house Editions de l’Epée.

In a country where the print book still has an incredible foothold, the e-book had a challenging takeoff. Yet Lépée, who publishes e-books only and partners with traditional publishers for print editions, is tackling the French publishing scene with poise.

logo LepeeBy guest contributor Babette Dunkelgrün – first posted in January 2014.

Babette: How did you decide to start your own e-book publishing company?

Caroline: Professionally, I grew up in mainstream publishing, which I love. When I started Les Editions de l’Epée, I didn’t immediately think about whether I’d publish e-books or print. What mattered to me in the first place was being able to practice all that I like in this industry: finding the authors and helping them to make their books as good and successful as possible, by honoring every writing style and sharing my enthusiasm with readers.

There was a curiosity around the e-book market, which was relatively new. This enabled me to bring a first time or little known author into the spotlight pretty quickly. When it comes to e-books, people will buy books more impulsively, even those by authors they have never heard of before. For example, Roxane Dambre’s first three books of her fantasy series Animae have all ranked in Amazon’s top 10 sales. I’ve learned that, though these sales figures are lower in volume, the e-book process gives us this opportunity to introduce newer authors.

Babette: Historically, the French have prided themselves on maintaining their position as an exception to the rule. Does this no longer apply to the publishing culture?

Caroline: Contrary to this historical picture, French publishing reflects and experiments. Everyone does want to be part of the global changes. Tensions regarding e-book royalties are now behind us, and I don’t think a single publisher here would dare to offer the same percentage to an author for both the print and the e-book edition. But publishing groups are commercial companies and they had no interest in seeing the digital market take off too quickly, because they are also distributors of paper books, and distribution is a profitable sector.

This policy of high-priced e-books is also justified with regards to well-known authors, who have their own “brand” and whose e-books sell even when they are expensive. A good example: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is priced at 15 Euros (over 20 US Dollars)! That said, backlist title prices are declining. Many publishers more or less align the price of the e-book when it is published in mass-market paperback edition—the Gallimard group has set the example here with their mass-market paperback imprint Folio.

As for print books, the majority of publishers has already reduced the number of titles they publish (which had doubled since 1995!); books are much cheaper than they were fifteen years ago. And the paternalistic relationship between publishing houses and authors seems to be behind us, too. The French publisher Kero Editions for example, which signed several prestigious contracts last year, is now giving authors direct access to sales numbers through their website. There is more transparency.

Babette: If you look ahead at the upcoming year in French publishing, what do you see?

Caroline: In a world where physical points of sale are declining, we will need to find new ways to have talented authors emerge into this business. Of course there is the Internet: but what visibility does a book have, when it is surrounded by thousands of other options? This is where, in my opinion, small publishers, booksellers, and bloggers have their job cut out for them: we need to find renowned and credible influencers, who are more curious than search engines!

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