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French book prize kicks up storm with Amazon selection

Fred Tanneau, AFP | The autumn "rentrée littéraire" is high season for France's 3,000 independent bookstores.

Booksellers are furious a novel distributed only by Amazon has made it onto the long-list for one of France’s top literary prizes, saying it rewards the goliath that threatens both their livelihood and the country’s heritage.


It’s the literary equivalent of the Cannes-Netflix brouhaha, a tussle pitting France’s cherished independent bookstores against the American behemoth threatening their fragile ecosystem.

A year after the Cannes Film Festival triggered a fierce backlash from France’s myriad cinemas by inviting online upstart Netflix, one of the country’s top literary prizes – the Prix Renaudot – has sparked similar outrage among bookstores this week by selecting a novel distributed by their mortal foe Amazon.

The book, “Bande de Français” by French-Israeli author Marco Koskas, was included in a long-list of seven essays and 17 novels competing for the Renaudot, generally regarded as the second most prestigious French-language prize after the Goncourt. It is self-published and available only on Amazon – unless bookstores choose to order it from the online platform, a step many are loath to take.

“Do they want us to pay our most ferocious competitor? To give him money so he can kill us?” asked Mélanie Le Saux, a bookseller in the Paris region who posted an open letter on Facebook on Sunday in which she blasted the Renaudot jury for “throwing the door wide open to the beast”.

“Either we buy the book from our competitor, or we just won’t have it,” Le Saux told FRANCE 24. “It’s a very strong signal: Amazon has won their blessing.”

‘Amazon law’

The Renaudot dispute marks a new twist in a protracted battle between France’s independent bookstores and their online rival, itself part of a broader struggle aimed at protecting cultural goods and services from the destructive forces of capitalism.

France has fixed book-prices and a 5% cap on discounts to protect small shops from larger competitors, measures that are widely credited with protecting the country’s extensive network of independent bookstores. Similarly, a mix of quotas and subsidies has helped homegrown films and small cinemas to survive the onslaught of Hollywood and multiplex theatres.

France is home to roughly 3,000 independent bookshops, more than twice as many as the UK or Germany.
France is home to roughly 3,000 independent bookshops, more than twice as many as the UK or Germany. Loïc Venance, AFP

In both cases, the arrival of online players like Amazon and Netflix presents a formidable challenge for France’s model.

In 2013, parliament passed a bill – dubbed the “Amazon law” – that prevents online platforms from providing free delivery on top of the 5% discount on books, handing a victory to France’s estimated 3,000 independent bookshops.

For those booksellers, the autumn rentrée littéraire, when publishers release a slew of new books and jostle for prizes, is traditionally the highlight of the year. But this time the Renaudot long-list has spoiled the party.

Proust’s way

Patrick Besson, a writer and member of the Renaudot jury, has defended the decision to select Koskas’s novel in an interview with French weekly Le Point (where he also publishes a column), arguing that it is not uncommon for authors to self-publish or foot the publisher’s bill.

“Take Proust,” he said. “’Swann’s Way’ was published by Grasset in 1913 at the author’s expense. What farmer would let others plough his field for a meagre 10% return? It’s normal for authors to be unhappy with the current business model and rebel against publishers. It’s the text I’m interested in; I don’t care about the rest.”

The author of “Bande de Français” is hardly a newcomer in the trade. He’s already published a number of books with the likes of Fayard, Grasset and Robert Laffon. But he says his last work, about French Jews who emigrate to Israel, was turned down by publishers – a decision he blamed on “delirious Israelophobia”.

“Talking about French Jews who leave France because of anti-Semitism, and move to Israel, is a taboo subject – not to be approached,” Koskas told the literary review ActuaLitté, adding that he had little choice but to publish at his own expense – under the fictitious name “Galligrassud”, a contraction of several French publishing firms.

‘Amazon wants to be the only player in the game’

For Le Saux, who says she often had self-published books in her store, to focus the debate on self-publishing is to miss the point, when the real problem is Amazon. “Its owner has put it very clearly. He wants to get rid of all competitors, namely publishers and bookshops,” she said. “He wants to be the only player in the game.”

It’s a view shared by the Syndicat de la librairie française, an umbrella group for French bookstores, which has published a statement condemning the Renaudot jury.

“With this decision, does the Prix Renaudot realise it is doing a disservice to the author himself and to bookshops, as well as sending a worrying signal for the future of the industry?” the statement read.

The Syndicat added: “How deceitful and sinister Amazon’s dream world is. No more hierarchy between works, reduced to mere usernames on a platform; no editorial policy but millions of titles accumulated haphazardly; no books in lively areas of ‘commerce’; no people hired to bring works and authors to readers; warehouses and a sophisticated algorithm instead of spoken words.”

Some booksellers have vowed to take their fight to the next level, calling for a boycott of the Renaudot or for Patrick Besson’s works to be sent back to the publishers. But Le Saux says the solution lies in large part with the public.

“My aim was to get jury members to face up to their responsibilities, but also to raise awareness of the situation among readers,” she explained. “One cannot buy books on Amazon and then complain when the local bookstore has closed.”

Before the Renaudot Prize is awarded on November 7, Le Saux and her colleagues will be watching closely in the coming weeks to see if the jury includes the Amazon entry in its shortlist – or if, as the Cannes Film Festival did earlier this year, it bows to pressure and boots out the intruder.

This article was adapted from the French original.

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