Is the 'rentrée littéraire' a blessing or a curse for the French publishing industry?
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Hundreds of novels are released during France's yearly "rentrée littéraire". Literary debates dominate the media and publishers race to publicise their offerings. It’s as French a tradition as the baguette, but it has its critics.
Every autumn in France, literary novels suddenly proliferate in stores and libraries. Advertisements in the Paris Metro display dozens of novel covers. People cart large tomes and pocket editions, reading one-handed on the bus or in cafés in the golden fall light. Prime-time television shows debate literature and prize nominees make the morning news.
The phenomenon is known as the annual “rentrée littéraire”, when publishers release and promote theirtop authors of the year, all in just a few months. This year the season runs from August 16 to October 31, when 576 novels will be released, of which 186 are foreign and 94 are debut novels.
It's the Cannes Film Festival of literature, and has a similar symbolic and economic significance in France.
“It’s a moment when we publish a lot, and there is a big marketing push that culminates in the apotheosis of the literary prizes,” said Anne-Laure Walter, deputy editor of the publishing trade journal "Livres Hebdo" (Books Weekly).
More than half of French book sales take place in the last four monthsof the year, and while other genres sell well, fine literature accounts for the biggest proportion.
And the winner of France's prestigious Prix Goncourt literary award becomes the Christmas gift “par excellence”, selling up to 500,000 copies, said Walter.
Most publishers also consider it the best moment to release promising debut novels, hoping that the extra media attention will encourage readers to take a risk on unknown novelists.
“It's a time to rediscover old friends and to hear new voices, foreign and French,” said Alexandre Fillon, a literary journalist and book reviewer. “What I like is that you’re always surprised. It’s a mix of making new discoveries and catching up with the new works of favourite authors.”
For Marie-Catherine Vacher, editor at the publishing house Actes Sud, it’s a time when “we become curious again about literature".
"Even for me, with all the books I’m publishing, I am eager to see if the next great voice in literature will come out.”
‘A party and a disaster’
But the phenomenon is not without its critics, who say the concentration of books makes it hard for most titles to break away from the pack.
“It’s a party and it’s a disaster,” said Vacher.
It’s a hectic time for everyone in the industry. Critics and bookstore owners race to read advance copies before the start of the “rentrée”.
France has more than 2,000 book stores, 200 of which are in Paris. Walter said the stores reported that staff read an average of 21 titles cover to cover this year before or during the "rentrée" period. When asked to name their top picks, they chose 163 different novels.
Most French book stores are independent or part of small chains. The staff often paste stickers or index cards with handwritten suggestions on their favourites.
At the Librairie Fontaine in the posh 16th arrondissement (district), manager Claire Authier and her staff of four have read more than 100 of the fall titles collectively. The timing of the rentrée right after the summer vacation gives them more time than usual to read advance copies.
“Still, we never read enough, because there are so many. There are some we eliminate right off the bat because we know they’ll be well-covered in the press or because we know it’s not the kind of book that will sell well in our neighbourhood,” she said.
The main problem is limited space: They can’t stock all the books. “We can get away with recommending books that haven't gotten a lot of press. But it's always a little harder, especially if it's a first novel,” she said.
For literary critic Fillon, organising his time is a necessity. He divides it between debut authors, emerging authors and celebrity authors. “But it takes a lot of time and sometimes we miss things. That’s why it’s good that it’s not just a few weeks long.”
Small publishers and debut authors
The rentrée “is good for a little brand like ours, for visibility”, said Catherine Argand, editor of the small Alma publishing house, whose novel “Einstein, le sexe et moi” by debut writer Olivier Liron is shortlisted for the prestigious Femina prize.
The two to three months of the rentrée can account for 40 percent of the publishing house’s income and usually predicts sales for the next six months. For small independent publishers like Alma, the boost in visibility during a good season can help sales into June of the following year.
“But you have to have a spine of steel,” Argand cautioned. “It’s not an exact science. It’s like a restaurant: You buy the produce and try to estimate how many places will be served. You have to manage the stock and try not to lose out.”
Despite the risk associated with competing with big publishing houses with more resources, Argand takes a lot of pleasure in seeing it all come together, competing every day to bring her authors into the limelight.
“The authors are young and new and enthusiastic and full of good will. So we fight every day to shape their life as an author.”
They also don’t have much choice, noted Vacher of Actes Sud. “Authors will go to other publishing houses if the smaller imprints refuse to publish them during the rentrée." Being published during this time is considered "very prestigious”, Vacher said.
“The disaster is that a number of authors are collateral damage. There can be a lot of disappointment among authors. It’s hard to manage because they all start out full of hope and anxiety.”
A new strategy?
The disparities between authors are exacerbated by a changing market and media landscape.
Publishers used to be able to stick by an author through several novels that don’t sell well but have literary merit. “I had the privilege of having Jérôme Ferrari as one of my authors,” said Vacher of the author who won the Prix Goncourt last year. “But at first it wasn’t easy, because his first two books didn’t sell at all. You need to have faith in your authors and keep publishing them, but now the tendency in the industry is to go for one-shot deals. If it works, it works – and if it doesn’t, then we move on to other things.”
There needs to be a new strategy, she said, particularly around communications. And she has some suggestions.
Though she is careful to say that her company has benefitted immensely from the rentrée in recent years, she said it has gotten out of hand. It would be better to spread out the releases, so publishing houses can give authors more help with promotion.
“There is a culture around this symbolic moment that also sows a lot of disappointment, and kills books that should’ve benefitted from more time and a calmer period during which to build up interest.”
These days, blogs and social media sometimes help books that the mainstream media miss.
“We’re still looking for the ideal system. We should think about the question of whether these big ceremonies may be a little old-fashioned. There are, after all, 12 months in the year.”