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Australia and France by the book: a comparison

By Sophie Masson - posted Monday, 15 November 2010


If arts policy in Australia is all too often PS, an afterthought in the thinking of political parties, then the literature side of it is the well-nigh invisible pps.

Despite the fact that the Australian literary industry is perhaps the most successful of our arts industries, both nationally and internationally, somehow it gets routinely forgotten by politicians, whether Labor or the Coalition. Requests by literary industry stakeholders for the major parties to discuss literary industry policies before the election went unheard.

Our new arts minister, Simon Crean, when asked about his arts interests, never once mentioned books. And of all the art forms, literature gets the smallest slice of the Australia Council for the Arts pie, an amount that has scarcely risen in years, making the Literature Board's job harder and harder.

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You might say that the lack of interest in literature by Australian politicians reflects a national reality, but it isn't so. Australians are great readers - second only to Iceland, apparently - in our love and consumption of books. Books are amongst the most popular (and accessible) of cultural products, and according to many surveys, libraries, not cinemas (or sports grounds) are our most-used cultural venues. And our literary industry is productive, creative, and innovative.

So its neglect by politicians seems thoughtless, to say the least. Literary industry stakeholders like the Australian Society of Authors work very hard to try to bridge the gap between policy-makers and the literary industry, and have lobbied Governments of all stripes very hard over the decades, sometimes very successfully.

For instance, an ASA campaign was directly responsible for the introduction of what could arguably be seen as the single most important piece of literary policy ever to be devised in this country: the PLR (Public Lending Right) and ELR (Education Lending Right) schemes. But all too often literary stakeholders are shut out of decisions and forced to be reactive to, and often against, proposed policy, both Federal and State, such as the campaign last year against the parallel importation of books, or continuing campaigns to bring back Australian literature to school and university curricula, where in recent years it has been notable for its absence.

As an ad hoc approach to literary policy seems to dominate in Australia, regular contact and consultation with literary stakeholders simply does not figure, and growing concerns within the industry about copyright issues, the Google digitisation project and the changing face of publishing with e-books, do not appear to be addressed within policy-making circles.

The Australian experience is thrown into stark relief when you examine the experience of France.

I've recently returned from a six months' writer's residency in Paris and was able to observe at first hand the French literary/publishing industry and the very different way it interacts with policy-makers. It's well-known that France has a long tradition of valuing literature and writers of course, but what might be less well-known is the degree to which policy-makers are not only interested in literary issues, but regularly consult with stakeholders, such as the authors' organisation, the Societe des Gens de Lettres, or SGDL(founded in 1838 by such luminaries as Hugo, Balzac and George Sand) on the creation of policy.

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In contrast to the Australian situation, French Government literary policy, whether conservative or socialist, does not favour an ad hoc approach, or individual funding of authors. There are grants available, but they are a minor part of the scene. Residencies are more prominent, with authors able to apply to a mix of Government and private organisations which offer them throughout the country. Literary prizes are not generally administered directly by Government, but by a mix of private and semi-Government bodies.

Instead, French Government literary policy concentrates on the underpinnings of the industry, focussing on such things as the protection of copyright, including moral rights, the protection of the bookshop scene by the "prix unique" or fixed price (on which more below), and a strong commitment to French literary heritage, with the Government not hesitating to intervene if it feels it is under threat.

As part of the image, tradition and continuing history of France, it is felt to be as important as its built or natural heritage - and whilst from an Anglophone point of view, used to a "hands-off approach", that might seem stifling, in practice it means not only that French politicians are expected to have an actual understanding of literature and the concerns of the industry, but that they do not adopt a "top-down" approach in the working out of solutions to literary issues, preferring to consult fully with stakeholders before policy is created.

Two flagship modern issues: the proposed Google monopolisation of digitisation, and the e-books situation, have both been tackled in this way, and some very interesting and imaginative approaches adopted (more on which below).

For background, it may be useful to first have a quick overview of the modern French publishing scene (figures are from the Centre National du Livre, France's sort of equivalent to the Australia Council Literature Board but which has only been going since 2003 and is funded by a 3 percent tax levied on photocopiers, scanners and offset printers, and fees from publishers):

Despite the GFC, there was a very slight rise (+0.1 percent) in publishing in France in 2009-10, following on a more substantial rise in the two years before that (+5.30 percent and +4.6 percent respectively). The book industry is one of the top leisure industries in France, ahead of the video, music or games industries.

The average print run of a book is 9, 340. Fifty-four percent of French people bought at least one book this year, with 11.5 percent buying 12 or more. However as you might expect, young people read a lot more, with 77 percent of high school students reporting they'd read at least one non-school-enforced book in the last 3 months, with 36 percent reading more than 1, and 23 percent reading more than 4. (I might also add that French literary education is still very much alive, with a good deal more fiction, poetry and plays read at school than in Australia.)

Some interesting figures regarding types of books sold. Fiction accounts for 25 percent of books sold, with youth at 17 percent, "livres de poche" (a very particular French way of publishing, small-format paperbacks at a very good price, which can be either fiction or non-fiction) at 28.5 percent, "practical" trade nonfiction at 11 percent, Bandes Dessinees (French comics and graphic novels) at 7 percent, and foreign manga or other comics at 2 percent. (Bandes Dessinees or BD, have traditionally been a strong force in French literature for decades and this is continuing to grow; Japanese manga and American comics are also growing in popularity.)

It is also a very self-sufficient market: only 14.3 percent of books sold in France are translations from other languages, with translations from English accounting for 61 percent of that.

There is a huge choice of places to buy books, from a bewildering and rich myriad of independent bookshops, to big chains like the FNAC, department stores like Galeries Lafayette and Monoprix, and supermarkets like Leclerc and Carrefour. Internet sales of books, on Amazon.fr or others, account for 9.6 percent of the market.

The healthy bookshop scene in France is very noticeable, and is directly attributable to the fact that there is a fixed price for books in France, and only 5 percent discounting is allowed, so that whether you buy a book in a small bookshop, big chain store, supermarket or the internet, it is basically the same price. This has been the case since the mid-80's, when the so-called "Lang law" (after the then Minister of Culture, Jack Lang) on the fixing of book prices and the outlawing of big discounts, was introduced.

It also means a very big publishing scene, with publishers ranging from the one of the world's biggest (Hachette) to medium-size family firms, to small regional-interest and tiny one-man-band companies. On my visit to the Salon du Livre , the Paris Book Fair, in March 2010, I saw at first hand the extraordinary richness that this produces, and saw too the enormous interest it generates among readers. Unlike most other book fairs, this is not just trade (though many deals are made there) but also general interest, and the crush of readers around the publishing stands was quite extraordinary.

The Salon was in fact like a combination of writer's festival, complete with talks and panels, and book fair, in an exciting mix that I think might usefully be considered here! Incidentally the audiences were very much more mixed than they are at similar events in Australia, with male readers as visible as female, and with a remarkable number of young people who had come of their own will (it was the weekend) and not through school or uni at all, to meet their idols, buy books and have a good time.

The situation for authors

Royalties are usually set at 8 percent, rising to 10 percent if the book sells above 10,000 copies and to 12 percent after 20,000; but for "livres de poche", authors get only 5 percent. Some authors in the past have however earned up to 20 percent royalties, even as long ago as the 1950's, while some publishers will pay only 7 percent for a first novel.

Advances are generally not large, with most authors (especially those for young people) getting around the 2,000-5,000 euro mark - but there are some stellar advances of course, with enfant terrible novelist Michel Houellebecq earning 1.3 million euros advance (and 15 percent royalties) for his Possibilite d'une ile (Possibility of an island)

There is also an unusual way of being paid your royalties in France, with some authors opting to be paid by the month as a kind of living wage - the philosopher/writer Michel Onfray gets paid 2,000 euros per month, for example, while another author, Marc-Edouard Nabe gets paid 2,200 euros a month plus his mobile bills paid!

The main difference in the author/publisher relationship in France to that in Australia and indeed most Anglophone countries is that, unlike here, there have traditionally not been any literary agents. Even today there are very few, and they are still viewed with great suspicion not only by a good many French publishers, but French writers too.

I was told that this was because traditionally French publishing has been very much a family-firm concern (and in many cases continues to be, even with big names like Gallimard) and publishers have very much had a paternalistic kind of relationship with their authors (hence for example, that monthly allowance some writers draw on).

They have traditionally also disliked what they rather preciously saw as the "Anglo-Saxon hard-nosed commercial" way of doing things, and especially disliked what they see as the agent's determination to push up advances. However this situation is rapidly changing, due mainly to the fact publishers are becoming less accessible to authors.

Though French protection of authorial copyright (including moral rights) is very strong and of long date (some of it dating from the 19th century), one thing Australia is well ahead on in terms of individual authors' incomes is the longevity of our PLR scheme. France has only introduced such a scheme in the last few years, while Australia's dates from more than twenty-five years ago, supplemented a few years ago by the successful introduction of ELR (focussing on libraries in educational institutions such as schools and universities).

Specific current policy issues

The Google issue

France has directly and successfully challenged Google's attempt to monopolise the digitisation of the world's literary capital, through a test case involving Google's attempt to digitise books in the collection of the municipal Bibliotheque de Lyon, which was defeated. This success resulted in the rapid growth of Gallica, the digital program of the Bibliotheque de France, the national library, which up till then had been proceeding rather slowly.

Gallica has now become a very strong actor on the French scene and totally eliminated any danger of the country's literature being under the sole imprint of Google. So successful in fact has Gallica become that it is being used as a model by many other non-Anglo European countries who do not wish to allow Google to digitise their literary works. This success has also had a direct bearing on the next big issue, that of e-books.

E-books

Although these at present represent a miniscule fraction of the market in France (some estimates put it as low as 0.01 percent) Hachette, France's biggest publisher (and possibly world's) estimates that in 2010, its sales of e-books globally, went from 0.5 to 3 percent of its own sales, and everyone knows that you cannot be too complacent about these things, even if e-books turn out to be only a niche market.

Incidentally, there are only about 40,000 e-readers sold in France yearly - the Kindle is not a popular device in France. The most sold e-reader was Sony's, followed by the (rather nifty) French e-reader, Bookeen. The Ipad had only just been introduced when I was in Paris.

In 2009, the Ministry of Culture commissioned a study to look into the whole issue. What they and the SGDL and the SNE (Societe National d'Edition, the publishers' association) absolutely wanted was to maintain the "prix unique", the fixed price which has made France's literary scene flourish, and to find a way of adapting it for the e-book, as well as protecting the rights of creators, especially copyright and royalty rates etc.

One of the first problems faced is that in French law a print book is classified as "an object", whilst an e-book is classified as "a service", and thus subject to different rates of TVA, or GST. Books incur a 5.5 percent GST; services 19.6 percent! (Obviously if e-books were to be a viable proposition, this would have to change).

It soon became obvious from the study that things couldn't just be adapted from past situations; new means would have to be found to protect authors' rights and the literary heritage of the country, as well as make e-books more accessible. But there were many issues and bones of contention- principally on the whole question of what would be author royalties on e-books.

The SGDL argued for the same royalty rate as on print books while publishers have been diucking and weaving on the issue. To date, there has not yet been an agreement on the matter, let alone fixing a price on e-books, and discussions are ongoing. But on one front there was a big development.

In May 2010, in joint consultation with the SGDL, the SNE and SOFIA (a new author-publisher-government body which administers such things as PLR), the Ministry of Culture decided to intervene directly in the e-book scene through Gallica, by tackling what is known as the "grey zone" - books for which a contract still exists (ie are still in print and rights not reverted) but which are hardly ever reprinted, which did not have any e-book clauses (this usually means prior to 1995), and which have never been digitised. Digital rights for these books will be established by the Government and Gallica will digitise them-with the permission of authors, commercial exploitation can remain with the publishers if they wish, or instead go to Gallica.

This is potentially a very big and important intervention as it could set the model for e-book commercialisation in France, set national formatting standards, and test the waters generally. At the time of speaking to the SGDL, it had not yet been implemented, but was expected to become law by the end of the year. Many other European countries are watching closely to see what the outcome will be.

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About the Author

Born in Indonesia of French parents, Sophie Masson came to Australia at the age of five, and spent her childhood in both Australia and France. She is the author of more than 30 novels, for adults, young adults and children, and is a regular contributor to newspapers and magazines, both print and online, all over the world. Sophie Masson's latest novels are The Phar Lap Mystery (Scholastic Press) and The Hunt for Ned Kelly (Scholastic Press). She is a regular blogger at Writer Unboxed.

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