The Literary Field in France – a Glimpse at our Neighbours

France will be the Guest of Honour at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. How familiar are you with their culture, literature and markets so far? The Literary Field Kaleidoscope offers you a first glimpse at our neighbouring literary field – and next week an interview with an independent bookseller in Paris.

book shelf with french booksIn many ways, the French literary field is similar to the German one – but in some respects it shares more with the UK. And – how could it be any different? – in various other respects it has its very own characteristics as we will see. The French literary field is highly centralised, where almost everything is centred in and around Paris, similar to the UK’s focus on London. The fixed book prices, however, and some protectionist methods, are more similar to Germany.

In France, approximately 67,000 new books are published every year (67,041 in 2015, source: Livres Hebdo, see below). By the way: the vast majority of industry data was taken from Livres Hebdo (I spent some time in the French National Library to plough through their data). If the numbers are from a different source, I’ll mention it explicitly. So 67,000 new books in France in 2016. In comparison, Germany published 89,506 (BoeV = Boersenverein des Deutschen Buchhandels), the UK 173,000 (Buchreport) and the USA 304,912 in 2013 (Buchreport). Livres Hebdo, the French equivalent to The Bookseller, quotes sales amounting to 4.1 billion in 2016 (for some reason, their numbers are without VAT). In comparison, the book sales for Germany in 2016 amounted to 9.19 billion Euros (BoeV), in the UK 5.99 billion Euros (Buchreport) and the USA 25.52 billion Euros (Buchreport).

But these numbers don’t tell us that much. More interesting are the answers to the following questions: how are books published in France? And what is published, what is read? Who are the main agents and who has the power to make a mark on the literary field? Let’s start with the production side:

French Book Production

I tend to repeat this every time I speak about France: Paris is not all there is to this country and culture. However, similar to the UK, France is a highly centralised country and most of the literature business happens in the capital.

In addition, France also went through a period of commercialisation and conglomeration since the 1960s. Most of the money is earned by large groups and conglomerates: the 10 biggest earn 87.5% of turnover in France and abroad. And the three most important players are Hachette Livre (a huge group that now belongs to Lagardère), Editis (group that belongs to the Spanish Groupo Planeta; famous for their Univers Poche, a paperback group consisting of six publishers) and Madrigall, who own the prestigious Gallimard and Flammarion. (Fun fact: Madrigall is an anagram of Gallimard. The Gallimard family created this conglomerate.)

The probably most important big publishers are Hachette (group Lagardère), Gallimard (group Madrigall), Grasset (group Lagardère), and Seuil (group Martinière). Among the indies – who do still exist – I’d like to mention Actes Sud (Arles and Paris), Au Diable Vauvert (close to Nîmes), and Éditions de Minuit (who started to publish political books for the Résistance under difficult circumstances during the occupation in WWII and made their name with the nouveau roman and Samuel Beckett). There are many more, but I found it much harder to find any reliable information about their position in the field in specialist publications, much harder compared to the UK and Germany. There is of course the International Alliance of Independent Publishers (based in Paris) that promotes and strengthens bibliodiversity in the 50 countries of its members (link to their website, available in English, French and Spanish), so some resources can be found there, albeit with a different focus.

According to Livres Hebdo, 197 publishing houses had a turnover of more than 1 million Euros last year. But do have a look at how the turnover is distributed:

chart showing turnover of french publishers

(source: Livres Hebdo)

The Role of Translations

buchcover darm mit charmeOnly 17.7% of the books published in France in 2016 were translations (total: 11.847). In Germany in comparison, 10.179 books or 11.4 % were translations (BoeV, link). It might not come as a surprise that most translations came from English. But on position #2 is Japanese. The authors of Livres Hebdo attribute this to the popularity of Japanese mangas and graphic novels in France. Translations from Italian to French have also seen a surge in particular in the graphic novel section and Brazilian Portuguese featured in the statistics because a lot of translations were published before and after Brazil was the Guest of Honour at the Paris Book Fair (2015). In Germany, the popularity range of translation goes like this: English >French >Japanese >Italian >Swedish. And another little fun fact: the most popular translation in the French book market was and is Le charme discret de l’intestin (Actes Sud) the German book Darm mit Charme (Ullstein) about bowels by Guilia Enders (in English: Gut: the inside story of our body’s most under-rated organ (Scribe)). It continues to be very popular.

Literary Agents in France

Literary agents in France have not at all the same status as their colleagues in the UK or Germany. Dorothée Risse (source see below) wrote a very interesting article about the history of literary agents in France and their difficult position in the contemporary French literary field. There was and is a lot of mistrust as traditionally, authors stayed with one publishing house and did not use intermediaries. This has changed and Dorothée Risse mentions some spectacular cases (e.g. Houellebecq) that caused the controversy to flare up again. Nevertheless, in the new millennium, some literary agents – often people with experience in the Anglo-American field – have claimed their position in the French book market. In 2016, they created their first union, the Alliance des Agents Littéraires Français (link). So has this lead to the acceptance of their role? I’m unable to tell, yet, but will try to find out more about this fascinating development next time I’m over there or at the Book Fair in Frankfurt this year.

Distribution & Sales: Bookshop Chains, Indies and Other Sources

gutenberg bookshop in paris

“Librairie Gutenberg” in Paris

Specialist publications as well as my own “research” as a flâneuse have come to the same observation: there are more indies and fewer chains in France than they are in the UK and Germany. In fact, there is no book shop chain (i.e. shops that only carry books) with branches all over the country. Only Gibert Joseph resembles something like a chain with its 18 shops (Paris, Poitiers, Toulouse, Marseille, Montpellier and some in the East). However, that doesn’t mean that France is a paradise for indie bookshops and their clients. It just means that the competition lies somewhere else: supermarkets and hypermarchés have a large market share (about 19.5%), but the biggest competitors are large cultural retailers (that’s how the press calls them) like fnac and cultura. The fnac, for example, reminds me a bit of the Media Markt stores but with fewer white goods and with books instead. As for cultura, I have to admit that I haven’t seen one from the inside yet. But their website can give you an idea about their products: books (e & p), music, instruments, DVDs and blurays, video games, some high tec and papeterie products.

inside fnac

inside fnac

Chart illustrating the sales channels in French bookselling:

pie chart sales channels france

(source: Livres Hebdo)

However, the French government seems to have understood that it’s a good idea to support local bookshops. One great idea I came across is their initiative to give out interest-free loans for independent book shops. Something we should consider to copy?!

A typically French (?) constellation I encountered time and again were bookshops owned by publishing houses – or bookshops who also publish their own books. There are many examples in French history, such as the renowned Éditions Flammarion or Shakespeare and Company. The former sadly ‘only’ exists as an imprint within the already mentioned group Madrigall (see pictures of the empty bookshops in and close to Odéon in Paris below), the latter still exists. Actually, there are a lot of exciting stories that could be told about the bookshop, library and publishing house Shakespeare and Company, not least the publishing of James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Publisher and bookshop la dilettante

Publisher and bookshop “la dilettante”

Aside: A recent novel tells the story of the two booksellers and publishers Sylvia Beach (Shakespeare and Company) and Adrienne Monnier (La Maison des Amis des Livres) and their relationship: Veneda Mühlenbrink: Odéonia, Paris. Ulrike Helmer Verlag (2017) (link to a review in German)

This tradition, however, of combining publishing and bookselling is still alive. “La dilettante” at Place Odéon is such an example and the case of indie publisher Actes Sud and it’s bookshop “l’arbre à lettre” – in interview with the latter will be published next week.

Internet Sales

Online sales for print books are at approximately 19% in France. For ebooks, the numbers will be a lot higher, but it was impossible to get any reliable data. That’s not only my observation, but the press also complained about it. The largest channel of online sales in France is amazon – and they’re not very generous with their market data. So just like in the UK and Germany, online booksellers are a huge competition for brick and mortar bookstores. Another shared challenge is the availability of a lot of free electronic content – from legal as well as illegal sources. I was very surprised to see that e.g. Gibert Joseph offered a lot of free books on their website. I don’t get it.

Fixed Book Prices

Book prices in France are fixed. “La loi Lang”, the respective law, was introduced in 1981 by the Minister of Education, Jack Lang. A maximum discount of up to 5% is possible according to this law – and this discount is often given via loyalty cards (see interview next week). The law does not apply for books older than two years, out of print titles and used books.

And here’s another observation from my visit to bookshops in Paris: there were more trade paperbacks than I expected and their prices started around 22 Euros and more. “Normal” paperbacks were between 7 and 18 Euros.


Ebooks also have fixed book prices and according to the French should have the same VAT as books (reduced rate of 5.5%). The EU court of justice, however, has decided in March 2015, that ebooks are not books, but services – and should be taxed with the normal VAT rate, i.e. 20% in France. The French were not amused by the decision – and as far as I can tell have not complied with the ruling, yet.

According to Livres Hebdo, about 10.7 million ebooks were sold in France in 2015 (approx. 3% of overall sales, 79 million Euro). Ebooks are priced cheaper than hardcovers (-30%), but they’re more expensive than paperbacks (+20%). The average ebook price in France was at 14 Euros, the average price for a print book 20 Euros. According to the German Bookseller Association (BoeV), the average ebook price in Germany in 2016 was 6,82 Euro.

Paris Book Fair

poster of paris book fairThe main French book fair is in Paris, of course. The “Salon du Livre” takes place every year at the end of March. Size-wise it is similar to Leipzig and in between Frankfurt Book Fair and London Book Fair. This is a short overview I created out of the data I found on the respective book fair websites:

  • Paris: 2.000 booksellers and 1.200 publishers from 50 countries; 157,600 visitors (2017)
  • London: 1.600 exhibitors from 60 countries; visitor numbers = well-kept secret… (Brexit casting its shadow?)
  • Frankfurt: 7.100 exhibitors from 100 countries; 277,000 visitors (2016)
  • Leipzig: 2.263 exhibitors from 42 countries; 186,000 visitors (2017)

As already mentioned, France will be the Guest of Honour at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. You can find out more about the supporting programme (in French, German and English!) via this link.

Reception: Literary Criticism

In France, every bigger newspaper has their literature supplement once a week. I looked up a couple of critics who published in some of the bigger newspapers like the Figaro and Le Monde – and what stared at me were mostly faces of white, oldish, middle-class, men. Their writing: sophisticated name dropping. The female critics I found were also white, middle-class, and middle aged. Of course, my little random sample (which I already did on another occasion last year – with similar results) does not prove that there are no people of colour and/or younger writers among the critics, but I still think it’s a hint that there are representation and visibility issues to be addressed.

In addition to the newspapers, literary criticism happens a lot in magazines, on the radio and some TV shows. Many big publishers own their own literary magazines – how convenient. Literary Blogs exist, but don’t seem to play a role similar to the ones in Germany or the UK. All in all, a lot of the literary criticism I encountered gave me the feeling that it’s not meant to be read and/or understood by the majority. The exclusion mechanisms I noticed most often were the overly complicated language and tons of references to philosophers and other intellectuals that only highly educated people will get. The same is true for the TV show I watched in January: “La Grande Librairie” (link to the show’s website). It’s apparently one of the widely known ones, broadcast on France 5, a public broadcaster with a mission to educate….  It was so incredibly boring!

screen from tv book show la grande librairie

Still from “La Grande Librairie”, France 5

Although there was a total of five guests, the conversation was only carried out between the chair and one of the guests. Their vocabulary and habitus tried to mirror (or was – what do I know?) (upper) middle-class – and again, they were white, old and male until a black guy and a woman appeared in the end… The discussion was incomprehensible to someone without a solid education in philosophy and history and they were clearly not on a teaching mission for a wide target group.

Many debates preceding the presidential elections in France talked about the existence of a detached elite. This observation is not limited to the political field.

“… all must have prizes.”

And the French are no exception. You can observe a prize craze similar to the one in the UK with staged events that are covered across all media, but there is one big difference: out of the approximately 1.400 different prizes, most don’t offer any prize money at all! The prize money of the Prix Goncourt, the most prestigious one, is 10 Euros, the Renaudot, Femina and Interallié prizes offer you glory and fame, but no money. The “Grand Prix du Roman”, one of the currently 58 prizes of the “Académie Française”, at least awarded 10.000 Euro to its winner in 2016 – but compared to their British and German equivalents, that’s rather minimalist.

The most important ones are the prizes Goncourt, Renaudot, Femina, Médicis, the prizes of the Académie Française and the Interallié. The Prix Goncourt is the oldest one and seems to serve as a role model for most other prizes. This goes as far as logo design: contrary to many other international literature prizes, the big French prizes don’t have their own logos – or they all look alike: white letters on red ground, found on books as paper wrappers. Again, the Goncourt seems to be the point of reference.

french books with book prize wrappersThe Goncourt was founded in 1903 and modestly awards the “best book in prose”. The prize jury does not change every year but stays “in power” (the Académie Goncourt appoints new jury members once a judge dies or leaves). On top of that, representatives of the big publishers are jury members (according to Livres Hebdo, out of 10 member 3 were from Gallimard, 2 from Grasset, and 2 from Seuil) – another source of controversies. The satire newspaper Canard Enchainé coined the term “Galligrasseuil” as they dominate the Goncourt Prize.

The Prix Renaudot was introduced in 1926 by journalists who were tired of waiting for the results of the Goncourt. It’s now equally important, announces the winner on the same day and is also called “the alternative Goncourt”. The Prix Femina was founded in 1904 as a reaction to the Goncourt – and it’s not an award for female authors but an award with an all-female jury.

The most important French literary prizes are all awarded in the fall, most in November. The Goncourt and Renaudot are announced on the first Tuesday in November. This comes with major attention by press and audience alike.

But in addition to the big five or six, there are other prizes, too, that are not only important for the overall book sales, but also for those who are tired of the established juries. The Prix Goncourt des Lycéens (again, can’t move too far away from the role model), for example, is awarded by the already-mentioned fnac and the Ministry of Education. 2000 students read selected books in their classes and make their decision – and the winner is crowned in Rennes, not Paris!

(Other) French Characteristics: La Rentrée

blackboard vive la rentreeIn France, the school year starts on the first weekday of September for everyone. It’s called “la rentrée”. This is accompanied by the “rentrée littéraire”, a massive launch of new books. It receives major attention across all media.

Livres Hebo published some numbers for 2016: at the “rentrée”, 560 new novels were published. Out of those, 32% were written by women (2015: 35%). The sales charts (comprising old and new titles sold between 26 August and 4 December) were led by the moral fairy tale Riquet à la Houpe by Perrault, the French “Grimm” if you want, but the other top spots were filled by the usual suspects, the prize winners: Goncourt, Renaudot, Fnac, Goncourt des Lycéens, Académie Francaise. Among the topsellers were 19.6% translated titles (2015: 24,5%). The average age of the authors on the list was 53, with over a quarter in the age group of 40-59.


In France, the literary market is still protected by fixed book prices. Other protective initiatives are e.g. interest-free loans that exist for independent booksellers and the reduced postage rates for books sent abroad. There are fewer book chains than in the UK and Germany, and the main competition for bookshops comes from online sales, large cultural retailers like fnac and cultura as well as „hypermarchés“. On the publishing side one can observe processes of market concentration similar to the ones in the UK.

The French book prize frenzy takes off in and around November. The prizes have a major impact on sales, but they often offer no prize money. Agents don’t seem to be a relevant factor for the majority of authors, yet, but this might change as some examples (albeit for bestselling authors like Houellebecq) show that agents have been able to cut out better deals for their authors. The dominating narrative, however, seems to be that this might hurt publishers and the literary field in the long run (see article by D. Risse). From the articles I read for this overview I got the impression that most authors need to work day jobs in order to survive.

Some challenges seem to be the same as everywhere: visibility, esteem, value, bibliodiversity, and economic success. At the same time, in France, literature plays a rather big role for their national identity. This could be turned into something positive, if it were translated into actual measures to develop and maintain bibliodiversity. But these discussions can also lead to troubled waters. In Germany, the term “Leitkultur” is highly debated and is not likely to be used without causing an outrage. In the French mainstream (including quality media), however, there seems to be a much stronger and less critically discussed idea of what their national identity and national culture consists of. If you have followed the recent election campaigns in France, you’ll have noticed.

This is one of the topics I haven’t gone into any detail in this – already rather long – first overview. Some points I didn’t cover are also the elitism in the literary field, the role of francophone publishing outside of France, the status of graphic novels in France, and French book covers. So there might be a sequel coming up. Stay tuned!


Sources for Statistics

Other Resources

  • Roswitha Böhm: “Kultur im November. Das Ritual der Literaturpreise in Frankreich.“ bpb, 26.2.2013 , (last access: 24.4.2017).
  • Dorothee Risse: “Literaturagenten in Frankreich: ‘Suceurs de sang’ oder ‘découvreurs de talents’?” Roswitha Böhm, Stephanie Bung, Andrea Grewe (eds.): Observatoire de l’extrême contemporain. Studien zur französischsprachigen Gegenwartsliteratur. Tübingen: Narr, 2009. 13-33.


All photos: Sandra van Lente

updated on 2 May 2017 – correction concerning the Éditions de Minuit, addition of comment about postage – thanks to Prof. Zimmermann for her comments