Monday, 30 December 2013

Why Don't French Books Sell Abroad?

Recently I came across this most fascinating article from the BBC. Why Don't French Books Sell Abroad? Please take the time to read it. It deals with several intriguing notions about French books, books in translation, and how the language we speak dictates the books which we will have available for us to read. 

To claim that French books don't sell in the Anglophone market is perhaps a big call. Hugh Schofield does grant an exception for classic French authors such as Flaubert and Dumas, but allows only Michel Houellebecq as a modern French writer known outside France. Which is a bit harsh I think. Of course I find it hard to know what has been big sellers in the UK, but certainly Muriel Barbery's The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise were very popular in Australia. But generally  there are too few books available in translation, from any language, French included. 

Sadly mine still sits in the TBR
I tried to read it in Paris this year
but was too busy with the holiday making

English is the predominant language in the world right now. Well, we think it is don't we?  And most of us act as if it is. We anglophones are very often an inward gazing lot. Our culture doesn't encourage looking out towards other languages and cultures for news, for ideas, for literature. I'm always astonished when I watch news in French on the tele, how much more of a world news it is. Sure, France has colonial ties to Africa, and that changes their view, but they are not completely obsessed with what happens in the French speaking world, and only show cute or outrageous happenings in other countries, which is the world view I most often see.

To me, I see our Anglophone introspection as a much bigger hurdle than any perceived problem with image of French books, intellectualism or being all too difficult. We just don't care what's out there in non-English formats. French. Hungarian. Spanish. Tagalog. Whatever. It doesn't matter.

But we are certainly interested in memoirs by Anglophones who found themselves adrift in France for some time, for whatever reason. There are an endless supply of them, and people like me just can't get enough of them. It started way back in 1989, with Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. How we all wanted to buy into that dream. There have been many more since of course. Sarah Turnbull's Almost French was another world wide bestseller. It seems every expat community has people frantically writing about their time in France.

Of course the number of books published in English is huge. Over 300,000 new titles are published in printed form per year in the US. Naturally these figures are somewhat fluid. Wiki has an amazing page listing books published per country per year. The US leads the world, with China and the UK following. Even the relatively modest 150, 000 books published in the UK each year isn't going to leave that much room for French books in translation. We anglophones are already full of our own stuff, we can't keep up with that, no wonder there is little interest in translating non-English authors. Interesting to see France in 11th place with 41, 902 books published in 2011. Of course many of those books will be translations from English and other languages.

"Here in France around 45 out of every 100 novels sold is a translation from a foreign language. With you it's something like three out of every hundred," (from the BBC article) 

Australia comes in 38th, with 8,602 books published (2004 figures), while Canada, not all that much bigger, published 19,900 books in 1996. Obviously we're not pulling our literary weight somehow.

I do agree that French publishing houses have a quite different approach to marketing their books in France. To the foreign eye French books all look the same, as the covers do not seem to be designed to stand out, or even apart, from the next book on the shelf. 

Adult books, Paris, 2010

Kids books, Paris, 2013

Several small publishers are trying to make a difference. Gallic Books publish "The best of French in English." There are two antipodean publishers of children's books who specialise in books in translation (from any language, not just French) - Wilkins Farago here in Australia, and Gecko Press in New Zealand.

Yet clearly someone is watching what happens in France. This years "must read novel" according to Julian Barnes in The Guardian, Stoner, came to attention because of a sudden popularity in France in 2011. So perhaps the overnight success of Stoner, nearly 50 years after it's publication isn't really so mysterious. But why did it become suddenly popular in France? Now that's a mystery.

It seems the Brits have been thinking about this issue for a while. A similar piece in the Guardian in 2008 worried whether The Elegance of the Hedgehog could become popular in Britain. In a companion article from 2008 by Jane Aitken, Managing Director of Gallic Books, who published The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Jane points out the successes of many foreign crime novelists, most famously with the Scandinavians in the past decade or so. She also speculates that foreign authors who may have limited English, and so not be able to participate in author events may put off some English language publishers.

Books in translation is a hot topic just now. The latest Quarterly Essay (52), Linda Jaivin's Found in Translation, In Praise of a Plural World has just been discussed over at Whisperinggums and ANZLitlovers. It's a fascinating discussion, and now I would love to read the essay. Somehow I seem to be good at buying Quarterly Essays, but am not so good with getting the reading done. Maybe this one will be the first?

Happily I'm reading a book in translation at the moment- ETA Hoffmann's The Nutcracker.  I imagine a review will be forthcoming at some stage, in the meantime you can check out my In Translation tag.

Update May 2014
The mystery of the French book covers appears to have been solved! They are building a brand, French publishing houses will publish for particular types of books- and French readers will likely have an allegiance to a publisher more so than an author.

Dreaming of France is a wonderful Monday meme
from Paulita at An Accidental Blog

Books on France, a great 2013 challenge
 from Emma at 
Words and Peace


Esme said...

Interesting article. I am just not interested in reading translated works because oftentimes I do not enjoy the translation. If the translation is good then I love foreign books.

Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Thanks for sharing this. Interesting.

Paulita said...

Louise, Sorry it took me so long to respond. I had to journey to my grandmother's on Monday -- a 4-hour drive each way. I think this is a really interesting concept, but I've heard the French are sometimes not that interested in reading French novels either. According to an article I read, they love good romances but authors in France feel that romances are beneath them to write. I enjoyed The Elegance of a Hedgehog and Hector and The Search for Happiness. I couldn't get through Suite Francaise because of the cruelty. I think French books and movies are darker than a lot of Americans want to read, IMHO. Thanks for playing along.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting question, Louise. You're right- classic French authors (Stendhal, Balzac) etc are read by an English readership, but very, very few recent translations. I was struck by the photo of the front covers- I see that they're all by the same publishing company but they're very generic aren't they- they look like print-on-demand ebooks.

Anonymous said...

Here's a response to the BBC article by Laurence Marie- unfortunately written in French so THAT will test our translation skills!! Apparently (says Steve, who reads French) it's a rebuttal of the BBC claims and reports an increasing number of French books being translated into English. It also makes the point that many French authors have salience beyond the number of sales in terms of influencing English authors. But it concedes that the marketing of French books could be improved.
Well, that's what Steve says it says!

skiourophile said...

I'm fascinated by how different French novels look to 'ours' - I rather like that there's none of that half-a-woman-serial-killer-book-look to them -- so austere. It must make the decision-making process of picking one from the shelf quite different.

Laurence said...

There is an English version to the bibliobs article :