The Centre for Publishing in University College London has had a link with Universite Paris 13 (UP13) for some years now. They teach a Masters in publishing (in English) and we have conducted joint research in the past. On Monday this week a group of students from our course in London spent a day in Paris learning about the French publishing scene.
The first visit was to labo de l’édition, an initiative funded by the mayor of Paris (and one of seven incubators currently being run by the Paris Region Innovation laboratory), to help publishing start-ups and publishing professionals adapt to digital challenges.
The lab is an open plan space of 500 square meters, located in the Latin Quarter of Paris, close to the Place Monge. It consists of a ground floor area with space for events and meetings including a coworking space and a first floor which is used as an incubator for innovative young enterprises.
In the picture, the black and white bookshelf is actually images of classic French literary works with QR codes that take you to the full text of each work held at the BNF. Our morning at the lab began with a talk by Jennie Dorny, foreign rights manager at publisher Le Seuil. Jenny gave an informative account of the publishing industry covering reading patterns, structure of the industry and of course, digital issues (ebooks in France make up 3% of turnover compared to 20% in USA and 12% in the UK).
Unlike in the UK, the publishing industry in France is protected in various ways we’ve long since abandoned (fixed retail prices for books most importantly), and the government provides financial support for translations through its cultural centres around the world. Budgets have been reduced, but the help is still there.
Le Seuil (‘threshold’ in English) was founded in 1935 and the company now publishes 600 titles per year, seeking always to tackle current issues, problems and social challenges, not always with incident. During the Algerian war of independence their pro-independence stance led to their offices being bombed three times. As a major social science and humanities publisher they count a number of leading academics as authors including Bourdieu, Levi-Strauss, Derrida and Roland Barthes (Barthes incidentally, is their biggest selling foreign rights author).
The link to Roland Bathes and the afternoon was cemented by a semiological tour around literary Paris led by journalist and publisher (and niece of Roland Barthes), Mariette Darrigrand. Semiotics (which was new to me) is the study of signs and sign processes and is fascinating, covering colour coding (red for hot, blue for cold) to globalization (culture codes). With this introduction our walk was centred around Boulevard Saint Germain, the neighbourhood which was once home to much publishing activity in Paris and although the publishers have largely moved out (literary publisher Gallimard remains), many sites echo the literary past. We started at bookshop La Hune, a former Christian Dior boutique where books are presented with style and originality.
Work by Proust displaying both the modern version and the author’s working manuscript. Note the way text is cut and pasted.
We then visited a luxury spa and Japanese tea shop both of which displayed books as objects to admire and dress the room. The books in the tea shop were in Japanese, we are not expected to understand them, but a message in nevertheless communicated when viewing them.
This was followed by visits to Kenzo and Hermes. Kenzo uses books as cultural reference points many of which are from the 1960s and 1970s, the formative decades of the designer’s career.
Although the DNA of Hermes is high quality leather work, and specifically beautifully crafted riding saddles, the company now produces a range of luxury goods. To extend the product range Hermes sells books in its flagship shop, displayed almost as sacred objects on a lectern (below).
Hermes has published its own books with French publisher Actes Sud. The limited edition titles An ABC of Hermes Crafts was published in 2012 and retails at E20 (making it one of most affordable things in the shop).
The week before our visit to Paris the luxury goods company LVMH announced it was buying a 9.5% stake in independent literary publisher Gallimard (once described by The Guardian as having the best backlist in the world). This is an interesting tie-up, both high-end brands and there would seem to be some synergy, although a more cynical account suggested LVMH are more interested in the property assets of Gallimard. Whatever the truth, it is a scenario we are unlikely to see anytime soon in the UK.