1. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Why don't French books sell?

    Discussion in 'Publishing' started by Mckk, Dec 9, 2013.

    Just read an article on French books - the thread title isn't mine, it's the headline of the article on the BBC. I know nothing about French books (but then if French books aren't selling in the UK/US then is that any wonder?) so I have no opinion either way. Just curious about what people's thoughts are on this? Are French books accessible to a less intellectual audience? Or is their lack of popularity simply because agents/publishers aren't buying them and making them known?

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-25198154
     
  2. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    This is all just my thoughts based on what i think I know:

    I would say it's a little bit of both. I took 3 years of French in high school and I'm currently minoring in French and I can attest to it being intellectually challenging down to the linguistic level. It is far easier, in general, to understand books in English with a basic English knowledge, than it is to understand French. Both languages have their structural complexities, but certain aspects about french make it somewhat inaccessible, learning-wise, unless you're up for a challenge. Translate that to literature and you can see how it escalates. French is not an easy language. Additionally, English is spoken more widely than French is, these days. English produces some of the most beautiful books, which can cater to a wider audience because the language is more flexible and it is spoken to some degree in far more places than French is. (At least the last time I checked). So why would publishers pick up books in French knowing that the dominant language--at least for literature--is English.

    Historically, Any good book that came out was in French because the French had a lot of brilliant people. Paris is called the Ville Lumière (City of Light) because it was a huge intellectual center. But over time, Particularly after the French Revolution, English took a strong hold intellectually and in literature. The 19th Century was the Age of the novel... In England. The best writing has been produced in English for the last 2 centuries, technically. French books, just are not as Aesthetically appealing nor intellectually inviting (linguistically speaking).
     
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  3. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    This is interesting. I have never noticed the lack of contemporary French books here in the US, but it's true now that I think about it. I don't think French books are intellectually more stimulated or inherently more difficult than books written in any other language. I think US publishers just aren't going after French books for some reason.

    I should add that I don't think French writers are the only ones ignored by the US market. I think US publishers ignore writers from a bunch of countries. I've mentioned several times that books by Latin American writers, even famous ones, are tough to find in the US.
     
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  4. Delise
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    Delise Member

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    The language probably has a lot to do with it but I think it's more the content that is the issue.
    America censors a lot of it's books. It bans a lot of books too. Religious fanatics and politically correct whomevers get pissy and the book gets banned. The French seem to have picked up on a lot of books that weren't picked up on in America. Even Poe was ignored in America until he took off in Europe and now he's the claim to fame. Hell Jimi Hendrix was too. I don't know why but if something seems too radical or strange and provoking or different sometimes it just isn't accepted right away doesn't matter whose writing it or making it I think.
     
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  5. stevesh
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    stevesh Banned Contributor

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    Example, please.
     
  6. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Books banned? Hendrix ignored here?

    Libraries in the US resist calls to ban books including publishing the most frequently requested book bannings, drawing more attention to the books. Schools gets books banned but that's local parent activism and yes, religion usually plays a part. Sometimes all that happens is you must request the book as it is not displayed on the shelf. None of this has anything to do with book sales. A store cannot show some racy covers of magazines and porn magazines have limited outlets, but it's illegal to ban books here, you know, the First Amendment and all.

    As for Hendrix, it wasn't that no one recognized his talent, it's more a matter of the times, and his own growth as a musician. He started out playing R&B, the country was a different place, the Stones and the Beatles had only just begun to carry on what Elvis started, making R&B mainstream. Rock and Roll was just beginning. So it wasn't that it took London to recognize Hendrix, it's that he was evolving along with the music scene. They grew up together.
     
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  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    I read that, fascinating article. I can't believe they haven't developed book cover art. Seeing those generic covers reminds me of some school books. I can see the publisher gatekeepers not bothering, but only if they have to pay for the translations before they can read the manuscripts, or if for some reason the translations are resulting in something less than the original. But I suspect it's more of the cultural divide. Maybe someone like @erebh can weigh in here, having lived in France recently.
     
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  8. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Andrae Smith I don't see what language has to do with the premise in the article: it clearly says "French authors in Anglophone countries". Which means: in English translation. :)

    I'll blame it on publishers - that's the whole mystery. In my country (not a anglophone one, but principles are similiar) there is, currently, a single publishing house which has a virtual monopoly on new translations (compare with Five/soon to be Four houses in the States). A few smaller houses publish classics, maybe even new translations of old works. But a fresh new foreign book will probably be bought by this one publisher. Problem: the publisher dictates which books will get translated and eventually published.

    Not to mention bad reputation: I can't imagine Houellebecq making it to Oprah Book Club :D
     
  9. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    What I find interesting about the article, and I'm gonna get flogged for this, is the love hate relationship "abroad" has with the U.S. "Don't come to our country with your déclassé sneakers as if they were reals shoes, but before you go, publish my book over there so I can make some money, yes?" Everyone wants our market; no one wants us. Do the math.

    And, sorry, but some of the comments made by interviewees in that article were deeply condescending, intentionally or not:

    Also, why don't publication houses there translate the books into English? I can remember as a little boy in the 70's, already knowing that I wanted to be an interpreter, that the lingua franca in those days for that milieu was French. I have a hard time believing there is a dearth of translators there.
     
  10. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Wreybies do US pub.houses translate to French for the French market? I understand if they finance Spanish translations for domestic market :D

    Don't get me wrong, but I think people in the rest of the world are not so much about hating "you" (the people and citizens of the US of A) as much as hating the neo-colonialism, aggressive economic and cultural domination, and all that jingoist crap. ;)
     
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  11. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    But the crucial difference here is that we're not griping about not being in that market, though according to the article, we clearly are. Of course we translate books into Spanish, not only for our own Spanish speaking citizenry, but for the gigantic market that starts at the Rio Grande and ends in Tierra del Fuego. My point is, if there is a pervading feeling amongst French authors that their work is not reaching an anglophone market for whatever slight, and they want that market but it's ignoring them, perhaps they need to play the game better and pressure their houses to translate the works, make a more attractive, approachable product, work on that lack of a "knack for popularization", making it a little easier for anglophone readers to access their work, giving them an opportunity to show demand for it, thus showing pub.houses in the U.K. (most of the commentary in the article was directed at U.K. pub.houses) and the U.S. that it is a worthwhile stable of authors to tap into. Spanish authors have great success in the U.S. market because they play the game well. ;)

    Tomayto tomahto. The end result is the same.
     
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  12. graphospasm
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    graphospasm Senior Member

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    "With the possible exception of Michel Houellebecq, what French novelist has made it into the Anglophone market?"

    I can list a few. Two of my top five favorite books are by contemporary(ish) French authors: Suite Francaise and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.

    Suite Francaise received glowing reviews from the New York Times Book Review and sundry other American publications. It was pushed by Oprah's book club thing, for what it's worth, and made quite a bit of a splash in the literary world both in France and abroad. I was assigned the book as a highschool junior and have loved it ever since.

    The film adaptation of Diving Bell was nominated for several Academy Awards and Golden Globe Awards. The film and book made many Top Ten lists; listing all of its achievements would likely take longer than watching the film or reading the (admittedly short) book itself. Johnny Depp even expressed interest in remaking the film version for American audiences. The book is now examined as part of curriculum in American high schools and colleges.

    Muriel Barbery stands out as another French author who achieved bestseller status in the English world with her work The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Her work was stocked in just about every American airport I visited this and last year--not that that's an indicator of success, of course, but she's certainly visible on this side of the pond and has received numerous articles of praise from American critics.

    So... I guess I'm saying I'm a bit skeptical that no one in the US or the UK is publishing any contemporary French work, because some French work has clearly made it in this market.

    Funny: The article cites one award-winning author who "hasn't had a sniff" from publishers in the US or the UK. Another author says: "I am suffering, really suffering, because Anglo-Saxon agents are just ignoring the French book market." Not to be crass, but I wonder how these authors in particular are marketing themselves to US and UK publishers. The way the quotes are worded imparts a feeling of the author waiting for publishers to come to him. If this isn't the case, that quote needs a little doctoring to reflect that he has tried to proactively sell his book abroad. As it stands I'm wondering how much is really being done to proactively transfer books from the French to the US/UK market...
     
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  13. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    @Wreybies Yeah, but what do you propose? A French pub.house entering the UK market by directly selling their books & translations to book-sellers? Or door-to-door? :) I'm not sure if this really works that way...

    "Knack for popularization" - but I always hoped that this IS just ridiculous stereotype and that Americans don't need everything chewed for them! :p
     
    Last edited: Dec 10, 2013
  14. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Maybe they need to make it work that way. To echo @graphospasm, much of the commentary in the article gives the feeling that interviewees are glum over the fact that U.S. and U.K. publishers (again, the article spoke about difficultly entering both markets) are not knocking on their doors, sweeping them under the red, white and blue wings of either the stars and stripes or the union jack. It doesn't work that way in our markets, not even for we anglophones born here.

    No, we don't, and I don't think making something sellable and approachable is the same as dumbing it down. We are trained, though, by our own consumer culture that products need to be bright and shiny for them to make it to the shelves. Did you see those depressing book covers on the French books? You could make that in 5 minutes in MS Word. That doesn't sell, nor does it attract the eye of business people here looking for goods from abroad to sell here. We consume British and Spanish authors with the same gusto that we consume Big Macs and porterhouse steaks, and these writers often offer some heady fair. We're not so low brow that we can't appreciate it, but you gotta' sell it better to make us want it. Come to the U.S. for one day and watch TV for that whole day and see how our culture bombards us with sell, sell, sell. The Brits are on the stick as far as packaging. They know what's what. The Spanish, with our love for all things drama, offer an equally enticing package. And both know how to entertain. Frankly, the bellyaching I read in that article all stems from their own publishing culture not keeping up with what's happening around them.
     
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  15. graphospasm
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    graphospasm Senior Member

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    Wreybies, glad my post made some sense.

    Here's a super basic concept. I think US/UK agents and publishers don't see French works because they're in French. Unless a French author extends himself a US/UK publisher and says hey, here's a synopsis of my work, it'd make a huge translated hit, how can he expect to get noticed by people who don't even speak his language?

    That's what this comes down to. It seems some people think winning an award means insta-recognition from publishers in other languages and that they don't have to write query letters like the rest of us to get picked up by a big name publisher. You still gotta promote your book if you want to expand its market, even if it's already made it big in some other circle. Shouldn't the French publishers be pushing for this stuff?
     
  16. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    When I commented I was unable to view the article, so I gave my best initial guess. Having read it now, you're right, language may not play that much of a role. But the content may play a part. Sure they aren't all theory and intellectual, but french ideas of entertaining vary a bit from what US and UK readers may expect (don't expect me to back that up, as it is observational opinion). Books retain a certain element of French literary culture and tradition--like many other things in France do. While English/ Anglophone authors are constantly pushing boundaries and rejecting tradition in favor of creating something never before seen. French writing has changed, of course, but their literary range is limited compared to the vast diversity in English books.

    Beyond that, the article makes some good points in it, that would prevent me from even asking (some of the answers are here). The US market is filled with US and UK authors in nearly every Genre, why pay the cost of translation. Beyond that The US is very complacent and Ethnocentric. We don't "import" cultures (despite immigration). France "imports" foreign movies, books, television, music, and often adopts it and translates it. In the states, with the exception of Spanish and Latin American works, we don't botherwith anything foreign. I bet if we had a smaller Hispanic population, we would have fewer forms of media in Spanish or translate from Spanish (by Spanish I mean Spanish and similar derivatives).

    Beyond that, I cannot say. It's just speculation on my part, with a touch of inductive reasoning. :p
     
  17. thirdwind
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    thirdwind Contributing Member Contest Administrator Reviewer Contributor

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    This is absolutely a great point. What does French literature bring us that US literature doesn't (speaking very broadly here)? Given a choice, I'm sure publishers would rather not pay for a translator to translate a book that's probably going to get fewer sales than the same type of book published in the US. This applies to other languages as well by the way.
     
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  18. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    @Wreybies and @graphospasm make good points as well. How hard are french authors trying to market themselves to Anglophone publishing houses? I'm not one to say that french work is not entertaining, but we don't usually here about anything French until it's been popularized and awarded. Have these authors tried to format their work to appeal to publishing house standards? Have they tried to find good translators? I understand writing is not very well paying on it's own, but if french writers want a wider audience, maybe the they need to make a stronger case to appeal to non-French publishers and readers.

    That is, again, speculation, but a worthy consideration, I think.
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    We've been told often that long books are hard to get published because they cost the publisher more. Surely the same would be true of French books, given the expense of translation. Plus, I doubt that a translation of a literary work is an easy "grab a translator and write a check" process. Surely the translator would have to have some feel for the author's voice, and surely the author would have to have some input? And once all that is done, will whatever appealed to the French audience appeal to the English audience?
     
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  20. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Correct on all points, @ChickenFreak. As a professional translator, I can tell you that the process necessary to create a well translated piece of fiction can only be described as intimate. The translator must come to know the book nearly as well as the writer in order to ensure that more than just the letter of the prose is preserved, but more importantly, the intent, the tone, the emotion, the pace and the cultural approachability of the work. It must be an intimate process because some things will, by necessity, be altered in the translation and the writer and the translator must come to agreements on what changes and what doesn't and why.

    As for your mention of cross-cultural appeal... I was having a little ALIEN-fest the other day to entertain me through a long project on which I was working. I get to ALIEN: Resurrection, directed by Jean Pierre Jeunet, who also did City of Lost Children, Amélie, Delicatessen etc. It even has Dominique Pinon, whom Jeunet always picks up in his films. Now, perhaps things have changed greatly since the French film era of strangely included visual metaphors like weeping clowns and randomly flying balloons, but compared with the other films in the ALIEN franchise, there is a clear and marked focus on style and other visual elements as more important than plot drivers. The super-saturated colors, the ring-light reflections in everyone's eyes, the moments of "look at me while I do this bizarre gesture, you are freaked out, n'est-ca pas?" and the dialogue that was decidedly non-anglophone in its snarky, ironic or cringe-worthy "clever" commentary at inappropriate moments.

    In a word, it was weird. Not necessarily badly written (though it was), but just strange and constantly drawing me away from the story with all this other bling and razzle. Were it a book, I would say it suffered from a profound case of authorial intrusion.

    Now my example is cinema, of course, not books, but could a similar dynamic be in play? Is the interviewee who made mention of writing detective stories and other genre lit that might seem to appeal to U.K. and U.S. readers, blind to a possible disparity in prose and style that perhaps exists, this for being enculturated to it? Yes, it's not the ponderous, abstruse deconstructionism of the past, but is it maybe still a little too weird for the kind of mass consumption necessary by anglophones to make it worthwhile to a U.S. or U.K. publisher?

    Just thoughts. Mostly questions. ;)
     
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  21. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    having just watched the last half [final 4 episodes] of the french tv series 'the returned' ['les revenants'], i have to wonder if the extraordinary success of that brilliantly written/acted subtitled work might make translating french novels more appealing to us/uk publishers...

    time will tell...
     
  22. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    The last line just sounds so... French. Ouais, ouais, ouais, j'aime la France, MAIS...

    "And it's about time you started noticing."

    Sure, French is spoken all over the world and it's one of the official languages of the UN and EU and it's got an impressive literary history, but times change, and like it or not, English is the lingua franca now and it somehow makes sense that books in English are now dominant, especially in the US and UK! There're so many good works coming out in English all the time, so I think Brits and Americans aren't missing that much if they never read a French novel in their life. And it's not the problem of the US/UK that the French audience seems to prefer non-French books.

    They should be happy that their comics/graphic novels surpass anything that's come from the US/UK art- and storywise, imo. I love those big, colorful graphic novels by publishers such as Soleil, and I own more comics in French than in English. There's a genre the French can push to international markets, and those are worth translating too (or just learn the darn language! It's really quite difficult though...).
     
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  23. Andrae Smith
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    Andrae Smith Gone exploring... in the inner realm... Contributor

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    @KaTrian I wouldn't mind giving a french comic or graphic novel a try. I never even considered that they made any. Not that they wouldn't, I just never thought of them because we don't really here about any of their literary endeavors here in the states... that and I'm still only at the cusp of adulthood, and in my literary adolescence. ;)
     

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