Home » Non-US, Royalties » Les Misérables: gloomy French writers face crisis as incomes plummet

Les Misérables: gloomy French writers face crisis as incomes plummet

22 March 2016

From The Guardian:

French writers have never felt more badly paid, undervalued or under pressure, according to a new survey that shows more than half of established authors earn less than the minimum wage.

Many are so depressed by the state of the book industry that they are considering giving up altogether, according to a new report that canvassed more than 100,000 authors of fiction and non-fiction.

“Authors have a high social status but almost empty bank accounts,” said Marie Sellier, president of the SDGL, one of the five writers’ and publishing groups behind the study.

. . . .

Established writers with years of relative success behind them struggled to make a living, with their median annual earnings of €17,600 ($19,800), less than three-quarters of national average.

The most staggering statistic of all in the report, which was backed by the ministry of culture, is that six out of 10 published writers make less than €1,500 a year.

. . . .

The survey of writers as well as poets, illustrators and translators found they were they “generally worried, disenchanted and discouraged”.

“Many were asking themselves whether they should diversify into other work or stop altogether,” it concluded.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Dave for the tip.

PG was reminded that France is the home of  the Lang Law (named after a long-departed Minister of Culture). In a nutshell, under the Lang Law:

  • The publisher decides on a price for its book and prints it on the back
  • Booksellers are not allowed to sell a book for a discount of more than 5% below the publisher’s price.

Sounds like this law may be fine for publishers and bookstores, but not so much for authors.

Non-US, Royalties

30 Comments to “Les Misérables: gloomy French writers face crisis as incomes plummet”

  1. Ah, they too love their version of ‘agency’, the gift that never stops giving!

    • It’s good for publishers, way so, and for bookstores…

      …provided you’re one of the right ones. The ones that follow a trend or other.

      It’s certainly not good for readers, parents of schoolkids… you name it. And booksellers have made everything they could (specially against parents, above) to keep the damn price set. Which is one of the reasons I switched to English books and I don’t care much about Spanish bookstores. Their owners make ADS look positively sane.

      Take care.

  2. “Like their counterparts in the US and the UK, French writers have seen their incomes plummet since the 1990s, the report found.”

    Golly gee, and what happened to publishing in the 90’s?
    Could it possibly have something to do with the giant multinationals cartelizing the business? 😉

  3. “The publisher decides on a price for its book and prints it on the back
    Booksellers are not allowed to sell a book for a discount of more than 5% below the publisher’s price.”

    Why do they care what it is sold for? They get paid based on the list price.

    • In that kind of system, producers can all prosper without competing. Producers love it.

      • Reality Observer

        Except – the producers do not prosper.

        The producers are the writers. Everyone else in the business is a packager, a retailer, a parasite…

        • For paper, the writer produces the story. He doesn’t produce the goods sold to the consumer. He gives the publisher rights to use his work. The publisher buys content rights.

          The publisher then uses the story as one factor in producing the goods sold to consumers.

          It’s the package that is sold.

          Writers are necessary for todays paper book market, but they are not sufficient.

          Publishers are necessary for today’s paper book market, but they are not sufficent.

          Together they are both necessary and sufficient.

          For independent eBooks, the writer does produce the goods sold to consumers. But the retailer creates the networks necessary for today’s market.

          Again, each is necessary, but alone neither is sufficient.

          A subset of writers over-estimate their importance in commerce. Writers have no standing to look down on anyone else in the market.

          • Follow your logic, there – and then please snap a picture of the look on the face of your local paving contractor when you tell them that they are a “producer” of books. Sorry, but that publisher or retailer does not complete your picture of “sufficient for production.” They need roads… paper mills… telecom companies… loggers… ink chemists… Do I need to go on?

  4. It was not clear from the article, but I’m assuming these are all traditionally published French authors (‘established’) with long-term contracts with their publishers which are as much of a choke-hold around their necks as any other trad pubs.

    There was, predictably, no indie data. Do the French self-publish? Are there any readers of TPV who know what the SP statistics are?

    With their laws, can French authors set their own SP prices?

    Does this report only have to do with books in bookstores?

    • The numbers I’ve seen have eBooks at a very low penetration in France, maybe 6%, and a lot of it is technical ebooks in pdf format:


      Anecdotal reports suggest most of the rest is english-language imports. Based on that I wouldn’t expect to see much french-language Indie action. A pity as they do have a lot of good writers whose work would be appreciated globally.

      There is a similar problem in Spanish, where the potential for a “global spanish” market similar to Global English is still unfulfilled.

      Authors all over need to start thinking global, not local.
      And not just for translations.

      • For an idea of the potential size of the different language markets:

        Some examples:

        Chinese – 1.3B
        English – 508M
        Spanish – 417M
        Portuguese – 191M
        German – 128M
        French – 128M

        Once ebook tech is fully embraced, we could see big gains for non-english authors who choose to go Indie.

        • Felix,
          some of those numbers are wrong.
          Obviously, the numbers for the French language include potential readers from Africa, not only France/Belgiu/Switzerland/Canada. Why not ? Very good. But then the numbers for English should also include readers from Africa and India — and then the result would be an even greater difference between English ebooks potential market and French potential market. Much greater, in fact, than what I was estimating in my first answer on this post below.

          • I was just highlighting the potential for non-english languages with Chinese in for context.

            The spread in global language use is very large once you get into second and third language use which nobody seems to have good numbers for. Some estimates online are twenty years old.

            And when it comes to near term *market* value there are economics to consider; yes, there’s probably a couple hundred million potential English market customers in India, but at what pricing levels? (KU payouts give us an idea. Just as Amazon’s regional ebookstores tell us what markets they consider ripe for investment.) There’s a reason I didn’t cite Hindi or Arabic as examples; it is going to be decades before those language markets mature and that is without factoring in culture.

            At least with the western European languages there is enough cultural commonality that genre themes can travel across markets. Romance, mystery, SF, even thrillers can travel safely across europe and the americas. Africa and Asia? That can get trickier… Even if you are familiar enough with local customs and preferences, directly targetting those markets isn’t going to be as fruitful as the lower hanging fruit of the western audiences.

            I’m just looking down the road at the direction things are headed. Whether we get there or not is a different story. The tech allows developments that may or not happen, depending on things beyond our ken: economic downturns, government distortions of markets, politics…
            …and people unwilling to let go of the old ways.

            The latter we see here pretty much every day.


          • I once worked with an Algerian (I think) immigrant to Canada who had also lived in France. He said he had to speak three different kinds of French: the French he spoke at home, the French he spoke in France, and the French he speaks in Canada.

            I don’t know how far apart they really are, but French books for one market may not work so well in another.

            • I think that as soon as you love books and reading, you are intelligent enough to appreciate a bit of novelty and difference. Many Canadian authors and singers have quite a lot of success in France (and I am not talking of Celine Dion). Same the other way. People know that the author comes from elsewhere and are ready to accept the differences, and to enjoy them.

              When it comes to translations of foreign-language books, it’s different. Often there are two translations. It’s perfectly understandable that Canadian people would be cross to read a translation of an American novel, for instance, with terms that do not relate to the north-american situation.

              That said, the spoken Canadian can be so different, especially the accent, that in some cases it will take you several minutes to just recognize the people chatting at the table near your are in fact speaking French. It happened to me. Canadian people have to make a conscious effort to be understood properly by French, not the other way round.

              As for the Algerian guy you mention : I can only say that it is more the level of education that comes into play. There is no theoretical difference in French taught in Algeria or French taught in France, the problem being that many Algerians don’t learn French long enough, it is only the first mandatory foreign language. That said, the Algerian version of Arabic has a lot of French in it.

              As for the Algerian guy

    • I self-publish as German author under the same book-price-fixing law that France has. It basically means this:

      I can set the price for my books. ONCE. At the moment I publish it. I can change it for a different edition – ONCE – and I can change it again 18 month after publication. ONCE.

      So far, it isn’t fully in the law for ebooks (but our government is creating a law to officially extend book-price-fixing to ebooks), however, courts have decided analog to print books. That’s the reason why Kindle-Countdown deals are not available in Germany (and presumably France).

      While most indie authors would love to end book-price-fixing, the publisher lobby is strong enough to keep the law on board. In fact, that lobby was strong enough to prevent a law that would have required revision of copyright use after five years, afraid authors would leave the publisher who nurtured their career… to my shame, many trad published authors supported that effort, in effect chaining themselves to their publishers.

      • French, German, Spanish – all readers and writers – will eventually figure a way around these limitations – it is just sad that it will take time.

        The big publishers in the US would LOVE to get the government to preserve what they see as their turf – and the rest of us see as the monopoly they have exercised ‘for our own good and culture’ only about the past 50 years (though they would love people to think it was set up at about the time of Genesis and the creation of the world, or at least of the first printing press). But our government also thinks of the consumers.

        I hope that happens in Europe sooner rather than later – for the GOOD of culture. Your governments are keeping their citizen-writers from being able to earn a living.

  5. I’ll try to comment PG and answer Alicia in the same post.

    – PG : about the Lang law. What I have noticed : there has been in the past months/years exactly the same kind of article about the income of trad pub authors in the US or in the UK going down or plummeting. So the Lang law is maybe detrimental to (trad pub) authors, but the abscence of it has not protected (trad pub) authors elsewhere…
    Mostly French people (and French authors) support the Lang law. It is true that it was designed to protect the independent bookstores against the big chain bookstores like the FNAC, and now against Amazon. It was not dsigned to protect the authors themselves. The main problem… is that it has not really had success in its avowed purpose : the little bookstores are suffering here (maybe less ? maybe later?) just like everywhere else.

    – Alicia : about selfpub in France. Yes, some authors are do go indie here. But do not forget that the French language market for books is much smaller than the English-language market, as I have already written here : maybe a fifth or a sixth of it, all combined.

    So French authors, trad-pub or indie, will always have a much smaller potential income.

    If you take into account the fact that the ebook part of this market is years behind what it is in the US (maybe only 3 to 5 % of the total book market, compared to a third or more), then you will see that with the same level of relative success, a French indie author will have maybe ONE THIRTIETH (1/30th), or even less, of the potential revenue of a US indie author. Maybe it will get better, but now that is the situation. It is almost impossible to “quit your day job” as an indie author here.

    There are only very few authors who have done it — quit the day job. One of them who has reached this level would be Jacques Vandroux, a thriller author… thanks to the fact that he has been picked up by AmazonCrossing to be translated and published in English and in German. Anyway, Mr Vandroux was already retired, AFAIK. Mr Antoine, another thriller author, n°1 in Kindle sales on KDP FR just now, has sold the grand total of 15000 books in 2015… that’s a few days of sales at the top on KDP US.

    Some other “big” indie success on KDP has switched to trad-pub as fast as she could. MAybe she was wrong, time will tell.

    As for me, I indie-publish in a small niche and I am very happy with my sales, about 100 to 200 € a month, including a few sales on the shelves of specialized bookstores, not trying really to do more because I know my imagination is limited.

    To conclude, I would say that the situation is not comparable here and on the other side of the big pond. Self-pub here has less of the environment that could make it that more viable than the trad-pub way.

    Those were my two cents, as you say.

    • Stephane Bergeron

      Please don’t say:

      ‘I know my imagination is limited’

      I am sure your imagination is unlimited and ‘sans frontière’.

      Best of luck!

      • Thanks, Stephane, but to know one’s own limits is the beginning of wisdom !
        Of course, you’re also unwise if you don’t try to explore your limits, or even push them once in a while…

    • Thank you – I can see how, with a small ebook penetration, self-publishing looks a lot less like a solution for French (and other writers).

      And if I had any time at all, I’d start writing in Spanish, and translating my own work into Spanish, too.

      So many things to do, so little time.

      • Yet the power of self-publishing really transcends language barriers. (Yes, I just made it sound like a superpower.)

        To be brashly commercial, a French writer of erotica, or gritty crime dramas, or imaginative sci-fi, could write in French, have books translated into English and take advantage of their French origins in marketing to break through the clutter in the English market.

        There are lots of English readers with romantic notions about France and lots of ways to make money from them with the right kinds of stories. This is exactly the kind of thing an author can exploit for themselves that traditional publishers would think was too much work or out of their area of expertise.

        Yes, there is a little more cost in creating English translations, but that shouldn’t really be a serious barrier. And then there is the added value of already having a French version to make additional profits.

        Self-publishing is going to continue to be an international phenomena and I predict we will find many authors who write in non-English finding good success selling English language translations which they are responsible for creating themselves.

        • Mackay,
          I am a translator myself so I know the price of a good translation.
          Let’s say a 50000 words novel — that’s still on the short side.
          A good translation would be a minimum of 5000 $. Probably more. Good for you if you can take that risk.
          A series of three books : that’s the minimum you have to invest if you wish to have an impact. 15000 $. Minimum.
          I am not talking of services like Babelcube where no sane pro translator would commit.

          But the main problem is still to come : in order to promote your book in the US/UK you have to be proficient in English AND you have to spend some time, which adds to the marketing time in French and so on.
          We all know than without marketing your books will sink.

          A very courageous French fantasy indie writer, named Alan Spade, has done it all — the translations, tried the marketing. Sent his book to relevant bloggers and so on. He has quite a lot of good reviews of the first book in the series in the US. And still, he is very, very far from having recouped his investment (the third book is still to be published in English).
          Check his book out, I have just seen the first is in free promotion just now (I swear I am not him and I don’t know him).
          Maybe for writers of short erotica, it is easier, with a lower investment to begin with. But the promotion thing is still a huge roadblock. “Write more, publish more” is not a ggod enough advice, since the more they write… the more they would have to pay for translations.

    • Thank you for the detail you provided, Marquejuane.

  6. Professional writers in all public-facing text categories (fiction, nonfiction, journalism, tech writing) have all seen average income decline since the 90’s because of the rise in free content on the Internet (and Usenet) & also more time video gaming, texting, watching YouTube videos, and so forth. Plus, this article may be ignoring writers of media other than books — French writers scripting video games, films, and television may be doing very well.

    • My main form of entertainment since I was a kid was reading. I was a total bookworm from early on. I’d spend just about all my allowance on them and hit the library for more reads.

      But it’s true. There is so much now, that I simply do not read even 1/30th of what I used to annually. Internet surfing takes up reading time. Streaming another big chunk. That I can stream anime, documentaries, film, j and k dramas, old movies I love, new movies–it totally is addictive. My husband pretty much only reads for work or spiritual growth, so when he’s home, we have our Bible time and then we watch tv until bedtime. I read after he goes to bed.

      There is no question my book spending is way down. Under 700 bucks a year now versus 5000 bucks a year during my peak reading years. Part of the problem is just that I have middle-aged eyes and reading tires me faster than it used to. But mostly it’s the new, affordable entertainment options.

      I don’t see that changing. People around me are always on their smartphones (like hubby) or playing video games (the younger ones in the family) or watching Netflix or cable.

      • “My main form of entertainment since I was a kid was reading. I was a total bookworm from early on. I’d spend just about all my allowance on them and hit the library for more reads.”

        Yes, me too, but we were very poor so the library was the only source of books for me and my two sisters.

        I really wonder, though, how many adults in the future will be able to say that they spent their childhoods reading books? I think it is very rare for a person who spent very little time reading as a child to become a regularly-reading adult. Unfortunately, I see the pool of potential customers for books of any kind shrinking over time, not growing.

  7. Haha, my husband and I had to cut back on buying books when we realized we spent at least $300 a month. I still buy books, but I try to check them out of the library as often as I can. We both love audible too, so we listen to lots of audiobooks.

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