What’s Bedeviling Paris’ Salon du Livre?

In Guest Contributors by Olivia Snaije

Salon Du Livre

By Olivia Snaije

PARIS: It should be an occasion for celebration — it’s the 30th anniversary, after all — but Paris’ Salon du Livre opens today in a climate of sniping and mudslinging. It’s “the fair we love to hate,” quipped Nicolas Gary on his literary blog, Actualitté.

For years, French publishers have been complaining that the fair is neither fish nor fowl: a semi-pro public event that costs publishers a sizable part of their annual budget. Hervé de la Martinière, CEO of la Martinière group, recently told the press that the returns from the fair far from covered the investment.

Last fall, Reed Exhibitions, which handles the fair for the French Publishers Association (SNE), faced one crisis after another. After Reed announced higher prices for the 2010 show, a group of independent publishers ran an open letter in the French bible of publishing news, Livres Hebdo, stating that the Salon was “going towards an eviction of small publishers which are incapable of following this rate of inflation.”

Fair organizers responded by lowering the price for companies with a turnover of less than €500,000 a year, though many small publishers still find the cost prohibitive at €2,000 for a mere 9 sq. m. of space. The normal cost per square meter is a pricey €321.

The Catholic group Bayard, France’s fifth largest press group in terms of circulation, decided to pull out of the fair entirely, after having reduced their space from 170 sq. m. in 2008 to 90 sq. m. in 2009, citing coinciding dates with the Bologna Fair and a fair for senior citizens.

Hachette All But Withdraws

But the worst blow dealt by far came from Hachette, France’s largest publisher. Hachette Livre, which owns, among others, Larousse, Stock, Grasset, Fayard and Lattès, made the decision to rent a symbolic corporate stand of 100 sq. m. instead of its usual 900 sq. m. Hachette gave the prohibitive cost as a reason for its downsized stand, but added in a statement: “Hachette Livre has been communicating to the SNE for four years its desire to have the Salon evolve…[the Salon] has become a giant that only attracts those who seek autographs.”

In early March Jean-Daniel Compain, general manager of Reed Exhibitions, (culture, sport and leisure division) wrote an open letter to Arnaud Noury, Hachette Livre’s CEO, in which he accused Hachette of denigrating the Salon in the press and spreading false information. Hachette followed with a brief response that made Compain seem like he was making much ado about nothing.

Although Hachette’s virtual walkout symbolized what many publishers had been thinking all along, it was seen by some as a “Berlusconi-like gesture” for a company with a revenue of €2.16 billion in 2008. And a number of editors within the Hachette group were not necessarily in agreement with the decision.

But Hachette’s absence left lots of room for other publishers to rent space, and as a result, the fair has become much more “worldly,” commented Hubert Artus, who reports on books and publishing for Rue89 and BFM TV. Russian and Eastern European publishers snapped up the spaces and in the end, 25 countries are now represented. Turkey has its own space baptized “All the colors of Turkey,” — an echo of their motto as guest of honor for the Frankfurt Book Fair two years ago — although this too, has been the subject of much tongue wagging. Turkey was supposed to have been the guest of honor this year, but the SNE decided to stop the program and said it wanted to concentrate instead on the 30th anniversary of the fair. Most insiders speculated that the SNE wanted to avoid any political fallout concerning subjects such as Armenia, Kurdistan or integration into Europe: two years ago the choice of Israel as a guest of honor resulted in boycotts and even a bomb scare.

New This Year: Rights Center, Digital Discussions

So what is on offer this year at the Salon? For one, there’s the new International Rights Centre. For all that is digital, the section Lectures de dem@in, (Tomorrow’s Reading) will host a Sony stand presenting the new Sony Reader PRS-600 Touch Edition. A number of exhibits and conferences on digital themes will be held for both professionals and the general public. The SNE and the Centre National du Livre (National Book Centre) will hold a series of conferences for professionals on the book production in France, including subjects relating to digital books and the French economic model.

Sixty French authors and 30 foreign authors have been invited to the fair to focus on the theme “Racconter le Monde” (Telling the World). The list of authors is impressive, encompassing numerous Francophone authors, as well as bold faced names such as Paul Auster, Salman Rushdie, Imré Kertész, Tarun J Tejpal, Alaa El Aswany and Umberto Eco.

Still, when this year’s fair is over, the organizers, Reed and the SNE will still be slowing sinking on quicksand, with many problems to solve and questions to answer before 2011’s Salon. Overall, the Salon is clearly in the midst of an identity crisis and organizers are searching for ways to renew the fair.

Time for Re-invention

The Porte de Versailles conference center, which Hubert Artus calls “horribly ugly,” has been home to the Fair since 1992, after the Grand Palais in central Paris, where the Salon had been held for the previous ten years, closed for renovations. There has been much talk about moving the Salon back to the Grand Palais and transforming it into a smaller fair focused on fiction and essays.

Others, though, are not so certain. “Fiction and essays make up 10% of the book industry revenue. This means one would be excluding those who help keep books alive today,” said Artus. Moreover, “the industry has expanded in the past 20 years and there is simply not room for everyone in the Grand Palais.”

Indeed, the Grand Palais has 5,000 square meters as opposed to the Porte de Versailles’ 15,000.

“The Paris Salon du Livre should include everyone — graphic novels, cookbooks, etc…” observed Artus. “The goal should not be to compete with Frankfurt or London, but take pride in being held in an historical city that needs to open to the world.”

Jens Bammel, secretary general of the International Publishers Association (IPA) thinks the Salon needs a good mixed business model, but has said, nevertheless, that it was “a glorious synergy of business interests and public event.”

But as one French publishing executive sighed: “It’s a celebration of the book…but at such a price.”

VISIT: The Web site of the Paris Salon du Livre.

DISCUSS: Should book fairs mix the professional and the public?

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.