Nicolas Gary: France’s Digital Man of Letters

In Europe by Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije

In a corner of the traditional, safe and slightly musty world of French publishing, Nicolas Gary, the principal founder of Actualitté, a website and daily newsmagazine on French and international publishing, is a blast of fresh air.

Nicholas Gary

The Canadian-born 30-year old, a fan of Frank Herbert’s Dune but also of poet Saint-John Perse, founded Actualitté with three friends in February 2008.

By word of mouth and a lot of hard work — Gary clocks 120 hours of work a week — the start-up has elbowed its way into French cyberspace with 9,500 to 11,000 unique visitors a day. Run by a staff of seven, with a core group of four writers (including Gary) the site is updated seven days a week with 30 postings daily (often with cheeky headlines), covering the editorial, financial, tech, and legal side of the publishing industry. Gary also enjoys throwing in tidbits of gossip here and there.

Having fun was the prime motivation for the four book-loving founders. “We wanted to create something new and above all have fun. We wanted to read books,” explained Gary. When I met him in Paris, he was sporting an eyebrow piercing and a fedora, and was holding a paperback by German writer Wilhelm Genazino under his arm.

In the beginning “we knew nothing about running a business,” he says. “It wasn’t until a company that was interested in what we were doing asked us for details that we realized we had to get serious about setting up a business structure.”

The business side, Gary admits, is what he likes least, though he has still been able to manage it creatively and has developed several offshoots from Actualitté, including an online shopping comparison site. Advertising generates 15-20% of Actualitté’s revenue and includes clients such as Bookeen, Google, Hachette and Libela. Additional funding comes from offering publishing consulting services, such as advising on public relations, website development and maximizing visibility. “Our model is to make lots out of little,” says Gary.

Gary studied at the University of Bordeaux and worked as a Latin tutor before landing a job writing for a tech magazine, where he says he acquired the skills he needed to create and launch Actualitté. A large part of his job entailed researching tech on international websites, something that expanded his “global vision.”

The site’s staff all work from home, though Actualitté rents a small storage space to house the 50 books a day it is sent by publishers (“I don’t see why they can’t send us e-books,” laments Gary. “Publishers in France are terrified of piracy.”)

Between 6 and 8 a.m. each morning Gary scans about 300 sites in English, French, and Spanish. He also branches out occasionally into Russian, which he studied at school. Among the Anglo-Saxon websites and blogs, he faithfully cites are the Guardian, the Bookseller, Publishing Perspectives, Media Bistro’s eBookNewser, and Teleread. He then filters stories and sends those he feels are important to his staff. They hold an editorial meeting via Skype around 8 a.m. and then begin writing, keeping an eye on news throughout the day until midnight or so, when Gary sends out the next day’s newsletter. Gary also takes pitches and solicits inside information from contacts at publishers and press attachés.

The average age of the Actualitté team is 28 and its members are resolutely of the Internet generation. They read books on their iPhones and iPads, but also on paper.

“We’re not particularly pro-digital and don’t want to kill paper at all. But if e-books develop in France, they are certainly not foreign to us. Publishers should all go for the digital, so they can offer lower prices out of respect for people who can’t afford books.”

Gary is exasperated with the recent news that the French Senate voted unanimously for a proposition law to fix prices for e-books. “Publishers and bookshops have been saved by the [1991 fixed book price] Lang law but it’s still a protectionist law. This federated the milieu and the created a bloc. The digital component is also evolving as a bloc. It stunts the creative process.”

He is clearly impatient with what he sees as an insular microcosm. “In France everyone knows everyone else and they move forward very slowly. I think the French publishing world is an old one and it’s a bit dusty.”

Perhaps most of all, he is pleased to have provided a free alternative and competition to French publishing industry journal Livres Hebdo, which costs a hefty $540 for a yearly subscription. Gary is also looking into offering some Actualitté articles in English translation, in order to develop an international readership. (You can look for one tomorrow on Publishing Perspectives.)

Despite his hectic work schedule Gary says he is still having fun. Would he change anything?

“I’d really like us to make fewer spelling mistakes,” he sighs. And although Actualitté has not had any “serious” offers by potential partners, he asserts, “We’re not very interested. We like being independent.”

Asked how he sees the future of books, he noted: “When I last went to the doctor, in the waiting room two people were reading magazines and the other six were on their phones. If you have new creations with books there will be more readers. Reading an interactive version of Dracula on an iPad, well it might be the new novel form and it’s certainly less boring than [Alain] Robbe-Grillet. We’ll write about love, but differently. The themes will remain the same . . . A friend introduced me to a new application for the iPhone which is a Japanese garden. You can move the gardens around and change the seasons. This is digital poetry.”

DISCUSS: Does Digital Publishing Constitute a New Art Form?

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.