By Olivia Snaije
Books published in French in African and Middle Eastern countries have very little international visibility. Publishers struggle to see their books reach France or other Francophone countries in Europe for a universal reason: book distribution is the thorn in everyone’s side.
Now hope has come for these publishers in the form of a dark blue bird and a determined woman.
Isabelle Grémillet, who was head of sales at French publisher Actes Sud for almost ten years, founded l’Oiseau Indigo in 2009 in order to offer a distribution system for these books she felt were too often ignored. The project had been maturing in her mind for a decade, she said, the culmination of her work as an academic and student of African history and culture, her work as a bookseller, an editor of art books and then in sales with Actes Sud, which provided her with a formidable network. As she was mulling over the idea, she serendipitously discovered the existence of the African Books Collective in Oxford (ABC), which is a worldwide marketing and distribution outlet for titles from Africa. Grémillet travelled to the UK to visit ABC directors who explained their model to her, which she then adapted to her needs. L’Oiseau Indigo is based in the southern city of Arles, like Actes Sud, and is funded by regional institutions, the Mediterranean Union, the French Institute and others. It is organized as a non-profit, like ABC, but unlike ABC, which is a collective of publishers, L’Oiseau Indigo has three full time employees (including Grémillet) and represents 20 Francophone publishers from Africa and the Middle East, primarily from Morocco, Tunisia, Lebanon and the Ivory Coast although publishers from Mali and Senegal are about to join the network.
Grémillet’s criteria for choosing publishers are: “they must be independent and their catalogue must be coherent. There needs to be a brand that can be recognized.”
“The Francophone world is vast,” added Grémillet, “and many good books are passed by.”
“It’s completely different, for example, to be an African author published in France rather than an African author published by an African publishing house. African writers published in France need to write a certain way in order to be understood. This means that very interesting writers can be easily overlooked.”
The Beirut-based publisher, Tamyras, is a good example of how L’Oiseau Indigo has filled a much-needed niche. Tania Hadjithomas founded Tamyras in January 2003 and began publishing French and bi-lingual French and Arabic books for children (they now publish in English as well). “We quickly came up against the distribution problem,” said Hadjithomas, “We went to French distributors who told us we were too small and didn’t have a catalogue.”
Hadjithomas began to build her catalogue but was then faced with the economically crippling Israeli attack on Lebanon in 2006. In 2007, with the help of an outside investor, Tamyras got back on its feet and connected with L’Oiseau Indigo.
“When I first met Isabelle [Grémillet] I didn’t think she’d take the whole catalogue but she did. L’Oiseau Indigo orders books, markets, and distributes them and organizes events,” said Hadjithomas, who brought four of her authors to the Paris book fair in March for signings.
L’Oiseau Indigo offers publishers two options: for larger publishers, such as Tamyras, they outsource to the Pollen company for distribution in France and Belgium, and use Servidis for Switzerland. L’Oiseau Indigo takes care of distribution for the smaller houses.
“Canada would be nice but the distance and the price of transportation are problematic,” commented Grémillet.
…to the Ivory Coast
Ivory Coast publisher Dramane Boaré founded Les Classiques Ivoiriens in 2005 with investors from the Ivory Coast and France, but has since bought out the French investors. Boaré’s entire collection is in French, from fiction, to schoolbooks and children’s books — in the Ivory Coast instruction in school is predominantly in French. “In Africa we are distributed in Mali, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Cameroon and Congo. Before we joined with l’Oiseau Indigo we tried to distribute our books in Europe but couldn’t manage; we left books in bookshops but could not follow up. For us having something structured and clear in Europe is a good opportunity. France is important for us, there are lots of people from the Ivory Coast living there and all Francophone countries interest us.”
Besides distributing to bookshops and libraries, Grémillet and her team are extremely active promoting their books wherever they can at book fairs, festivals and trade shows. In early 2012 alone L’Oiseau Indigo had a stand at book fairs in Paris, Geneva, Brussels and Casablanca, with six other events coming up this spring and summer.
Grémillet also works hard at creating what she calls a South-South axis, in other words she brought books from Africa, for example, to the Beirut book fair and tries to create networks among writer and publishers—one of her Lebanese authors and a filmmaker, Ghassan Salhab, grew up in Senegal and this is a link Grémillet feels can be reinforced. L’Oiseau Indigo represents the mythical Librairie des Colonnes in Tangiers, first a bookshop and now also a publisher, which will produce books that are not just by Moroccan authors.
L’Oiseau Indigo takes full advantage of the city of Arles, which has positioned itself as a small publishing centre and is active in terms of arts festivals and exchanges. The international college of literary translators is also based in Arles and Grémillet coordinates residencies and workshops with the college. She is currently organizing a festival scheduled for 2013 called Paroles Indigo, to celebrate linguistic diversity and languages as a link to creation.
Although each year, in order to keep going, Grémillet has to renew her grant applications, “this makes us live within reality and the constraints make us more mature. We are convinced that what we’re doing is important.”