As France is Fêted at Frankfurt, French Literary Agents Take Stock

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Seeing the French president join the German chancellor in opening France’s Guest of Honor program at Frankfurt, French literary agents survey a the rights market.

France’s president, Emmanuel Macron at the French Guest of Honor pavilion at Frankfurt Book Fair. Image © Frankfurter Buchmesse / Marc Jacquemin

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘More Editors Are Open to Agents’ in France
When Publishing Perspectives reported in March 2016 on the formation of a new alliance of French and francophone literary agents in Paris, the group’s mission was laid out in three points:

  • To bring together agents for better visibility of the profession
  • To ensure optimal representation of authors and publishers
  • To maintain a running dialogue with authors’ unions, publishers, producers, as well as national and international institutions

The Alliance, now part of the Syndicat Français des Agents Artistiques et Littéraires. is picking up on a British phrase to introduce itself

And with France as the Frankfurt Book Fair Guest of Honor this year, the Alliance of French Literary Agents (AALF, Alliance des Agents Littéraires Français) held their own social event on Thursday evening (October 12). Publishing Perspectives was in touch with some of the leadership of the group ahead of the fair to learn more about the alliance and their observations on France’s rights market.

In France, it is the publishers who traditionally represent their authors’ work and sell rights, rather than agents. However, the growing number of literary agents in the country is changing this dynamic.

Publishing Perspectives: With France having been Guest of Honor at Frankfurt, what’s the agent’s view?

Alliance agents: We’re always optimistic, but the beginning of the year was challenging for books in general and for fiction in particular. Only a handful of players seem to come out on top.  Readers tend to follow the trends and concentrate on buying the same few titles, and so buying fewer books overall.

Sales have even dropped for big-name authors, whether French or foreign—you can land on the bestseller list with only a few thousand copies sold.

However we’re encouraged because editors are always looking for good books that they think will sell, and more and more are open to agents submitting manuscripts written by French authors. Even if the market is a bit down, people will obviously always need books to publish.

Translated Fiction in Decline in France

PP: Along these lines, we’d like to know very generally what’s selling? And how about formats? Is digital publishing gaining traction or is print still strongly dominant for France’s authors and their agents?

Gregory Messina

Agents: Translated fiction, especially upmarket and/or literary fiction which used to perform well, is experiencing a decline.

While foreign upmarket to literary fiction is having a hard time at the moment, commercial French fiction—feel-good and/or women’s fiction, in particular—seems to be doing well.

There are the big name authors who churn out a book every year and always land on the bestseller lists but there are also some new break-out authors.

Authors who have done well internationally are successful here, as well, such as Elena Ferrante and Paula Hawkins.

Nonfiction is heavily dominated by French authors who write about all things related to France: society, economy, politics, etc.  There are just a few international successes, notably Guilia Enders and Marie Kondo.

Now, more than ever, books need to be promoted with  energy to see results and there doesn’t seem to be a correlation between reviews and sales.  Excellent reviews do not necessarily translate into higher sales.

There are more digital sales than there used to be, but print remains very dominant. Ebooks represent less than 10 percent of the French market. One reason for this could be that the retail price for ebooks in France is relatively high. Prices are set by the publisher and because of the fixed-book price in France—with a possible discount of 5 percent, max—there isn’t any discounting .

It’s worth mentioning that there are many small publishers who don’t even publish an ebook edition.

The ‘Guest of Honor Effect’

PP: And we’d love to know if the attention of the Guest of Honor means more business in terms of rights sales for French literature? Are the agents of France hoping for (or already seeing) an uptake in international interest?

Laure Pécher

Agents: France as the Frankfurt Guest of Honor 2017 is a big opportunity not only for France but also for the French language, as it’s one of the five main languages in the world. It’s also a wonderful tribute as the post-colonial French linguistic territory is large; the French language is spoken on all five continents.

There are 280 million French speakers today. As a result of population growth, this will rise to 700 million or perhaps more in 2050. In terms of readers, writers, publishers, and in terms of education and cultural issues, there will be huge needs.

And obviously, literary agents will have a key role to play as quick and active intermediaries, with a comprehensive vision of co-edition and licensing needs. Even if Paris continues to exercise a dominant influence both historically and economically on the French-speaking world, the French global book market will become more dynamic.

This said, international publishers have always paid close attention to French books. There does seem to be even more interest over the past few years which might also be linked to French authors moving away from auto-fiction and writing novels that are more accessible internationally. German publishers in particular seem to have a very healthy appetite for French books.

The Agents’ Alliance in France and Its Members

PP: AALF is a relatively young organization. Can you tell us how many agents are part of the alliance?

Agents: There are 27 agents representing 22 agencies. AALF, Alliance des Agents Littéraires Français, was formed in March 2016 as an independent association before becoming apart of SFAAL—Syndicat Français des Agents Artistiques et Littéraires—in October 2016. SFAAL is a larger association which includes not only agents from the publishing industry but also agents from the film and television industries, as well as the performing arts.

PP: Would you like to provide a full listing of member-agents?

Agents: Our founding list of members last year was this:

‘Contract Negotiations Can Be Long’

PP: Where do your agents see “pressure points” in the publishing industry today?

Marie Lannurien

Agents: In France, the laws governing publishing contracts have recently evolved slightly in the author’s favor. Some literary agents did take part in the discussions but the conversation still needs to go much further.

There are essentially two boilerplates: one created by the SNE (Syndicat National de l’Edition), the French publishers association, and one created by the SGDL, a society of French authors. Literary agents have their own boilerplates they work from.

So while these new boilerplates are more favorable to authors, there are still clauses that we, as authors’ agents, disagree with. One complication is that publishers will argue that this is the boilerplate that was negotiated, generally speaking, on behalf of authors. They don’t take into consideration that each negotiation is unique; that we may want to veer away from a boilerplate that is not in the best interest of our clients.

However, contract negotiations can be long mainly because the scope of rights licensed is much broader in France than elsewhere and the sharing of subsidiary rights (usually 50-50), which is clearly disadvantageous to authors.

On Agent Representation: ‘The French Are Resistant’

PP: In France, it’s not unusual for publishers to “represent” the rights of an author rather than an agent. Is this changing?

“In France, being represented by an agent is less common compared to the norms in neighboring countries like Germany or Italy, but this is evolving and will continue to evolve as more and more agents continue to come onto the scene.”

Agents: The French are resistant to change and to intermediaries, and French publishers are no exception. Some are not favorable to working with agents, especially those publishers who have been around for several years. They argue that agents will interfere with the close ties they claim to have with an author and that French agents don’t do the same job as American agents.

But there may be other reasons for their unfavorable opinion such as money, contracts, term of license etc. This does not stop several bestselling French authors from signing with an agent abroad.

This is something we regret but could be explained by the fact that there haven’t been many primary agents here in France.

International publishing markets are all different and we’re aware that the French market cannot compare to the US or German markets in terms of advances, for instance. But we strongly believe that a professional intermediary can also have advantages, certainly for authors but for publishers as well.

Some French publishers are used to saying that they are their authors’ agents. Actually, they are not.

They do not “represent” authors’ rights; they can own their authors’ rights—all the rights—including publication, translation, film, audiobooks, and for the duration of intellectual property, which is 70 years after the author’s death.

They can license or not license to whomever they want even without consulting the author.

Author’s rights can belong to different and competing publishers and so may not always be handled in the most strategic or coherent manner possible.

“We need to educate authors about the role of an agent, from submitting a book and negotiating a contract to being published. Many authors don’t realize what we do.”

Furthermore, with the advent of big publishing groups, the risk of a conflict of interest is always present, so it’s important for authors to have somebody on their team protecting their interests.

In France, being represented by an agent is less common compared to the norms in neighboring countries like Germany or Italy, but this is evolving and will continue to evolve as more and more agents continue to come onto the scene.

We also need to educate authors about the role of an agent, from submitting a book and negotiating a contract to being published. Except for illustrators, for whom it is not uncommon to work with an agent, many authors don’t realize what we do.

Publishers have historically acquired all publishing rights from authors perhaps because there was no other option. Who would license these rights on an author’s behalf? There were only a handful of author’s agents, if that, starting perhaps 10 to 15 years ago. So it was really only up to the publisher to sell the translation rights of an author’s book.

Now some authors are starting to understand that translation rights to their works are theirs to hold onto, or to sell.  It’s part of any negotiation and not an automatic right acquired by a French publisher.

While the publishers may own all rights, it has to be said that there are some rights departments that do consult with certain authors out of respect, although truth, they don’t really need their approval before licensing rights. While they’re technically selling rights on behalf of the publishing company, their employer, some do see themselves as working on behalf of the author and achieving results for the author.

But this varies from one company to another, and can even be inconsistent within the same company, depending on the author. One author may be consulted with closely, another not at all.

Agents work for all their authors and won’t accept anything without their approval and will always strive to obtain results that are in their best interest.

Thank you to AALF members Laure Pécher, Marie Lannurien, Corinne Marotte, and especially to Linwood Messina Literary Agency’s Gregory Messina, who gathered the group’s input in response to our questions.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.