In Brussels: A Focus on Francophone Independent Publishers

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

Asserting that the work of francophone markets’ small- and mid-sized publishers is a kind of activism, organizers of the ‘Talented Indies’ program in Brussels hold their third round of programming.

At the 2019 Foire du Livre de Bruxelles. Image: Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘Independent Publishers Are Courageous’
At the Foire du Livre de Bruxelles, Brussels’ book fair, which closed on Sunday (February 17), French literary agents Pierre Astier and Laure Pécher organized the third edition of their francophone independent publishers’ professional program called Talentueux Indés (Talented Indies).

As Publishing Perspectives reported, the first Talentueux Indés was held in Paris in 2015. During the event, 20 independent publishers from the French-language world pitched titles to rights managers, agents, and scouts. The following year, Astier and Pécher  organized a rights hub for eight fellows and 13 publishers in Casablanca, on which we reported here.

Astier says he sees the program at each of its stages as a kind of activism. “We think independent publishers are very courageous,” he says. “Their work is a real vocation. They discover talent, and we need to help them stand out. The publishers we work with are small- to medium-sized and are all passionate about what they do.”

The Brussels fair, he says, which has just hosted the event, was a good spot for Talentueux Indés because it’s a European crossroads event with international pertinence. The only conditions the book fair imposed was that a good proportion of the 20 francophone publishers in the program be Belgian, and that there be some focus on comics, or Bandes Dessinées as they’re known in French.

For this third iteration of the program, Astier and Pécher coordinated francophone publishers from Belgium, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Canada (Québec), France, Mali, Morocco, Senegal, Switzerland, and Tunisia.

The publishing representatives from each of those markets pitched books to a group of 11 European publishers and one literary scout, Koukla MacLehose. Meetings and workshops took place at the book fair’s Tour & Taxis facility, which is a renovated brick hangar at a former industrial site. Because it once housed explosives, the venue is now referred to as the Dangerous Products Building.

“We’ll be making dangerous liaisons,” said Astier as he welcomed participants.

Perceptions of ‘French Imperialism’

French literary agent Pierre Astier speaks at the Foire du Livre de Bruxelles. Image: Olivia Snaije

As reviewed by Astier in his opening remarks, the francophone publishing market at its highest level reaches into 15 countries on five continents, and thus operates in regions that may be deeply different in gross domestic product and per-capita wealth—from, for example, Switzerland and France to Madagascar and Haiti, the latter among the world’s poorest countries. French is reported to be the fifth most widely spoken language in the world, he said, and the second language most studied in Europe.

According to Astier, roughly 60 percent of French speakers are in Africa. He said that approximately 92,000 books are published in French per year, and there are challenges in the wider market and its subsidiary national markets, including:

  • There’s a perceived “French imperialism” at play in Europe, because exporting books from the outer markets into France can be difficult
  • In North Africa, moving books between Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco is very difficult because of high taxation on imports–most books sales are made at regional fairs
  • In Canada, many French books have traditionally come from France, although this is changing, and there’s a close geographical proximity to Anglophone markets–the much larger English-language territory of Canada, of course, and the States
  • In sub-Saharan Africa, challenges include a low standard of living, modest but growing production, few bookshops but some sidewalk booksellers, no traditional distribution network

Fellows and publishers participating in the 2019 Talentueux Indés program in Brussels. Image: Foire du Livre de Bruxelles

A Common Problem With a Colonizing Market

The 12 European fellows presented themselves in French, and they included Triinu Tamm, head of the Estonian Loomingu Raamatukogu; Agnes Orzoy, rights director with Hungary’s Magvető; and Vincenzo Ostuni, editor at the Italian Ponte alle Grazie. The francophone publishers then pitched content to the fellows.

On the second day, fellows and publishers held one-on-one meetings and larger work sessions; one, on co-editions, was presented by Laurence Hughes and Clémence Hedde of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers. The other session featured guidance on translation funding from the European Union.

Tania Massault, foreign rights director at Québec’s Alto said, “It’s a good formula to put independent francophone and European publishers together. We don’t usually buy francophone literature but I’m now wondering why not. We all share a common problem with a colonizing market—France—so we have to stick together. We already think alike.”

Massault had just met Berlin-based fellow Christian Ruzicska, founder of the Secession Verlag. Ruzicska had bought the rights to two Alto titles in the past. Massault was interested in a book Ruzicska acquired that day from the Belgian publisher Diagonales, a series of interviews conducted with French author Jérôme Ferrari by Diagonales co-founder Pascaline David.

Malgorzata Szczurek

Malgorzata Szczurek, head of Krakow’s Karakter, called the meetings inspirational.

She said, “I see rights people at fairs, but I don’t see editors. It’s energizing to see that we like the same things, and it’s uplifting when Christian [Ruzicska] and I understand each other immediately. Since I don’t speak German, he can tell me about books he’s interested in. And I can talk to Les Éditions de l’Ogre about Polish literature.

“Small publishing houses are like music labels with specific tastes.”

Two other fellows who publish graphic novels—Tim Pilcher of the British Soaring Penguin Press and Marco Rana, who heads Mondadori’s new comics imprint Oscar Ink—said the Talentueux Indés program was an opportunity to meet with alternative indie publishers.

“We want to publish more European stuff,” said Pilcher. “In London and Angoulême you only get the big players. Here we see publishers doing really interesting things and we find out what’s bubbling up. … It’s like a lovely dating agency.”

MacLehose who focuses on francophone literature for English markets said: “Why are we so skittish about translation in the Anglo-Saxon world? An event like this is absolutely enriching.”

More on French-language publishing is here, on France is here, and on  book fairs is here.

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.