France’s Publishers Survey the Coronavirus’ Damage: 72 Percent Plan Cutbacks

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Detailing the damage of the pandemic, the French publishers’ association issues its first report from the crisis with a survey of up some 250 houses.

An April 26 shot of Parisians during their one hour of permitted daily exercise during the lockdown. Image – iStockphoto: Ostill

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

Assessing ‘The Profession’s Needs’
In the kind of survey report we’re hoping from for many more world publishing markets—including those of the United States and United Kingdom—France’s publishers have issued today (May 19) a report on what it calls the “sudden stop” imposed on the business in the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

Answered by 132 companies and publishing groups that represent some 250 publishing houses both big and small across all sectors of the industry, the report is an effort to asses “as precisely as possible the profession’s needs” and “to make concrete proposals to support the recovery.”

Because Publishing Perspectives serves an international audience of publishers, rights directors, literary agents and scouts, our readership understands how important it is for each national market’s publishers association to take stock this way, when the time is right in terms of the contagion’s outbreak and reopenings in a given market. Arguing for the book business’ importance is going to depend on how clearly and compellingly the industry can make its case in terms of damages, losses, setbacks, and status.

For example, when the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE), France’s national publishers association, surveyed its membership between April 27 and May 6, some of the top-line results they got were:

  • A quarter of French publishers say they will lose more than 40 percent of their anticipated 2020 revenues to the pandemic’s effects
  • One in five publishing houses have applied for government support from the National Solidarity Fund (an aid program of €1,500 is reserved for very small companies)
  • Cutbacks in planned activity were confirmed by 72 percent of the publishers responding
  • On average, publishers responding say they’re canceling or postponing 18 percent of the new releases they’d scheduled for 2020
  • The period of confinement “was conducive to changes in reader habits,” the report’s writers say, translating into increased ebook sales of more than 30 percent during the lockdown for the publishers who offer ebooks
  • In audio, the houses report less of a bump, only some 8 percent of the 37 percent of respondents who offer audio citing a rise in audiobook sales of 30 percent or better

Discussion from the association refers to the newly “weakened” and “fragile” industry and identifies three primary reasons for this being the state of the business:

  • Bookstores’ closures in a country that has at least 3,000 bookshops and an industry highly dependent on those points of sale
  • A decline in demand from readers who “may have other priorities than the book,” the organization concedes, at a time of lethal contagion
  • Insufficient financial resources to support the recovery effort, particularly because of the fast onset of the very difficult French outbreak
‘The Bonds of Interdependence’ in the Book Industry

At Paris’ Saint-Étienne-du-Mont on April 26. Image – iStockphoto: Studio Climats

The medical system in France’s eastern sector was so badly overwhelmed by the caseload that German military support was welcomed, transporting patients across the border to some of the German medical centers that had weathered the storm with less crippling numbers.

Even in its early reopening efforts, the nation is struggling. As Thomas Adamson reports for the Associated Press, “Just one week after a third of French schoolchildren went back to school in an easing of the coronavirus lockdown, there has been a worrying flareup of about 70 COVID-19 cases linked to schools,” according to government officials Monday (May 18).

Today, Amazon’s six warehouses in France are reopening after a month of closures triggered by “a dispute with labor unions over the health and safety of workers,” as CNN International’s Hadas Gold reports, but the French population (67 million) buys its books far more heavily from physical bookstores than online, as we know, and as Publishing Perspectives has reported, much is expected to rest on how successfully the bookstores can make an exit from the confinement restrictions.

At this writing, the 9:32 a.m. ET update (1332 GMT) of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center ranks France as seventh in the world by caseload, even after Russia’s sudden leaps upward and Brazil’s new rises on the charts. The French market reports 180,051 cases. And its 28,242 deaths make it the world’s fourth nation in terms of fatalities.

In terms of response and support, the SNE’s report today emphasizes that the nation’s book industry must work in concert, approaching the Macron government with appeals for resources in unity “among all players in the book chain—publishers, authors, booksellers, distributors, printers—underlining the bonds of interdependence that unite them and the necessary solidarity they need in order to safeguard the sector and its diversity.”

The industry is basically arguing for something that will go beyond a €180 million plan (US$196.8 million) plan from the ministry of culture. That approach includes grants, loans, social security tax exemptions, and a special postal rate for books. What the business wants is something that includes promotion, incentives, and buys such as a national advertising campaign, “massive pubic book orders for libraries,” and consumer spending prompts not unlike Italy’s “18app” program that provides money to teens at age 18 to spend on books and other cultural purchases.

The association also makes the point that it is a kind of feeder business to the other creative industries, the starting point for storytelling that then goes on to support film, television, theater and other entertainment industries.

A couple more points of interest from the report:

The association reports that relations between publishers and authors appear to be healthy, despite the strain of the situation. This also goes for distributors, suppliers, employees, and shareholders, all of whom understand the crisis and its stresses. There is some friction reported between the industry and booksellers as well as with its bankers

  • Cash flow is the biggest immediate problem reported by 57 percent of responding companies
  • The potential for going out of business is reported a reality by 18 houses
  • Of the respondents, 48 percent have fewer than five employees
  • Eight percent publish more than 500 titles per year, 44 percent publish between 16 and 100 titles per year

You can find a download of the full report from the association here.

On the Left Bank’s Quai de Montebello, April 26. Image – iStockphoto: Studio Climats

More from Publishing Perspectives on the French market is here, more from us on bookselling is here, and more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

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.