Publishing in Québec Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic: Rallying the Readers

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

Canada’s French-language province of Québec has demonstrated its ‘vitality and robustness,’ says Sébastien Lefebvre of Québec Édition. (Sponsored)

Mylène Bouchard and Simon-Philippe Turcot are the founders of La Peuplade, a publishing house in Chicoutimi. La Peuplade’s director of European sales and marketing is Julien Delorme. Part of his and La Peuplade’s success lies in working directly with many of France’s 3,000+ booksellers. Image: Sophie Gagnon-Bergeron

Editor’s note: At this writing, some 272,726 of Canada’s 812,858 cases have been reported in Québec. The province reports 10,112 fatalities. On an encouraging note, active cases in the province are reported by CTV News’ Daniel Rowe to have dropped to 10,994, the first time they’ve been below 11,000 since November. —Porter Anderson

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

‘A Mature, Autonomous, and Dynamic Market’
As in many book markets of the world publishing industry, the business in the French-language publishing sector in Québec has been doing decidedly well despite the challenges of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

A separate industry from Canada’s English-language publishing business, Québec—with its population of 8.4 million—produces approximately 5,000 new titles in French each year.

Sébastien Lefebvre is the export projects manager for Québec Édition—the international arm of the Association nationale des éditeurs de livres (ANEL), the French-language publishers association in Canada. He says the Québec market has performed well in the pandemic, showing its “vitality and robustness.

“In my view,” he says, “it’s a mature, autonomous, and dynamic market on par with any book market with a population of its size.”

Sébastien Lefebvre

Lefebvre says that Québec’s publishers have benefited from a strategy in place since the 1960s when the province decided to go ahead with its own diplomacy, including cultural diplomacy. Québec Éditions is an active player, working with Québec’s ministries of culture and foreign affairs.

Figures reflected by the Société de gestion de la Banque de titres de langue française (BTLF)—which keeps track of titles published in French in Canada—indicate that in 2020, there were 20 percent fewer books published, and yet there was a 5.8-percent increase in revenue for literature, children’s books, self-help, comics, and biographies.

Moreover, book sales by Québec publishers in December were up 11.2 percent, while sales by foreign publishers were up 1.2 percent.

There’s a sense of community in the French-language book industry in Canada, and it was evident in a strong rally for local book sales. Publishers and booksellers, supported by the Québec government, ran a loyalty campaign, Je lis Québécois, to encourage citizens to read (and buy) books from Québec. The public responded and the result was palpable.

France, with more than 65 million potential readers, is Québec’s most important market, and a number of publishers have recently opted to sell directly to bookshops in France, hiring local marketing and sales representatives, rather than selling rights to French publishers. This served Québec publishers well during the past year—which could have been disastrous for sales, but with local help turned out to be the opposite.

An Upbeat Outlook from La Peuplade

The Chicoutimi-based publisher La Peuplade was founded in 2006 by Simon-Philippe Turcot and Mylène Bouchard. Julien Delorme is French and was hired by the publishing house three years ago as its director of European sales and marketing.

Delorme says that the pandemic year has been exceptional for La Peuplade, both in Québec and in France, where their sales increased considerably. La Peuplade sells half of its books to France, but this is transitory, says Delorme. He says he expects this figure to increase as he continues to build the publisher’s brand in France and in other Francophone countries in Europe.

Julien Delorme

During the past year, “What changed with COVID,” Delorme says, “was that I couldn’t travel and see booksellers directly.”

Because there are more than 3,000 independent bookstores in France, working with booksellers is key to a publisher’s success. By the time France’s second lockdown was imposed in October many booksellers were operating with the “click and collect” system and were overwhelmed with work.

Delorme says he tried to be less intrusive “because I knew they were so busy.

“I worked on social media a lot and individually with booksellers with newsletters, hoping they wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle. I tried to adapt to what booksellers needed, which meant being more selective about our books and being respectful of their time, not forcing anything on them but remaining available to them.”

‘People Were Out There Buying Books’

Simon de Jocas

Simon de Jocas, familiar to Publishing Perspectives readers as the president of Québec Édition and owner of the children’s publishing company, Les 400 Coups, says that last March and April, “Sales were horrendous.

“In France, I sold 41 books. Normally I’d sell 1,000 in April. Then in May, France opened bookstores and suddenly it was manna from heaven. During the pandemic, we sold more during those four summer months in France than usual. People went crazy buying books.”

Besides usually traveling to all book fairs in Europe, de Jocas also attends sales meetings and visits bookshop owners and librarians in cities in France, Switzerland, and Belgium with other publishers from Québec, part of a three-year-old project piloted by Dominique Janelle at Québec Édition. Of course, last year, following de Jocas’ presence at the Brussels book fair in March, there was to be no more travel. “We have zoom meetings now. At least it’s been continuous, and the bookstore owners have been present and supportive.”

De Jocas also collaborates on an e-magazine called Je dirais même plus with Belgian and French children’s book publishers which goes out to 25,000 libraries and books sellers every 3 months, highlighting new publications. In the spring 2020 edition of the magazine de Jocas affirmed in an editorial that books now more than ever, continue to be part of people’s basic needs.

In Québec, de Jocas says, although the children’s book market is thriving, at the beginning of the pandemic he thought “things would go from bad to worse. My fears were that sales would crash.”

But after a rough spring, “Québec’s book market went up 18 percent in May, June, and July. That made us feel that things were good.

“What really helped us was the fact that the federal and provincial governments came out and gave us a hand. The amount of aid we usually receive in October was given to us in April, so that we had cash flow. This made the difference between being worried and knowing you could make it. People were out there buying books too.”

Still, de Jocas says he had to lay off two people at his company. He now has rehired them.

He says he’s not sure that sales from early 2021 will be as good as last year’s, but “The book chain in Québec is solidly knit.

“The Association des libraires du Québec—the Québec booksellers association—is there to help us and to push our books a little bit more.”

Books from the publishers we hear from in this story: from left are two titles from La Peuplade and two from Les 400 Coups

More from Publishing Perspectives on Québec and its publishing industry is here, more on the Canadian market is here, and more from us on publishing and the French language is here.  

More on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing 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.