By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije
Toasting a Century-and-a-HalfOn a balmy Parisian evening the last day of May, the Bureau International de l’Édition Française, or BIEF, threw a party for its 150th anniversary.
The celebration took place in the garden of the 18th-century Hôtel Massa, headquarters of the Société des gens des lettres, which defends authors’ rights. Antoine Gallimard, BIEF president and head of Éditions Gallimard and Groupe Madrigall, joined BIEF director Nicolas Roche on stage to outline BIEF’s history and its evolution.
Publishing houses in many parts of the world might well envy the services of the BIEF. The organization, with its headquarters on Boulevard Saint-Germain, in Paris’ former traditional publishing neighborhood, was founded in 1873 by the Cercle de la Librairie, created to help publishers develop internationally both by exporting titles and selling their publication rights into other languages and territories. The BIEF’s mission today hasn’t changed significantly: its motto remains to promote French publishing abroad.
BIEF is a noncommercial organization supported by the French ministries of culture and foreign affairs and works to serve its nearly 300 members, French publishing houses. The program also works with a number of institutional and private partners.
As an example, the BIEF manages a collective stand for French publishers at a number of book fairs and trade shows. During the 2021 Frankfurter Buchmesse, more than 100 publishers gathered on the BIEF stand. It organizes meetings for French publishers abroad; runs fellowships for publishers who travel to France from other countries to meet potential counterparts; and produces studies on book markets in other countries, providing data for its members on the BIEF site.
Its affiliate, the French Publishers’ Agency in New York helps French publishers sell rights in the United States—like the United Kingdom, a market that international publishers consider difficult because of a paucity of translations. In late June, 45 French publishers are scheduled to travel to the States to meet with as many as 85 American publishers.
‘We’ve Shifted Gears’
In recent years, under the stewardship of Roche and his team, the BIEF has embarked on several new initiatives.
At the end of 2021, the Books From France platform was launched, taking the approach that it wasn’t necessary to further advertise bestsellers for international publishers looking to buy rights, but instead to make thematic choices showcasing books from all sectors and from large and smaller publishers, whether on the environment, feminism, or children’s books.
Another area in which the BIEF is working, is in collaborations with French-language publishers who are not French. On the heels of a conference held in Tunis in 2021 on global French-language books—at which some of the recommendations included increased cooperation between these markets and a greater emphasis on South-North distribution—the BIEF set up two fellowships for francophone publishers, Roche tells Publishing Perspectives.
“Francophone publishers often don’t know each other,” Roche says. “We’ve shifted gears and have been speaking with Swiss, Belgian, and African organizations such as Afrilivres (African Books), which bring together publishers to see how we can open some of our operations and cooperate, perhaps participating in book fairs or with their authors.”
Roche suggests that the BIEF may even change its name to reflect francophone publishers and not just publishers based in France. That might be tricky terrain when it comes to former French colonies, which could interpret this move as another French maneuver to dominate the territory. Roche says, however, “We don’t want to offer solutions. We’re asking them what they need, and to see if they want to collaborate.”
There are many subjects to address within the francophone sphere, Roche says, such as rights sales from French to French and partnerships with various countries. “The aim is to progress,” he says, “to pool our resources, and to fulfill a need to exist on an international level.”
‘The Aim Is To Progress’
The second edition of another recent BIEF initiative, the Paris Book Market, running today (June 1) and Saturday. The mission is to bring non-French publishers to Paris, 100 of them given free accommodation by the BIEF. In this program, the organization partners with La Sofia, a collective run by authors and publishers to handle book rights.. The intent is for French publishers to present their catalogues, hoping, of course, that rights sales will follow.
“This was a challenging concept,” Roche says, “because it only works in one direction. But we decided that the French market was interesting enough for publishers to come. We measure its success with the number of publishers present, and we organize meetings with lesser-known [French] publishers. These meetings are often impossible during large fairs because time is short and foreign publishers have partnerships with the publishers they know.”
Last year’s book market coincided with the Festival du Livre de Paris, but this year the BIEF decided to hold the book market later, as most editors were just finishing their work at London Book Fair.
Claire Mauguière, who organizes the book market, says that the beginning of June is actually better timing because French publishers have finished their catalogues for the fall literary season by then and can present their books from that list. She says 250 international publishing professionals have signed up and will be meeting with 200 French publishers.
Literary agents—who until recently were kept at arm’s length in an industry that traditionally sold rights from inside its publishing houses—have said that they’re miffed about not being included in the book market. Alliance ALF, the Alliance of French Literary Agents (AALF)–which now includes 43 agents–wrote an op-ed in the industry magazine ActuaLitté last year, asking when a real rights market in France would be held.
Roche says that the BIEF is an association of publishers which today promotes a French model in which the publisher is at the heart of negotiating rights abroad. Authors’ agents are therefore naturally not required to participate in BIEF actions. “But if the board of directors evolves on how to entertain the presence of agents, then why not?”
On the future of the industry, Roche says it’s important to have both an international vision and a regional outlook. “For the past few years, China had been our biggest buyer. Then in 2022, the numbers strongly diminished. One has to try to understand why, [to understand] the political and economic reasons, to have the bigger picture and to see what an individual country is going through.”
For this, the BIEF relies heavily on book attachés in the international network of the French Institute.
“We see their role as crucial,” Roche says. “They maintain the day-to-day relationships, and when we want to set up professional events, they’re there to help us. They’re a vital asset. Thanks to our partnership with the French Institute in Paris and abroad, and Centre National du Livre, we have tools that enable French to be translated abroad. It’s an open marketplace.”