Industry Discussions: France’s Publishers Look at Author Income

In News by Eric Dupuy

When France’s publishers commissioned a study on author income and publisher revenue, the debate deepened — if without resolution.

A bookseller at a stall on the Seine in Paris, October 2, 2023. Image – Getty iStockphoto: HJBC

By Eric Dupuy

‘An Economic Study on the Sharing of Value’
In France, a challenging dialogue between authors and publishers continues, despite differences of opinion. Even with unprecedented signs of transparency, publishers are having trouble placating authors on the thorny issue of author income.

To put a complex issue into simple terms, authors’ organizations say they believe that what writers are paid isn’t commensurate with the work they do, and that publishers take advantage of a lack of transparency to underpay them.

The issue is so thorny that it was left out of a round of discussions between authors and publishers between 2021 and 2022, as they worked on other issues to improve their relationships. One of those has been the obligation of a publisher to render accounts twice per year instead of once.

At the beginning of February, however, the French publishers’ association—the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE)—released a groundbreaking study to advance this controversial issue.

For the first time, 36 publishing houses submitted their financial statements for 2022 to a major consultancy, the Netherlands-based KPMG, to develop a study on the sharing of book-business revenues. And the results in the case of this study aren’t necessarily supportive of authors’ arguments.

‘We Don’t Speak the Same Language’

The study has determined that nearly 25 percent of the value generated by book sales goes to authors, while the publisher is left with less than 18 percent of this value, after paying its assumed costs.

The Permanent Council of Writers—Le Conseil Permanent des Écrivains (CPE)—a powerful federation of authors’ associations in France, reacted with a statement, saying, “This presentation suggests that all authors enjoy satisfactory remuneration.”

The League of Professional Authors—La Ligue des Auteurs Professionnels—says, “The study seems to include a wide range of meanings—remuneration for collection directors; acquisition of foreign rights; royalties paid to translators; etc.—which makes it impossible to know how value is actually shared.”

These criticisms are being echoed by illustrators and authors children’s books, as well, particularly the point of the study having treated all types of work as being completely the same, without distinction.

Jean-Baptiste Andréa. Image: ©Celine Nieszawer / Leextra / L’Iconoclaste

The authors can count on the voice of their popular colleague Jean-Baptiste Andréa, the novelist, screenwriter, and filmmaker who on November 7 was awarded the 2023 Prix Goncourt for Veiller sur elle (Watch Over Her) from the independent publisher L’Iconoclaste.

“This study should not be published like this,” Andréa says, asserting that France’s ministry of culture should be responsive to the controversy.

“The ministry of culture is not fulfilling its role as regulator and guarantor of the general interest,” he says. “Their position is to divide and conquer. I’m very angry, and I’m not alone. I’m fed up with these ministers who claim to be in charge of culture, but do nothing about it.”

In fact, the ministry once tried to carry out a similar study, but ran into the proprietary “business secrets” of publishers—too few of whom shared their financial results.

The SNE therefore took on the responsibility of commissioning a firm to carry out the study, using data from 36 of its members, including 26 from France’s Top Five publishing groups. These companies represent nearly 30 percent of the market in the five publishing sectors studied—literature, how-to, youth, comics, and art—which in turn represent nearly 70 percent of the overall book market, with sales at list prices of a total €1.120 billion (US$1.2 billion).

Debating the Study’s Intent

Renaud Lefebvre

At the SNE, the publishers association, secretary-general Renaud Lefebvre says he sees some of the complaints as being based on a misconception of the research the association commissioned.

“We published an economic study on the sharing of value,” Lefebvre says, “not on average copyright rates, nor on the distribution of margins. Some of the grievances seem to us to be out of step with what they are.”

The publishing sector “suffers from a lack of serious documentation,” he says, “and this publication is a stone in the edifice.”

While the authors’ organizations are openly critical of the study’s conclusions, they all say they welcome the transparency achieved by the SNE.

Hervé Rony

Hervé Rony, director of LaScam, a collective management society in charge of redistributing some 45,000 nonfiction writers’ royalty payments, says that the study “responds to some concerns but does not alleviate certain demands. We don’t speak the same language.”

SNE’s Lefebvre says that he sees the newly released study as part of a work in progress, not a definitive document. “We never wanted to settle the question of remuneration with this study,” he says.

Louis Delas

And Louis Delas, vice-president of the SNE, says, “We need to continue the work of transparency and education, publishing sector by publishing sector.”

By the end of the year, the organization’s administration says it hopes to put into place a best-practices guide and model, a new version of the author contract, before establishing a specific council to manage disputes between authors and publishers.

And the SNE calls on all stakeholders concerned to establish reliable studies to document their problems and contribute, finally, to a consensus on author remuneration.

Porter Anderson contributed to this report. More from Publishing Perspectives on the French market is here, more on authors is here, and more on industry statistics is here.

About the Author

Eric Dupuy

Eric Dupuy is a French journalist based in Paris. After more than 10 years as an economic and politics reporter for several news media including Agence France-Presse (AFP), Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD), and Europe 1, he joined the team at Livres Hebdo in 2022 to follow the book industry in France and abroad.