In France, the 2022 literary season means 490 new books coming out between the end of August and October. This figure seems impressive, but it is actually historically low. The number of titles is down 6% from 2021 (which had 521 new books). This figure is a consequence of the increase in paper prices and a difficult period for the publishing world, which had two previous very successful years but has since struggled to please. This literary season, the last-born of the great authors known to the media and the general public such as Virginie Despentes or Amélie Nothomb rub shoulders with 90 first novels. Does the new literary season, which traditionally punctuates the world of publishing in France, exist elsewhere in Europe?
The literary season, a cultural event at the service of the book sector
The literary season has been a tradition in France since the 20th century, although it is difficult to date it exactly. It settles with the Goncourt prize, in the 19th century, but the expression literary return and the tradition that goes hand in hand have imposed themselves over the last century, during the interwar period. This literary return lasts because it knows how to adapt to the French public. The gradual implementation of a second literary season in January, with fewer releases and less media coverage, allows the literature market to be lively from January to March, pending the Paris Book Fair which will take place holds in April.
It allows authors and their new novels to compete for numerous French prizes: the Goncourt, the Femina, the Renaudot… The literary prizes reward books published during the year, but the media attention is such during the literary season that juries mostly focus on novelties published between August and November. The system of literary prizes has also evolved to become more transparent. The lobbying previously considered excessive has not disappeared, but prestigious prizes have also been won by small independent publishers. Literary prizes last over time because they have adapted to readers’ expectations: the creation of the Goncourt prize for high school students in 1988 targets a young and student readership, and thus revives the interest of an entire generation for literary prizes.
An event for commercial purposes
The first advantage of the literary season is to guarantee great media visibility for French novelists from August to November. It provides benchmarks to readers via literary awards, before the lucrative season of end-of-year gift shopping. It also allows literature to remain attractive in the face of the rising influence of the Internet, music, cinema and video games.
Booksellers make almost a third of their sales during this period. There is indeed a significant increase in the production of books between August and October each year. This production drops in November and December and rises slightly from January, on the occasion of the second literary season
In order for the literary prizes to have optimum influence, the organizers of the prizes work with other players in the book sector: booksellers, literary journalists and librarians who direct readers to the works they like the most. Prize winners also enjoy high visibility at major literary fairs and festivals. The literary season also gives a place to literature in the media: we never hear so much about books as during the last four months of the year.
The tradition of literary re-entry enables the publishing sector to derive maximum profits. The Goncourt is the most popular and coveted as the award winner sells an average of 400,000 copies each year. Back-to-school is therefore a goal for publishers to boost book sales, as well as get good reviews and ideally get a price before the holiday season.
The race for profitability, during which publishers seek to generate as much profit as possible, is considered “worrying” by Aline Sirba, literary columnist specializing in contemporary literature: since the 2000s and 2010s, a growing number of books have been produced each year, from which only the best are retained, and the unsold ones go to the pestle. This race leads book specialists to make choices and therefore to overlook other literary works.
A French specificity
The French cultural return corresponds to the resumption of cultural life after the summer break. We are talking about the phenomenon of the literary re-entry in the same way as the re-entry of the opera or the theater, which all take place from September. It is to literature what the Cannes Film Festival is to cinema, through its symbolism and its similar economic consequences in France.
This French tradition interests the European public. The literary season gives French literature visibility because publishers from countries interested in foreign literature follow the releases of the literary season to choose the books for which they will buy the rights to translate and market them in their country. Germany is a country in demand for French literature, and the start of the literary season is ideally timed: one month before the Frankfurt book fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse), the world’s largest publishing fair, held for a few days in mid-October.
Germany is setting up a variant of the new literary season, the publishing houses group together the releases of the most promising novels around their major literary fairs, rather than at the start of the new school year, and it is a system that works just as well media and commercially.
Belgium and Switzerland reproduce a system similar to the literary season, their proximity to France and their use of the French language allows them to take advantage of the French literary season, without it becoming as extensive as in France.
Despite the existence of prestigious literary prizes abroad, there are fewer of them than in France and they receive less media coverage. The Goncourt prize is the most prestigious because it is the oldest in the world, it precedes the English Booker Prize and the German Buchpreis which are imitations.
Aline Sirba explains that if the literary season is not copied elsewhere in Europe, it is because it requires an alignment of publishers, these publishers must themselves have enough authors to present and therefore have the necessary funds. to publish these authors. Then, for this return to become a tradition, it must take place for several years and be accompanied by media exposure. Something simpler in France than elsewhere, because publishers are grouped there under large groups: collaboration between publishing houses is simpler.
Aline Sirba also points out that in Spain, but this is also the case in the majority of European countries, there are not as many bookstores as in France, and therefore not as many spaces for selling books essential to held for the literary season.
Thus, despite its lasting success, the French system of literary re-entry is not imitated by other countries, and probably will not be in the near future.
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Does the literary season exist everywhere in Europe? (1/2) – The Taurillon