Why Don’t French Books Sell Abroad?

french booksAn interesting thread at MobileRead has been discussing this article from BBC News, which poses the question ‘why don’t French books sell abroad?’ The article points out that many French novelists from the pre-war period—Flaubert, Dumas and so on—routinely make the literary rounds in English. But why do so few contemporary authors cross the great divide?

Posters in the discussion raise several theories, ranging from prohibitive costs for translation to the suggestion that contemporary French authors simply aren’t writing stuff that people find interesting. One poster raises the point that graphic novels (called BDs) are very popular in France and might be occupying the same spot there which genre fiction occupies here.

I am a dual-language reader myself—by profession, I am a French as a Second Language teacher, and I read in French to keep my own language skills growing. But I have found it difficult to find material. May of the great classics—Dumas, Verne and so on—I’ve already read in English, and the availability of contemporary French stuff really is anemic. My public library has a decent stock of French ebooks, but most of them are either translations of English books such as Harry Potter (which, again, I’ve read already in English) or Penguin Classics in the vein of Dumas and Verne.

We do get some Quebecois stuff from time to time, but much of it tends to be YA-oriented. A few years ago, a Quebecois author’s novel was chosen for Canada Reads, which is put on every year by the CBC. It was exactly the type of book that would have been perfect for my French reading—contemporary, non-kiddie, and not something I would have read already in English. Alas, Kobo only had the translated version. That strikes me as a missed opportunity. Why didn’t they offer it in French too?

I don’t know what the answer is here. I suspect it is a combination of things. I think it’s true that some of the genre market gets eaten up by the BDs, and some more of it gets eaten up by French translations of Harry Potter and other famous English books. But I think too that marketing failure accounts for at least some of the problem. I’d have liked to have read that Canada Reads book in its original, but the choice was not available to me. So I read it in English. And if a French version does ever come out here, that book will be, to me, in the same territory as Verne—been there, done that, oh well.

10 Comments on Why Don’t French Books Sell Abroad?

  1. Books in translation don’t usually do well in the United States. There are a few exceptions now and then like the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but most Americans like foreign books or film very much. Americans even complain about British spelling to the point were publishers have to “Americanize” the text of some books. It’s a shame, really. I think ideas and stories from the non-English speaking world can be fascinating.

    HhHH is a great novel translated from French but is subject (Reinhard Heydrich) and it’s style (experimental) isn’t fast paced action enough to be a big bestseller.

    The SFWA European Hall of Fame has 16 stories not originally published in English.

    I’m the rare reader who likes this stuff but there aren’t enough like me to really support a market of translations on a large scale.

  2. As I understand it, there’s just not any impetus to try to import most foreign books to the US, whether that’s from France or anywhere else. The thinking goes that an imported book carries with it extra translation costs, and when there are more decent native-English books submitted than publishers can ever publish as it is, why spend extra money on something from somewhere else?

  3. Hey guys, she didn’t want translations, she wants original. And there’s no translation cost for that, just let her (a customer with money) buy off the Amazon site in France.

  4. Maybe the problem are French publishers. I don’t know about Canadian French publishers, but certainly the French special way of protecting their culture would put every obstacle in the way to avoid foreign people buying their books, because its not obvious who has the digital rights to sell the books abroad, the same way two and a half years ago it became so difficult to buy American books with the Agency price catastrophe. France has a lot of good authors, here in Spain we’re used to buy translated books ( the price is the same as in books from Spanish authors, so much for the translation costs excuse) and although there aren’t as much authors as English speaker authors, there are always some in the top ten or twenty.

  5. As far as I know, she should be quite able to buy from amazon.fr, if that’s what she wants to do. I’ve ordered DVDs from amazon.de before. But she seems to be asking, in the article, why more translated and untranslated stuff isn’t available in stores here instead of having to order it from overseas. And, well, I already answered about the translated. As for the untranslated, it generally wouldn’t sell as well as stuff in English would, so the stuff in English gets the shelf space.

  6. Chris: good points.

    Joanna, Sounds like you’ve discovered a need for a specialized store… you should open one.

  7. Well, part of the problem is, I don’t want to order paper books from France :-) I like ereading all the more in French because I can tap a word and get an instant definition.

    I think there is an element of different genre intents at work (as well as publishing rights issues) which keeps the translated books out. But I am baffled by stuff like the Canada Reads selection, where a French version already existed and Kobo was bent on selling me the English. I do find it hard to find good material because it’s either current, but kiddie, or else it’s Dumas…

  8. I’m 74 and I like ebooks better than paper too. They are lighter, I can carry more of them, and they fit in the hand easier than the 500-700 page colossuses coming out now. And when these are published in paper the thickness seems to be the largest of the 3 dimensions !! No wonder why these are no longer called pocket books.

    You might want to look here: http://goo.gl/pW6hC8

  9. Steven Nordstrom // December 16, 2013 at 10:52 pm //

    Joanna,

    Have you been to French Books Online?

    http://www.frenchbooksonline.com/

    You can buy lots of French-language books there. They are pricey, but that’s because they are imported from France. Bonne lecture!

  10. As a French guy, I think that there are two issues: french authors oversized proudness, and pricing. French publishers make crazily expensive books, with few almost monopolistic authors, which sell really well (small market wise). There are also fine french authors, but they are not marleted near as much as the mainstream ones. Those mainstream authors are really market specific as they appeal to french stereotypes of people, and are like always entirely centered on Paris.
    What we lack is an efficient way of marketing our genre literature (scifi, crime, visual novels, …) which is really cool, diverse and interesting.

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