Famous and unknown by Katja Petrovic 

Leïla Slimani, Nathacha Appanah, Atiq Rahimi … they have all come from the Francophone world and are leading writers in France. In their native countries, however, they are not yet as well known, since often their work has not even been published here. The difficult relationship between France and its former colonies is also reflected in the publishing sector.

It was a politically strong sign that in Frankfurt last autumn not only France, but also the Francophone context, that is, the entire French-speaking world was represented as the guest country at the Book Fair. Among 400 invited writers were also many from the former French colonies in Africa and the Maghreb. The French-Congolese writer Alain Mabanckou made sure as a literary consultant that there was a wide range of Francophone bestselling writers – and they were deservedly in the spotlight. Yet, many writers still face the challenges of finding their audience back in their homelands.

The reasons relate to the tricky and frequently contradictory French colonial history. On the one hand, France invests plenty of money and energy in promoting the book market in the former colonies. On the other hand, many French publishers don’t take their Francophone colleagues seriously. “We are second-class publishers for them,” comments Laila Chaouni, who has managed her publishing company Le Fennec in Casablanca for the past 30 years. “Without their help, I certainly wouldn’t have become a publisher, but they never trusted me whenever I suggested French-speaking writers from Morocco. They prefer to discover them independently because they believe they could do this better from Paris.”

Another factor is that, despite all the progress, the publishing world in the former colonies still cannot keep pace with things in Europe. Often, there is a lack of a consistent book marketing policy both for sales and particularly in bookstores. On the Ivory Coast, there are only about 40 bookshops serving a population of 26 million. The publishers sell their books at book fairs or simply on the street. The book editions are small, generally around 300 to 500 copies, while a book is priced at an equivalent of between three and up to a maximum of ten euros.

Many French publishers, particularly the major ones, are simply not interested in these conditions. Instead of selling licensing rights to a Francophone publishing house, they prefer to offer their books direct to the market, and of course at French prices. For instance, this was the case for the Franco-Moroccan Goncourt prize winner Leïla Slimani. Her novel Chanson Douce (“The Perfect Nanny”) about the two-tier class society in France, which tells the story of a murderous children’s nanny in Paris, became an international bestseller. However, back in Slimani’s home country Morocco hardly anyone has heard of this book. Instead of offering the novel to a Moroccan publisher, which perhaps would have marketed it as a reasonably priced paperback and sold 20,000 copies, Gallimard preferred to sell 7,000 in-house copies for 22 euros! The price was absurd for local readers. “22 euros, that amounts to 10 % of the average salary in Morocco. So, Slimani will only be read by a minority in our country,” complains Laila Chaouni. “We must explain to the Paris publishing houses that they are not losing market share, if they sell their writers to us. Instead, thanks to our knowledge of the market, they also have the opportunity to introduce them outside France and to a wide readership.”

Nevertheless, it would be too simple to speak of a colonial Franceafrique relationship. Often, the Francophone writers are the ones who prefer to be published in France because they have better publications and professional marketing there. Most writers are often unaware of the publishers in their homeland and they are dreaming – because they write in French – of having their books published by Gallimard, Le Seuil or Grasset.

Yet, one thing doesn’t rule out the other! Many writers are not aware that in their contract with a French publisher, they can secure the rights for their home country. For instance, as Leïla Slimani did for her new bestseller Sexe et mensonges: La Vie sexuelle au Maroc. This is how Laila Chaouni’s publishing company can at least circulate this important and honest book for people in her country about sexuality in Morocco. “I would never have achieved that without Slimani’s commitment; it is important for us to heighten writers’ awareness about these legal questions.”

There is still a great deal of educational work to do, so that Francophone writers not only have a voice in France and Frankfurt but also in their home countries. Education and tolerance on both sides.

By Katja Petrovic

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 19 February 2018.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory


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