Are we publishing too many books?

Do too many books kill the book? “The publication of 500 to 600 new books in September immediately creates frustration among booksellers: we know that we will not be able to fully control the literary season”, deplores Maya Flandin, manager of the Vivement Dimanche bookstore, in the Croix-Rousse district of Lyon. Also vice-president of the Syndicate of the French bookstore, she regrets this “diktat of novelty”which transforms the work of booksellers into real handlers who must manage stocks rather than give reading advice.

While the sale of books rebounded after the pandemic with a net growth in turnover of 12.4% in 2021, 160,000 new books are thrown away every day in France. In total, one in four books is destroyed before it has even been opened. Especially since in the long term, the number of titles increases considerably while sales stagnate. Faced with this observation shared by many professionals in the sector, do we really publish too many books in France?

The book market is, above all, an economy whose functioning is specific to the sector. The book responds above all to a logic of supply where one relies on a very large number of books on sale to attract customers. “Readers wait for the proposal to come to them so that it makes them want to buy, explains Laurent Beccaria, founder and director of Les Arènes editions. For example, if we had done a market study, few people would have been interested in a book on retirement homes. Yet the success of Gravediggers by Victor Castanet was surprisingly dazzling. » The market is therefore structurally saturated to create desire among customers.

Quantity, a guarantee of diversity?

For twenty or thirty years, this overproduction has intensified, helped by the generalization of computerized word processing and by the reduction in production costs. A (very) large scale that remains difficult to regulate, as Laurent Beccaria explains again: “You don’t have to be a Malthusian! We cannot cap the number of book publications, at the risk of killing the authors’ creative freedom. » An argument to counterbalance, for Fanny Valembois, book and publishing contributor to the Shift Project (1): “I’m not sure that increasing the number of titles allows a greater diversity of works. I remember two years ago there were over forty different books on cooking à la plancha, a very fashionable subject. Is it really about odiversified or marketing offer? In my opinion, too many “lukewarm” books are published. »

Beyond questions of creativity, the ecological dimension must also be taken into account, as 50 million books are thrown away each year in France. Although the book has a limited ecological footprint, with 1.3 kg of CO2 on average for its production, it is its transport and its distribution that weigh. So yes, recycling exists, but here too the solution is not the most satisfactory. “Ideally, we would like to publish our books with recycled paper but, for the moment, the method is not yet fully developed, the rendering on paper is not yet very successful”explains Laurent Beccaria.

Second-hand, 12% of the market

So, to limit the carbon impact of this overproduction, some readers are turning to second-hand books. This approach, which makes it possible to buy a book at a bargain price without producing new units, today represents 12% of the book market. “The problem with second-hand books is that the publisher, the author and the bookseller earn nothing from resale. We have to find a solution collectively for the market to be viable.”, believes Fanny Valembois. A contribution already exists to collect the royalties of the books borrowed in library thanks to Sofia, civil society of collection of the royalties in library. “These copyrights could be extended to second-hand books”suggests the Shift Project specialist.

Today, an arbitration is still to be found between authors, publishers and booksellers in order to rethink this production and avoid the pace that has become infernal for the sector. But the system will quickly be confronted with strong economic constraints with, initially, the rise in the price of paper. Since mid-2021, the ton of paper has indeed gone from €600 to €1,100. Added to the increase in energy prices, this increase of almost 100% could accelerate the overhaul of the system and deeply question the functioning of the market.

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