Modernité du livre: De nouvelles maisons d’édition pour de nouveaux lectorats
S.l., Double Ponctuation, Paris, France, 2022
164 pp., illus., col. Paper, 19 €
When something vanishes – a community, a natural environment, an institution – it suddenly invades public discourse. Would this also be the fate of the book? Publications on libraries, the history of reading, the future of the book, but also typography, bibliomania, or paper, are flooding the tables of all bookshops as well as the shelves of personal and public libraries. There are certainly readers for these kinds of books, if not the hype would not last, but are there still readers of books in general in these days of digital communication and electronic reading and writing tools? The answer given by Oliver Bessard-Banquy, one of the leading scholars in the field of contemporary publishing in France, is a plain yes. However, the positive answer of this short but excellent and cleverly illustrated essay is not the one that might have been expected.
Bessard-Banquy’s work on the modernity of the book (subtitled: “new publishing houses for new types of readers”) is anything but a more or less reactionary defense of good old print against the evils of electronic publishing. There is not even a comparison of analog and digital since the author argues that this is a false discussion. Today, virtually all publications are digitally enhanced, while all authors and publishers take great care of their dynamic presence on the web, which is no longer reduced to a simple marketing or promotional tool. The exclusive focus of this study, which is not about newspapers, grey literature, academic journals, administrative forms, and such like, is the domain of general reading in France where the market share of digital books may be increasing, but it still remains very small. All the figures demonstrate the capacity of the book to stay alive and kicking in an increasingly digital world. The astonishing resilience of books in print may be difficult to explain and Bessard-Banquy’s essay is an attempt to do so.
The author’s point of departure is twofold. First of all, he takes stock of the sobering observation that in mainstream publication the material properties of French books are poor, not only in comparison with previous periods (like many other booklovers, Bessard-Banquy is nostalgic about the exceptional typographical creativity of the French book clubs in the post-World War Two years, which now seem to belong to a long forgotten past) but also in comparison with Anglo-Saxon publications (not an insignificant detail, given the rapidly increasing sales of English books on the continent). Second, and this is a less known point, probably because many publishers and policy makers do not manage – or are not willing – to acknowledge it, there is the somewhat strange but undeniable gap between publishing and reading: books in print continue to be sold, despite the fact that the number of readers and certainly that of “frequent” readers, is collapsing. Recent statistics show that only 6% of young people mention reading as their favorite pastime, whereas the number of those who claim never read a book increases year after year. It is the combination of these two features – the poor quality of mainstream publishing and the decrease of the number of readers – that is at the heart of Bessard-Banquy’s argumentation, for whom it is not possible to separate the reflection on book publishing and the reflection on readership.
Three main arguments come to the fore. First, there is the breach between mainstream publishing, which Bessard-Banquy tends to frame as more and more oriented toward the industrial publication of products of planned obsolescence (books like these are no longer meant to be kept and reread), and new, mainly post-68 small independent publishing houses that have more room for maneuver and can devote time and money to innovative and more attractive presentation and printing techniques of the works they publish. These books are items that can be bought for themselves, sometimes regardless of the content, which of course does not mean that they are eventually not read. Second, there is the fact that the innovation fostered by these new publishers, catering to new audiences that are also interested in the material presentation of the books is not based on the repurposing of the book in order to make it look like an electronic publication, but on the creative return to the basic features of a book in print. (Hence the four main chapters of Bessard-Banquy’s essay cover layout, printing, binding, and paper). This represents a strong break with the French tradition in which the focus on material presentation continues to be seen as somewhat vulgar and definitely a symptom of the insufficiencies of the text, which is supposed to be capable of defending itself without visual crutches. Third, the policy of the new publishing companies is not a new form of old-fashioned bibliophilia, but a continuation of the culturally and politically democratizing forces that underlie the history of publishing in the Western world: the books of the independent publishers are attractive and well-made, but they are also keenly priced, and in perfect sync with today’s society ( for example, sustainability is a key concern not only as a theme, but also in the way these books are printed). Contrary to 19th and early 20th Century bibliophilia, these books are meant to be read, even if the initial buying impulse may be triggered by purely visual and material considerations.
Bessard-Banquy’s study is deeply rooted in a hands-on approach of the publishing industry, more precisely on a series of interviews with the most important stakeholders of the new publishing companies like Allia, Monsieur Toussaint Louverture or Attila. This material is perfectly contextualized in the history of French publishing and clearly analyzed in relation to the general tendencies of the book market in general. In addition, Modernité du livre is also a very committed work, which does not shy away from certain problems of both the book industry in general and the new publishing companies, in particular. And finally, it is also a critical analysis that inspires hope, since the author does not only emphasize the qualities of the book in print as an “eternal” publication and communication channel, but he also demonstrates the capacity of new publishers to maintain and reinvent the book’s essential properties in difficult times. It is in this sense that one has to understand the first word of the title, “modernity”: The novelty of today’s books is not that of their remediation of repurposing - that is, the attempt to continue to make books that copy the digital newcomers in a kind of survival strategy - but that of their Modernist way of doing: “make it new”.
Although the author’s enthusiastic argumentation is generally convincing, his book has also at least one major bias and one major gap (regardless of the somewhat simplistic dichotomy between mainstream and independent publishing, which is too easily accepted). On the one hand, Bessard-Banquy almost exclusively zooms in on success stories. Even if he does not hide some errors and failures, his presentation of independent publishing is too optimistic, for this too is a battlefield with many more losers than winners – and with winners that in quite some cases cannot stay independent if they want to grow or simply survive. On the other hand, the emphasis on the material properties of the book almost completely brackets the analysis of content matter. Modernité du livre does not address questions such as: What kind of texts are being published by these independents, and how do they find them? Which genres do they publish, and do they have the possibility to publish genres other than what the “market” wants? There are also questions about the financial structures of this type of publishing? The most often quoted success story by Bessard-Banquy is Allia, and while it would be absurd to deny the quality of its catalog, a substantial number of its books are reprints of works that are already in the public domain. Bessard-Banquy has certainly a lot of fascinating things to say on all this, and readers can only hope he will do so in his next book.