Don’t shoot the indie author: an Irish take on France’s book prize row

A self-published book making the long list of a literary prize is a victory for indie authors

French Israeli writer Marco Koskas with a copy of his book in Tel Aviv. Photograph: Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images

French Israeli writer Marco Koskas with a copy of his book in Tel Aviv. Photograph: Jack Guez / AFP/Getty Images

 

Oh là là! A self-published book has found its way onto the long list of one of the most prestigious literary prizes in France, le Prix Renaudot, setting the scene for a battle royale between booksellers, the jury and Amazon.

Bande de Français, a novel by French-Israeli author Marco Koskas, was included in a long list of seven essays and 17 novels competing for the Renaudot and has caused outrage amongst the booksellers of France. Like all literary prizes, the long lists result in a huge sales boost for bookshops, but as Koskas’ book was published through CreateSpace, this would require booksellers to order them from their arch-nemesis, Amazon, and they are refusing to do so.

Yet the author at the middle of the furore is, quite rightly, delighted with the news. Having been rejected by numerous French publishers, Koskas believes the booksellers should be directing their ire at those who turned his book down and not at the one who published him. Speaking to the Guardian last week, he said, “I know that booksellers cannot turn against all the publishers who rejected me – there are too many. But they’re turning against Amazon, who published me. That makes no sense. Amazon offers authors a much more flexible contract than publishers.”

As an author who is both traditionally and self-published, I have to admit that I was quietly gleeful when I read the headlines about this story. For a self-published book to make it onto the long list of a literary prize is a victory for indie authors and vindication that self-published books can be just as good as traditionally published books. There is still a certain amount of snobbery surrounding self-publishing, so the fact that one of the jurors, Patrick Besson, quite unknowingly picked a self-published book for the long list, is a marker of how far self-publishing has come. In an interview with French weekly Le Point, Besson said: “It’s the text I’m interested in; I don’t care about the rest.”

This is the most telling aspect of this latest literary storm – while booksellers and Amazon are facing a showdown over distribution, the jurors are naturally more concerned with the content of the book and its literary merit. The author is ultimately caught in the crossfire and what should be an exciting time for Koskas and his book has become all about the booksellers and what they see as an unacceptable situation. But what of the reader? Do they care who published the book and what’s more, should they care?

It has raised all sorts of complicated questions for the entire industry who could either use this as an opportunity to respond to the ever-changing landscape of publishing, or simply throw their hands in the air and blame everything on Amazon. At the moment, it seems to be the latter, as Mélanie Le Saux, owner of the Neverland bookstore at Acheres in Yvelines, wrote a scathing open letter to the Prix Renaudot jury, in which she refers to Amazon as the beast at the door.

“If this book wins the prize, even if it does not prevail elsewhere, the booksellers will be forced to order it from their most fierce competitor, that prides itself on eradicating all the bookstores, then the publishers, to have the monopoly of the book circuit. I cannot believe for a moment that you are unaware of the scope of your act, that you do not realise that booksellers will now have to buy from, and hand money to the very one who wants their end.”

Should the jury remove Koskas’ book from the list to avoid causing upset to France’s booksellers and what would that mean for the integrity of the award?

According to French booksellers, the issue has more to do with Amazon than self-publishing, but it’s difficult to separate the two, as it is the number one platform for eBooks and paperbacks. Before the digital revolution of self-publishing, if an author couldn’t get a deal to publish their book, they simply packed away their manuscript and hid it in a drawer. Amazon offered a bright, shiny alternative to the gatekeepers who usually kept the gate locked and slept with the key under their pillows. Unfortunately, the erstwhile saviour of rejected books is now threatening the very place most authors would like to see their work (on the bookshelves) and also seems allergic to paying tax.

Yet there is an argument that the publishing industry has, in a sense, created the appetite for an alternative, as the author gets squeezed between the booksellers and the publishers. As Besson remarked: “What farmer would let others plough his field for a meagre 10% return? It’s normal for authors to be unhappy with the current business model and rebel against publishers.”

The balance of power is shifting and perhaps this is the wake-up call everybody needed. More and more authors are seeing the benefit in becoming “hybrid authors”, that is to say, publishing some books traditionally and other via self-publishing platforms. And why is this? Because, while it isn’t comparing like with like, self-publishing is easier, faster and the royalties are higher, so this isn’t something that is just going to go away. Kaskos, who has several books published with traditional publishers, chose to self-publish this book after it had been rejected outright. Amazon has provided authors with that direct route to readers, who might not be able to place their novels elsewhere.

Yet there is no doubt that booksellers see Amazon as posing a massive threat to the entire industry. According to the Syndicat de la Librairie Française, an umbrella group for French bookstores, Amazon doesn’t just want to become “a major player in the book market, it wants to become the market itself by eliminating its competitors, organising unfair competition, avoiding tax and replacing publishers, distributors and bookshops in one fell swoop”.

It remains to be seen if Koskas’ book will make it to the shortlist and whether or not the booksellers will be forced to buy it from Amazon, or face a situation where one of the most in-demand books will not be available to buy from the bookshops. They may in fact go one step further and choose to boycott the Renaudot altogether. It seems to go against the spirit of literary awards, which one assumes is to shine a light on exceptional writing. As Koskas himself pointed out, “I’m not responsible for this situation. I’m a writer, so if I don’t publish my book I die.” The plot thickens.
Evie Gaughan’s latest book is The Story Collector

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