Stop sending us your manuscripts! That’s the message that French publishing house Gallimard sent out to would-be authors in April, after receiving a deluge of submissions.
Gallimard, known for publishing Marcel Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus, wrote politely on its website and on Twitter: “Given the exceptional circumstances, we ask you to defer sending your manuscripts. Take care of yourselves and happy reading.”
Successive Covid-19 lockdowns in France have given budding writers the time to finally work on that idea for a novel or to polish up an old manuscript languishing in a drawer. As a result, publishers are overwhelmed. Before the pandemic, Gallimard received around 30 manuscripts a day; now they receive around 50.
Gallimard isn’t the only French publisher facing an uptick in submissions. Publisher Seuil normally receives around 3,500 manuscripts a year. In the first three months of 2021, it had already received 1,200.
Reading an essential business
In addition to the mountain of submissions to wade through, the publishing industry is already facing a backlog. Bookshops in France were ordered to close during the country’s first March-May lockdown, and were only open for click-and-collect in the second October-December lockdown.
In February 2021 the government decided to class bookshops as "essential" services, authorising them to open amidst regional restrictions and during this month's third nationwide lockdown. But those breaks in the industry’s normal publishing schedule mean that many editors postponed some books’ publications, leaving the 2021 publishing calendar already full.
Véronique Cardi, director of publishing house JC Lattès, told France Culture that they’ve never been so prepared for France’s rentrée littéraire – the autumn period when publishing houses traditionally publish a wave of new releases. “Our authors have had the time to finish their manuscripts,” she explained. “And we’ve acquired a lot of new authors, people who took advantage of being in lockdown or under curfew to write."
Going the self-publishing route
If getting published has always been tricky, increased competition has made it even harder. Many writers are turning to self-publishing, bypassing the need for a publishing house.
Librinova, an agency that helps authors self-publish their books, published 40% more books in 2020 compared to the year before – and 90% more in April 2020 alone. The self-publishing platform Books on Demand also saw similar growth in France.
More than 5 million French people began a writing project during the first lockdown, according to a poll by Harris Interactive.
But while the French may be writing more, they’re also reading less.
While the French remain avid readers (more than 80% of French people read at least one book in 2020), there was an overall drop in reading last year, according to a report released in March by the Centre national du livre (National Centre for Publishing).
The study’s authors attributed the decline to the closure of reading spaces such as libraries, the loss of the valuable reading time that a commute affords many French workers, and the difficulty of separating work from leisure time when working from home.
French people’s reading habits also changed with readers favouring non-fiction and journalism over novels.
So if budding French novelists want to get published, they’ll have to get reading again.