The French government is leading the world in nabbing orphans. No, not parentless children, but literary works that are out of print and whose authors can’t be traced. There are between half and three quarters of a million out of print books in France. About a fifth of these are orphans. A law passed at the end of February means that the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, BnF, can now scan these and make them available for free, whereas other distributors have to charge for them. It’s a five year operation that will be funded by the State, even though times are hard.
But what has shocked people is that as well as orphans, all books that were published in France and out of print before 2001 are to be subject to the same treatment, unless the author, publisher or other rights holder opts out of having the book sucked into the BnF database. And this applies to books by foreign authors too.
This is a huge rights transfer issue. Even the pro-pirating French Pirate Party is horrified by it! And France is already working on how to persuade Europe to allow this set-up to take precedence over the forthcoming European proposal on dealing with orphan works.
It seems heavy handed in the extreme. It will be interesting to see how things work out.
This New Year saw all books being made equal in France. Previously ebooks suffered from a much higher level (19.6%) of TVA (= value added tax), whereas dead tree books were taxed at 5.5%. Now both types of book are taxed at 7%. The fall for ebooks is very welcome, although the overall rise to 7% is to be deplored, but is an unfortunate result of the austerity measures we’re currently having imposed on us.
Hopefully this will have a positive impact on ebook sales. French people still don’t really ‘get’ ebooks. They continue to be stuck on the expensive but always well produced printed versions. Ebooks account for only around 1% of all book sales in France. However, the launching of the Kindle store on Amazon.fr in September 2011 and this new VAT reduction, plus the general buzz about elivres, will work in their favour and I’m sure we’ll see the figure rise soon. People are interested in the whole idea of ereaders and ebooks but still slightly sceptical. Native French suspicion at work! That said, the Kindle was the best selling item at Amazon.fr in December, following the same pattern as elsewhere in Europe. Our Caiti’s Kindle 4 was one of them. She is delighted with her Kindle and takes it everywhere, apart from the bath, luckily! ‘Kindling’ has become a new verb in our house.
So, the only way is up for the ebook in France in 2012. It has everything going for it now. And a further temptation. Perhaps readers will be tempted by one of the 47 ebooks about Nicolas Sarkozy available at Amazon.fr or the 11 on Francois Hollande in this election year, these two individuals being the main contenders!
It looks the austerity measures announced in France yesterday may give ebooks a boost. Despite the fact that the founder of the fantastically successful Feedbooks is a Frenchman, Hadrien Gardeur, the French haven’t been very quick to take up ebooks. I have my own theory about this. Books from amazon.fr are more expensive than from amazon.com – which is unnecessary and offputting. Being a Kindle owner living in France, I was kindly invited to switch my account from .com to .fr since this would be better for me, apparently. Well, it isn’t. I now can’t get books that are offered free on amazon.com and all the other books cost more. A 99 US cent book costs 99 Euro cents (about $1.20) and others are even more expensive. I’m not impressed and I’m buying most of my books from the brilliant Smashwords.
The official reason for ebook apathy is that publishers aren’t being very enthusiastic about producing them. However, VAT on physical books will be rising from 5.5% to 7% in January, which might help to make ebooks more attractive, for producers and consumers alike.
A last quick word about Feedbooks. This company distributes 3,000,000 ebooks per month. That is mindboggling. And it also offers indie authors the chance to publish their ebooks to be offered free to clients, an offer I shall be enthusiastically embracing as soon as I can.
Back in March several French publishers were raided, including Hachette Livre, Gallimard, Flammarion and La Martinière. It was all to do with ebook pricing. Many of the publishing companies under scrutiny have only recently got into ebooks and haven’t setup a proper pricing policy yet. For now, they are going along with a temporary agency model for pricing, and this is what is causing the problem. Agency pricing is very like the net book agreement that used to hold sway in the UK and Ireland. Under this, publishers set the price at which a book was to be sold, and that was that. Booksellers couldn’t sell it for less. The net book agreement was brought down when supermarkets and the big chains of bookshops challenged it.
A statement from the Directorate General for Competition read: “The European Commission can confirm that on 1 March 2011 Commission officials initiated unannounced inspections at the premises of companies that are active in the e-book (electronic or digital books) publishing sector in several Member States. The Commission has reason to believe that the companies concerned may have violated EU antitrust rules that prohibit cartels and other restrictive business practices (Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union).”
At the moment France adheres to the Lang Law for physical, i.e. paper, books. It establishes a fixed price for books sold in France and limits the discounts that can be offered on them by booksellers. But it doesn’t apply to ebooks. So publishers are fixing the price in stone and EU officials don’t like it, even though the French Competition Authority said in 2009 that the agency model was “a possible solution” for pricing ebooks. However, by restricting booksellers from offering discounts to promote some of the titles they stock, this goes against some of the objectives of the culture ministry in France.
Recently both houses of the French parliament gave their approval to a law that replaces the Lang Law, and goes further to now encompass ebooks. Under the proposed scheme, French publishers will set a single price for their e-books, and distributors must follow it, no matter where they are based. The EU won’t like it, that’s for sure.
It seems odd that publishers are reverting to this old practice of price fixing and making books more expensive than they need to be. Some pro-electronic publishing forums have suggested that, like cigarettes, ebooks produced by the publishers adopting the agency model should come with a warning along the lines of: Warning: buying this book will support a publisher who wants to increase book prices for all.
One night on the ferry and one night in a hotel watching France play Spain in the World Cup later, we pulled into Les Fragnes about midday on the 28th June. Nigel and Philippe, the estate agents, were there to meet us as we rumbled down the drive with our trailer of essential belongings. They were delighted to see us and had laid out a picnic with lashings of wine for the adults and a mountain of crisps for the children. (They’d phoned us a few times during the course of the morning to make sure we were still coming and hadn’t turned and fled en route.) They didn’t have the keys to the houses, though, so we could only peer covetously through the filthy windows. But the buildings were undeniably still there so all seemed well. They discouraged us from walking around too much, saying we needed to get into Boussac in good time. So we took their advice, unhitched the trailer, overindulged and followed them to the town.
Our first stop was at the insurance office. Before we could buy Les Fragnes, we had to have proof for the Notaire that we’d insured it, even though it wasn’t ours yet – one of those chicken and egg peculiarities you learn to live with in France. So Nigel came with me to the GAN office to see M Orsal, the best dressed insurance agent around with a penchant for pointy-toe shoes, and we sorted this out. And on to the serious stuff chez Maître Bouret, le Notaire.
The first thing Chris and I did was remarry. Well, sort of. We changed our marital regime. The French see English marriages as being en indivision in nature. This means that if one of you dies, your spouse gets half of what’s left and the kids (or other relatives if there aren’t children) share the other half between them. Not really the best idea. So we took on the communauté universelle regime. Now whichever of us lasted longer got the lot, ideally to fritter away merrily before the kids could get their hands on it. Perfect. That process took half an hour or so and cost about four hundred euro. That’s probably more than we spent in total at our original modest little wedding back at Westerfield in 1986. We went out to check on the kids who were reading happily in the waiting room, and the rest of the cast arrived. First came M and Mme Paray, the vendors. They ran a builders’ merchant’s in Boussac. They had inherited Les Fragnes from some relative or other and had been letting it out for the last forty years. To M and Mme Leblanc, who were the next to arrive. They were giving up their right to be tenants so the Pasquets could sell to us. They therefore had to be there to sign all the documents too. Nic Orlande rolled up next, our translator. He was a beanpole of a man, with short grey hair and a friendly face. So with us, Philippe and Nigel and the Notaire, we were all assembled. There were slightly suspicious handshakings and cheek kisses, a lot of nervousness, and then proceedings got underway.
The sale took ages. The Notaire read out every page of the long, long Acte de Vente document, which Nic, sitting behind us, concurrently translated and quietly whispered into our ears. Then I got up and initialled every page and finally signed the last one, the first to commit to this crazy enterprise. Then Chris, then the Leblancs then the Parays, and then the Notaire. Phew. By now we’d sent the two eldest kids off with money to buy magazines and ice-creams in the town, and brought Ruadhri in to fidget and snooze on my lap.
And then, momentously, Les Fragnes was ours. The huge keys were given to us. Happy handshakings and cheek kisses all round, no nervousness anymore on the French side but a hell of a lot more on the English. We staggered to the nearest café for a stiff drink before packing up the family and driving back to our farm. The first thing we found when walking round the buildings was that about a square metre of wall was peeling away, just under the roof of the tallest house. That hadn’t been like that back in December. No wonder Nigel and Philippe had kept us well away before the signing ceremony! And going into the houses, we discovered that the hunting club had ripped out the heating range, the lighting and the ceiling i.e. their few redeeming features. To Benjamin’s disappointment, the girlie calendars had gone too. We later found most of the hardware dumped either in the green lane alongside our property, or in the woodland beyond the dam wall of the big lake. Quite why they’d gone all the effort to perform this piece of mindless vandalism is a puzzle. We hope it wasn’t aimed at us. I think it was more a protest against the vendor for vending. But we were the ones who lost out. And talking of the big lake, it wasn’t many days before we realised it was fishless. Despite our agreement to the contrary, the fish had been removed and flogged. That felt extremely personal and was a massive blow.
That evening we were tired and despondent and now terrified by what we’d done. Chris inspected the dodgy wall and realised fully for the first time that the houses were built of mud and stones. And that was it. Just one step up from a mud hut basically. Now, we’d had a sort of survey done. They don’t really have them in France, but you can get a builder or architect to take a look at a property for you and give his or her professional opinion on the state of the place. We’d used a builder recommended by Frédéric, Philippe’s son. He typed up a little report which stated firmly that the buildings were ‘sain et sauf’ i.e. safe and sound. Yeah right, we thought now. But tough. Under French law, there’s no comeback. If you buy a house and it falls to the ground next day, tant pis.
Books Are Cool, my books and writing website – me being Stephanie Dagg – is back. It started out back in 1996 when I began my authoring career as a children’s writer in Ireland. The site was aimed at kids with online stories they could contribute to, games, colouring pages, and poems and competitions. A lot of people had a lot of fun.
And I certainly had fun as an author in Ireland. I visited schools and libraries, handed out awards, toured round Irish bookshops with Don Conroy and enjoyed my writing.
Then the life of Dagg family changed dramatically in 2006 when we moved to France. As well as leaving Ireland behind, I left my children’s authoring behind. Building our new lives and business here took a lot of energy, on top of looking after our 75 acre farm, taking care of our herd of llamas and alpacas and our three lakes of carp, renovating two very old houses. We run a gite and carp fishery and offer llama and alpaca treks. Books Are Cool, like my writing, took a back seat.
But we’re back! I’m writing for adults now. Children’s writing was fun, and I have a couple of Young Adult ideas swilling around in my head at the moment, but my main focus will be grown up books. Which I am intending to self-publish on Kindle. I bought a Kindle in January and have become hooked. Take a look at these blog entries about it from my living in France blog, Blog in France. (Kindle Thoughts, Curling up with a Good Kindle)
In my post Write Back Where I Belong I talked about getting more books with my name on the spine onto the shelves. That was pre-Kindle. I will definitely be going the electronic route, so I’ll be doing a lot of research on that and sharing my findings with you.
I’m mainly working on three books – Something Fishy, my fishing mystery, a vaguely-knitting-based mystery and my moving to France book. All are coming along well and I’ll be posting up snippets in the very near future.
As part of my preparation for my France book, working title Heads Above the Water, I’ve read a lot of books written by other ex-pats. Some have been brilliant, some have been dull, some have been downright dreadful! Anyway, I shall be including reviews of the good ones. I don’t like doing bad reviews, there doesn’t seem much point.