August 29th. French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles is throwing its traditional end of summer party, also known as “le cocktail de rentrée littéraire.” On the intimate patio of the Musée Bourdelle, on the Left Bank, the big shots of France’s literary world exchange anecdotes about their summer holidays, congratulate each other on their tans, and discuss the incoming sensations of this year’s Rentrée. On this warm Parisian summer evening, CEOs and publishers whisper about big mergers while smiling PR people do their best to get the attention of influential book critics. A few actual authors are scattered among the crowd: some appear cool, even confident, while others grip their glasses of lukewarm white wine as if facing a firing squad.
I don’t blame the latter for their anxiety. For all the finger food that will be gobbled up and all the champagne flutes that will be downed in this chaotic two-month period—from mid-August to the end of October—that runs from the release of 524 books to the crowning of a happy few by a dozen major literary prizes mid-November, La Rentrée Littéraire is an exciting and brutal tradition that engages the whole country, and takes both a mental and physical toll on an increasingly anxious book industry.
“La Rentrée is a unique phenomenon,” says Francis Geffard, a renowned publisher who specializes in North-American literature through his imprint, Terres d’Amérique, part of Albin Michel, one of the country’s biggest publishing houses. “Nowhere else in the world are so many literary prizes given out in such a short period of time. The release of hundreds of books within a few weeks is in direct connection with the awards season, in November. It also has to do with the holiday season, and the fact that books are still a go-to Christmas present in France. In the course of four months, the book industry makes more than a half of its overall yearly sales.”
Of course, stakes that high call for careful preparation. It usually starts as early as January, when publishers finalize their August and September line-ups. Manuel Carcassonne, CEO of Les Éditions Stock, is one of Paris’ most strategy-savvy publishers. “La Rentrée is the most important time of year for a literary publisher,” he told me over the phone, in a typically rushed and weary tone. “I usually establish the line-up myself, with the awards in mind. My choices are partly informed by one goal: having as many books as possible on the most important prizes’ lists. That’s why the balance between unknown and already famous writers has to be just right.” While renowned for introducing new voices to a wide audience, and for boosting sales potential for well-known writers, La Rentrée is not a place for authors who’ve already collected the top prizes: Patrick Modiano’s latest novel, Encre Sympathique, was part of fall’s second wave, and came out on October 3rd, after the first round of awards announcements. When you have already won the Prix Goncourt (1978) and the Nobel Prize in Literature (2014), there is really no need to waste your time and energy on the frenzy of La Rentrée.Think of Oscar Season, with its variety of juries, awards, rumors and agita, minus the red carpets or the Hollywood gowns and glamour.
Of the 524 books that came out this year around the end of the summer, 82 were debut novels, 188 were in translation, and a few belonged to a small club of literary stars yet to be blessed with the most-desired Prix Goncourt. For those who didn’t make it onto the Goncourt’s longlist (announced September 3rd), several other awards are available to keep the dream alive: with its pledge to reward overlooked writers, Le Prix Médicis is coveted. So is Le Prix Femina. Created in 1904 in response the Goncourt Academy’s alleged misogyny, the prize is granted by an all-women jury. In 1914, L’Académie Française created its own literary award: le Grand Prix du roman. In 1926, ten journalists and literary critics, frustrated with the Goncourt’s hegemony, came up with le Prix Renaudot. And since 1994, the Prix de Flore—conferred at the famous Saint-Germain-des-Prés café of the same name—has prided itself for being the best indicator of literary cool. Within the first two weeks of November, no fewer than a dozen literary awards will be awarded, generating tremendous media attention, and hopefully big sales for the winners.
Over the years, more and more specialized awards have been added to this line-up, each of them shedding light on a specific literary niche. Le Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, an increasingly visible offspring of the Goncourt, is awarded by high school students; the Prix Trente Million d’Amis highlights a book with a strong animal character (and counts Michel Houellebecq as a permanent jury member); the Prix Gulli du Roman was created eight years ago to honor the best children’s book; the Grand Prix Littéraire Château La Tour Carnet awards its winner a 20,000 euro check and a jeroboam of red wine (the prize was created in 2017 by one of the Bordeaux region’s biggest winegrowers)… Think of Oscars Season, with its variety of juries, awards, rumors and agita, minus the red carpets or the Hollywood gowns and glamour.
Raphaëlle Leyris is deputy editor of newspaper Le Monde’s book review section. When I spoke to her over the phone, in mid-September, she was in the midst of her 15th Rentrée Littéraire. But as is the case with every book critic in the country, her work on this yearly marathon started at the end of May.
“In May, we still review summer books and spring’s latest releases, but everyone is already focused on La Rentrée, she said. I meet with publicists and publishers, review the publisher’s line-ups, and begin to get a feel of the field.” Every year, Leyris takes the first week of June off and retreats to her home with fifty or so advanced copies. “I take a look at the most-anticipated novels, the ones by writers I like and whose work I’ve been following, the ones that word-of-mouth seems to point out as sensations… And of course, a dozen debut novels, in the hope of finding an arresting new voice.” Seven years ago, Le Monde’s Book Review created a literary prize of its own. Announced early September, it contributes to the tone of the moment. “The winner was announced September 5th, our longlist of ten novels came out mid-July, Leyris adds. This means that I have to have gone through enough novels to pick my ten favorites by the very beginning of the summer.”
It is France, after all, and starting mid-July, everyone, readers and book critics alike, depart for their summer holidays. Most of them don’t return until mid-August, right on time for La Rentrée’s first wave of releases. “Like every tradition, the whole moment is staged,” says Francis Geffard. “And just like a stage play, it requires a lot of preparation. Spring is our launch pad.” This year, Geffard decided to put out two debut novels that had gathered wide recognition in the wake of their US release: Tommy Orange’s There There, and Sarah Krasikov’s The Patriots. Last year, he made a big impression with Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. Next August, he will publish Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God. In order to carve out a desirable spot for his authors in the midst of close to 200 other translated books, Geffard sometimes relies on his writers’ personalities to win over hearts early on. “Tommy came to France in June, he says, and his talent and likability made a big impression on both booksellers and journalists. The same thing happened last year with Colson Whitehead.”
To make sure you find your space in the Rentrée, charisma—in addition to literary talent—is key. Remember, as serious as this all is, writers are like characters in a play. Every year, in June, Albin Michel holds a conference for over 200 of the country’s most prominent booksellers. For a few years now, the respectable publishing house has also become more at ease with the idea of online marketing. As a result, around a hundred bloggers and influencers are now invited to attend the conference alongside traditional industry veterans and foreign scouts looking for hidden gems. The whole thing is streamed on Facebook Live.
The conference consists of a presentation of the year’s line-up, most of the time by the authors themselves. To prepare for the event, around 7,000 galleys are sent out in April and May, to hundreds of critics, bookstore buyers and independent booksellers across the country. The goal is simple: get the attention of professionals and convince them to at least read the books, and at best give them a good place in their Rentrée articles, prize predictions, and on their bookstore shelves.
Of course, every publishing house has its own strategy. Mannuel Carcassonne, of Stock, bets on one-on-one meetings and lavish luncheons all over France, in addition to his one main event that gathers 500 to 600 booksellers in June. “This year, he says, we rented a beautiful 1970s villa in Provence, in the medieval city of Arles. I brought four authors along with me, all of the house’s publishers and commercial department… We took everyone to an exhibition, had a wonderful lunch party. Last year, we held our meeting in Annecy, because I like the lake and water-skiing.” It may sound shallow, but these gatherings can make or break the destiny of a book. Jean-Marc Levent has been sales manager at Grasset for seven years. Every year, he orchestrates around seven trips in France, Belgium and Switzerland, to present the house’s line-up to booksellers.
While marketing and commercial departments are busy presenting their yearly crop in June, publicists do the same with journalists. From major publications like Le Monde, ELLE or Le Point, to local newspapers, trade magazines and online publications, they meet, talk, and try to convince as many critics as possible to consider their protégés. Isabelle Saugier was in the midst of her 27th Rentrée Littéraire as a publicist (her 15th at Gallimard) when I popped into her office on a warm September day in Gallimard’s headquarters, in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.“La Rentrée requires a lot of energy and focus. Some writers are naturals but for others, it can be complicated.”
The small room’s tall window opens on the famous house’s legendary jardins. Her desk was colonized by galleys, books, handwritten notes and the press of the day. Three years ago, Saugier was in charge of PR for Leïla Slimani’s second novel, The Perfect Nanny, that came out in August 2016. “Leïla’s trajectory is a good example of a perfect Rentrée scenario,” she said. “From early feedback from influential critics, to the media’s wide enthusiasm in August, September and October, everything just went perfectly—all the way up to the Prix Goncourt, in November. Of course, failure is hard to take for a writer, but success is also very demanding. La Rentrée requires a lot of energy and focus. Some writers are naturals but for others, it can be complicated.”
The nightmare that no one wants to think about, or even hint at in fear of having it come true, is indifference. This is the Hunger Games side of the Rentrée: a few will come out of it as winners, but the fear of defeat (aka oblivion) looms over publishers and publicists long before the books come out in August.
“Journalists talk to each other, Saugier continues. They read early reviews, they have their eye on early prizes’ longlists… Then, from the moment the books are out, in mid-August, the pace accelerates. Best-case scenario is when a movement is set into motion that carries the book all the way through a major award and big end-of-the-year sales.”
When he has to explain the ropes to an author experiencing her first Rentrée, Jean-Marc Levent always stresses that having a book published is nothing like, say, releasing a movie: no one will be able to tell if your novel is a success or a flop on the first weekend. “It is a weird mix of various elements,” he says, “and as much as we try to equally push all of our authors, we can’t predict which book will reach the most readers.”
In these times of uncertainty, some publishers bet on good old shock effect. It’s an accepted tradition over here: every Rentrée Littéraire has its own debut sensation, tell-all auto-fiction, roman à clef (usually involving famous ex-lovers or family members), or shocking revelation. This year, the outrage came from renowned writer and TV agitator Yann Moix, whose seventeenth novel, Orléans, came out on August 21st. In this auto-fictional novel, Moix tells the story of his nightmarish childhood at the mercy of an abusive and violent father.
Early praise from a few mainstream literary critics was quickly tainted by an open letter from the father himself, denying all the accusations made against him by his infamous son. A similar op-ed followed, this time by the writer’s brother, accusing him of the very abuse he was claiming to have been the victim of. This uber-French public family drama came to a head when weekly news magazine L’Express published a long article revealing Moix’s ties to a few notorious anti-Semitic ideologues, along with racist and holocaust-denying drawings and writings. The book very quickly stopped being discussed in book sections and literary radio shows, and crossed over to news. Is nation-wide controversy the ultimate recipe for a best-seller? Not so much apparently: as he became more and more noxious, Moix was snubbed by the Goncourt’s jury and the turmoil, I’ve been told, exceeds the sales.
La Rentrée Littéraire is the only moment in French cultural life when books and writers are this wildly discussed, well outside of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. But the memories are short: by the time Christmas is over, most of the books will have become history, as we start looking forward to the book world’s second biggest moment of the year: “La Rentrée de Janvier,” or winter book season. Less stressful and some years just as good, January keeps gaining leverage as “the new Rentrée.” This saga is to be continued.