If you come from an English-speaking country you might notice something when you walk into a French bookshop, or rather a lack of something… Where are the hardback novels? At home, they are usually prominently displayed in bookshop windows and on front-of-store tables; where are they in their French counterparts?
Hardback vs. Paperback
For those unsure about the difference, hardback, case-bound or hardcover books have a rigid and protective cover. The pages of a paperback or softcover book however are glued with a wrap-around flexible paper cover. Both binding options have their pros and cons: hardbacks are more expensive but are also more durable and have better print quality than paperbacks, which are lighter, cheaper, but can easily get damaged.1
According to Philip Jones, editor of The Bookseller, ‘the hardback is a mark of quality and a demonstration of intent on behalf of the publisher,’ who will usually release the paperback version a few months after the first publication, once hardback sales have subsided.2
However, such a general statement hides disparities. Not all books will first come out as hardbacks and this will depend on a number of factors, including the target audience, the content, the readers’ (and the publishers’) budget. Not all hardbacks or paperbacks are the same, as design possibilities are endless: printed cover or dust jacket, glued or sewn binding, decorated or plain endpapers, deckled or sprayed edges, etc.
To add even more confusion, there are differences between the British and the American terminology! For example, the American term ‘mass market paperback’ is increasingly used to refer to British A-formats (small-format paperbacks) although they are slightly smaller, while the American equivalents of British A-formats are called ‘rack size’ although they are a little bit taller and narrower!3
Regardless of the hardback’s final design, Jones’s arguments in favour of hardcovers are convincing: they give books more visibility, are not as expensive to produce as one might think and make beautiful gifts – for others or for oneself. And yet, except for a few special editions, you will probably struggle to find hardback novels on French bookshelves.
French grands formats and livres de poche
However, two formats are clearly distinguishable in French bookshops: the grand format (literally ‘large format,’ also called broché with reference to the binding technique4), and the livre de poche (‘pocket book’).
The latter is traditionally released several months after the bigger format’s publication if its sales are judged satisfactory – usually six to twenty-four months, a time span that publishers tend to reduce as years go by.5
Just like British and Irish publishers may take liberties with traditional B-formats and their standard 129 x 198 mm dimensions, livres de poche and grands formats can vary in size depending on each publishing house.
In France, large-format novels, close to their British equivalents, are usually around 148 x 210 mm, while poches measure about 120 x 180 mm (slightly smaller than B-formats) …6 but they can be even smaller, especially novels for children.7 A French publisher specialised in livres de poche has even taken its name from its dimensions, 10/18!8
What really matters is not the format in itself, rather the difference in size between the first release and its subsequent republications.
Livres de poche: between lower quality and second chances
Although livres de poche are often considered less prestigious than their larger counterparts, the French novelist Jean-Christophe Rufin believes that smaller formats give books ‘a second chance’ (because booksellers can afford to keep them on their shelves for longer) as well as ‘a second readership.’9
Indeed, just like hardcovers might be too expensive for some readers, grands formats are not affordable for all. For example, Silène Edgar’s novel Adèle et les noces de la reine Margot, first published by Castelmore in 2015, costs €10.90 in grand format and €5.90 in poche.10 The difference can be even greater: La Passe-miroir : Les Fiancés de l’hiver, first released by Gallimard in 2013, costs €19.00 in grand format and €8.65 in poche!11
Given the success of livres de poche, most of the leading French publishers have their own collection of smaller formats, just like English-speaking publishers also own paperback and hardback imprints.12 For example, Hachette and Albin Michel own Le Livre de Poche, Folio is one of Gallimard’s collections, while Pocket and 10/18 belong to the major publishing group Editis. Having the opportunity to see their books released in poche can even be an incentive for authors to choose a publisher rather than another!9
Hardbacks, paperbacks, grands formats, poche … An ode to diversity
As you can tell, there are many similarities between the duos hardback/paperback and grand format/poche in terms of publishing strategies, formats and affordability. Of course, there are many formats in between, from trade to mass-market paperbacks by way of semi-poches. Nowadays, just like some books will only be available as paperbacks, some novels are released in poche only – this is more common for youth than adult literature.13
Despite this variety of formats and practices, the lack of hardback novels on French bookshelves is another cultural difference that remains in the industry and reading habits in France.
Careful, though: while French novels are rarely released in hardback, many picturebooks, comics, cookbooks or coffee-table books have hardcovers, as you can see on the opposite picture! Once again, it is up to every publisher to decide on the most appropriate format and cover for its readership.
And you, what are your favourite books? Hardbacks, paperbacks, grands formats or poches? Tell us why!
The books featured on the pictures are:
- La Valse des arbres et du ciel by Jean-Michel Guenassia (Albin Michel, 2016, 140 x 205 mm)
- La Vie rêvée d’Ernesto G. by Jean-Michel Guenassia (Le Livre de Poche, 2014, 110 x 170 mm)
- La Passe-miroir : Les Fiancés de l’hiver by Christelle Dabos (Gallimard, 2013, 155 x 255 mm)
- Adèle et les noces de la reine Margot by Silène Edgar (Castelmore, 2018, 110 x 170 mm)
- Les Colonies de vacances by Daniel Picouly (Michel Lafon, 2006, 255 x 370 mm)
- Les Hauts de Hurlevent by Yann and Edith (from Emily Brontë’s novel) (Delcourt, 2012, 226 x 298 mm)
- Nouchka, l’ours de la nuit by Dugald Steer and Nicki Palin (Gautier-Languereau, 2002, 260 x 260 mm)
- Entrez dans… Le Moyen-âge by Sarah Howarth (Gründ, 1993, 250 x 290 mm)
- La Terre by Keith Lye (Larousse, 1992, 130 x 180 mm)
1 Erik (ca. 2019) Hardcover vs. Paperback – Which is the best? BookSummaryClub. Available from: https://booksummaryclub.com/hardcover-vs-paperback/ [Accessed 31 March 2020].
2 Jones, P. (2018) Book clinic: why do publishers still issue hardbacks? The Guardian [online], 25 February. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/feb/25/book-clinic-why-do-publishers-still-issue-hardbacks [Accessed 23 February 2020].
3 The Really Good Bookshop (2020) Book Terminology. Hillcrest Logan City: The Really Good Bookshop. Available from: https://www.thereallygoodbookshop.com.au/page/Book-Sizes-Terms [Accessed 3 arch 2020].
4 Besse, E. (2015) Qu’est-ce qu’un broché ? À livre ouvert. 15 March. Available from: https://alivreouvert.net/2015/03/16/quest-ce-quun-broche/ [Accessed 30 March 2020].
5 Marti, É. (2008) Les enjeux du livre au format poche. Culture études, 4 (4), p. 1-8, p. 4. Available from: https://www.cairn.info/revue-culture-etudes-2008-4-page-1.htm [Accessed 30 March 2020].
6 Bookelis (2020) Comment réussir la mise en page de son livre. Sainte-Luce-sur-Loire: Bookelis. Available from: https://www.bookelis.com/content/10-faire-mise-en-page-livre-avant-de-le-publier [Accessed 30 March 2020].
7 Justine (2017) Le livre : Différences entre brochés & reliés / hardcovers & paperbacks | Fairy Neverland. Justine. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kKrPPOs3GLk [Accessed 30 March 2020].
8 YouScribe (2020) 10/18 éditions. Paris: YouScribe. Available from: https://www.youscribe.com/page/ebook/10-18 [Accessed 23 February 2020].
9 Gary, N. (2019) Jean-Christophe Rufin : “Le livre de poche, c’est une seconde vie offerte”. ActuaLitté. 12 October. Available from: https://www.actualitte.com/article/monde-edition/jean-christophe-rufin-le-livre-de-poche-c-est-une-seconde-vie-offerte/97293 [Accessed 28 February 2020].
10 Castelmore (2020) Adèle et les noces de la reine Margot. Paris: Castelmore. Available from: http://www.castelmore.fr/livre/view/adele-et-les-noces-de-la-reine-margot [Accessed 30 March 2020].
Castelmore (2020) Adèle et les noces de la reine Margot. Paris: Castelmore. Available from: http://www.castelmore.fr/livre/view/adele-et-les-noces-de-la-reine-margot-1 [Accessed 30 March 2020].
11 Folio (2020) La Passe-miroir : Les Fiancés de l’hiver. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. Available from: http://www.folio-lesite.fr/Catalogue/Folio/Folio/Les-fiances-de-l-hiver [Accessed 30 March 2020].
Gallimard Jeunesse (2020) La Passe-miroir : Les Fiancés de l’hiver. Paris: Éditions Gallimard-NRF. Available from: http://www.gallimard.fr/Catalogue/GALLIMARD-JEUNESSE/Grand-format-litterature/Romans-Ado/La-Passe-miroir [Accessed 30 March 2020].
This book has been translated into English by Hildegarde Serle and published by Europa Editions in the UK under the title The Mirror Visitor: A Winter’s Promise in 2018 … and is available in hardcover!
12 Thompson, J. B. (2012) Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. New York: Plume, p. 110.
13 Marti, É., op. cit., p. 5.