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Francophone book fair at the multi-level city. Olivier Gougeon about Salon du Livre30.01.2023
Salon du livre is Canada’s largest and most visible francophone book fair. For almost half a century, the event has been Quebec’s premier book event, and in recent years, the Salon has been gaining popularity among an international audience. The event has changed significantly – but after severe lockdowns, it has returned in an even more open, inclusive and diverse format.
We met with Olivier Gougeon, the director of the fair, whose tenure was marked by the most difficult years of lockdowns and restrictions, and who managed to expand the Salon into a literary festival, an online event, and keep the traditional book fair format of the most anticipated event in Montreal.
— The last years in Canada were not easy, lockdowns killed many businesses, and safety measures were among the most strict. I’m happy to see the Salon is back — how did you and the industry overcome this crisis?
— Many things have changed in the past two years and we will see in the years to come how the event, how the publishing industry will evolve. But this year was a big success because people were so happy to meet together again. Last year we managed to find a way between two waves of pandemic. We did a four day event, which was smaller and everybody was wearing a mask. With these circumstances it was a big success too.
This year was just more of what we did last year. More writers, more publishers, more visitors, more books, more smiles — only eyes were smiling because everybody had a mask. And more diversity, because we had international guests. Writers, publishers, visitors. Giuliano da Empoli, Makenzy Orcel, — both of them were on the list of the Goncourt, we had Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt. We also had a Ukrainian Stand, Bologna Book Fair. And many, many others.
We were finally able to celebrate our mission, which is to promote books and reading.
— Has the format of the event changed?
— We kept on doing some things that we’ve started because of the pandemic. For example, a new aspect of the book fair takes place in the city before the actual fair on 23rd of November. Starting on November 11th, we had 70 activities in the city. I want people to take the opportunity of Salon du livre and embark on a journey of promoting books and reading. My goal is that one day, the two weeks that proceed, there will be a real party for books everywhere in the city. Because there are not enough moments where we talk about books.
“This is a book that I really love”. “This is a book that made me feel better”. “This is a book that carried me away”. “This is a book that changed my perspective on something”. “This is a book that helped me to grow” – these are the ways of book promotion. We should talk about books more often, and I think the Salon du livre is a great moment to do that.
— What the place Salon is taking for the industry. And what is its role for the public?
— It’s a public fair, it is made for readers. It is made for visitors to come and discover the book industry, what publishers are putting forward, what local writers and international francophone writers are putting forward as well. The first goal of the fair is to allow people to discover the books of Quebec. The fair is an opportunity to talk about what you worked on during the year, to meet your readers, and only after – to sell books.
You don’t have a chance to be in contact with your readers often when you work in the office especially during the pandemic. But the pandemic had some positive effect too – because many people came back to books. I think it helped to slow down and people rediscovered the pleasure of holding the book. Going into a story where your mind works differently than while watching a movie.
— But the research shows that people are losing this ability all over the world.
— This is a big issue right now. People don’t have an attention span long enough to read complicated books anymore. However, the thing is people love books. The resilience of books is amazing through the time. Books always maintain a stability that you don’t see with other media. It doesn’t change that much, it’s like radio. A book is words on paper and you read it from left to right, if you’re from the western world or from right to left if you are from the East.
— At the same time books expand the formats — like audiobooks, e-books. But they were not presented widely during the Salon.
— I think the Salon du livre should be a place where we showcase the new formats and show innovation in the book industry. Audiobooks are gaining in popularity, but publishers still don’t make money with that. The production is expensive. So there were audio books, but do you buy an audiobook when you’re going to the bookfair?
At the same time, this is another way of getting access to books and stories. So I’m very open to it. We need to work to involve more readers and to keep a young audience reading.
— It seems Salon is putting lots of effort into children’s and YA engagement, that’s why you invite so many schools to participate in the event, I suppose?
— Exactly. So the role of the Salon is to reflect the industry and to engage with the public. And to engage with the public we need to find many different ways for different audiences.
And they are as diverse as the types of books. I always say that everything starts and finishes with the book. It’s either a beginning or the end. But the book industry is very closed on itself, sometimes looking only inside. So we need to be like a 360° window on books. I wanted to be really open and so everybody finds a way to get in. And of course, we invite children – they’re the readers of tomorrow and they’re so happy to come.
— But do they buy books? It’s hard to become a reader without having a book.
— Sure! The parents know that their children are going to visit Salon du livre and they allow pupils to buy books. Sometimes it’s one of the first buyings they do by themselves without their parents. It’s like a treasure.
When you talk to Montrealers that were raised here, if they’ve ever been to Salon du livre many of them will tell you they firstly came there with a school. They have amazing memories — and this is one of the biggest reasons why this event is so popular.
— I know it is the most popular publishing event in Quebec, but how big is it? How many visitors attend the Salon each year?
— I hate that question. You know why? Because for years people have been boosting the numbers everywhere. I think that’s so ridiculous.
— But the numbers can give the understanding of what the fair is if you’ve never been there.
— Exactly. So we have to put things in perspective. Historically it was always said that during six days 100,000 people visited the fair. In 2019, there was an 8% raise in the sales of tickets. But I could not apply that rate to the number of people that came, I wouldn’t say there were 140,000 people. That’s not true. The reality is in 2021 the number of visitors reached 50,000 in four days. This year we had five days and 75,000 visitors. That’s a great success. And it’s not 120 — let’s pop the balloon.
— But how about the sales?
— Some publishers said that it was “the second best fair” they had ever visited.
— What is the role of Radio Canada and other media? I can see Radio Canada is presented here in a full-scale format.
— They are the main media partner — they are presenting the Salon. Media impact is huge because every year when the event happens, all the media talks about it, and it helps the whole industry.
That association is very natural because radio and book, they mingle very well together. For the media meeting writers seems to be a great opportunity. But it’s also a great opportunity to show their work for the creators. The best thing about this at all, is that together we allow people to meet their writers, publishers, and other readers. We create the moment for this. And for sure we create the environment for them to grow.
— Speaking about growing. Do you feel a necessity to expand your professional and international program?
— Speaking about the international aspect, we are taking into account to separate directions: one is for the US. And another for the rest of the world.
There are many book fairs for selling rights – like Frankfurt Book Fair, just a month before the Salon, then Guadalajara a week after, London and Bologna book fairs in spring. Can the Salon take a place for international relations in the calendar of events? I’m not sure it’s necessary yet. We are the only fair in North America, so maybe there’s something we can do. But I don’t think we should go big.
I think it’s important to be what we are – a very important local fair that is known abroad, that is known in the francophone world. Because of that we have an opportunity to engage in more professional and international relations. Quebec publishers are gaining confidence now. We see more and more Quebec literature abroad and the French publishers are more interested. So I think that it’s a great opportunity to start doing more business now. We just have to find the right way of doing it. But again, I think we should just go slowly.
So next year I hope that we can have a bigger international business side to the fair — maybe, one day.
— As I understood, Salon is showcasing the books in French only. Are English-language books prohibited here?
— 95%-99% of books presented at the Salon are in French. But books in English are not prohibited. And I am allowing it more and more. Not for the reason I want to gain this presence, no. I want it to reflect Montreal’s diversity.
And Montreal is a multi-level city. It is francophone, but English-speaking people live here too. It has many immigrants. And they should also feel welcomed at the Salon. It is very important for me for two reasons. Firstly, because a book is something universal – whatever the language is. Secondly, maybe being able to buy a book in their language will help to discover Quebec’s literature.
But it is a public fair, mainly for French language books and the publishing industry is interested in that.
— The diversity is always about balancing and how did you manage to keep this balance without being accused?
— I’m trying not to control it. It’s very political what I do in the sense that there are so many people interested in this Salon. The fair should never take a position in anything. But then it’s impossible. For example – to have the Ukrainian stand. It’s a way of taking position.
Everything we do needs to have a justification. Now someone can agree or disagree, but at least it’s clear why we did it. I’ll give you an example. Anglophone content – it’s a very sensitive subject. There’s only two publishers that sell English language books from Quebec: English Quebecers that write books and English publishers that are from Quebec. They have the right to be there. They’re from Montreal. They’re paying taxes, they are our neighbors, they are friends. We cohabit. And yes, it’s a francophone event, and it’s a very successful francophone fair. So we’re not in danger at the fair.
However, there is a risk of losing our language. We need to be aware of that and we need to be careful. But it’s not because I’m opening the doors of the Salon to home writers. Are we talking about big businesses like Amazon? Do you really think that the publishers from Quebec that want to sell their books want to take your place? My opinion is that it’s not the case.
We need to separate things, so I open the door to that and I want more languages to be presented next year, – maybe Spanish, maybe Ukrainian, or maybe others.
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