Sunday, 14 July 2013

Bookish Bits and Bobs: Vive les livres

It's recently been reported that the French consumption of ebooks has gone up by 2% between 2011 and 2013...making a total of a mere 3% of book sales. This compares to around 22% consumption in the US and around 10% consumption in the UK. So why are French readers not interested?

Trying to get a connection? Good luck with that
One theory that has been posited is that the French are less enthusiastic about gadgetry in general, meaning that ebook uptake was always bound to be slow. Only about 1% of the adult population of France is said to own an ereader, while this figure is more like 26% in the US. This of course doesn't account for tablet ownership, but even if we look at this, it too is lower (10% of the French adult population owns one, compared to 34% in the US). These statistics are perhaps surprising to those who spend most of their time around Paris, where ebook readers, tablets and smartphones abound. However, travel just a couple of hours south and it's clear that such gadgetry is a novelty, with ereader users getting strange looks in public as they are such a rare sight. In some very rural areas, connectivity is also still limited to non-existent, which will limit uptake.

It's also worth bearing in mind that salaries in the US are higher than in France. According to the BBC, the average American works for $3,263 a month, while the average French person earns $2,886 - and while differences in the cost of living can partly justify this gap in salary, it would not be true to say that everyday living costs are always lower in France. (Long-distance train travel and food are just two of the things that spring to mind as being cheaper in the US.) Prices of these gadgets are also comparatively lower. Not many people in France (outside the capital, of course) have the spare €400 required for the 16GB iPad 2 - whereas people in the US, with higher average salaries, are able to snag one for $400 (about €300 at today's exchange rate). But this can't be all there is to it. Why aren't the French interested in this technology, or in reading ebooks in general?

The French version of Big Brother
At the risk of sounding deliberately polemic, it could be observed that the French are just slow on the uptake in general when it comes to new trends, and that they also just have different tastes (and that this is, indeed, part of the country's charm). For instance, celebrity gossip and reality TV does exist in France, but to nowhere near the same degree of popularity as in the US or UK. They are also more parochial in their food tastes, preferring to continue exploring the cuisine of their own country (or even just region) rather than branching out and cooking dishes from many different countries. This naturally stretches into technology and more specifically into education and technology. Smartboards in French state schools? You have to be joking.

The front-facing, chalk-and-talk French system
Why is education important in this debate? It's not that all schools in the UK and US are now teaching exclusively from e-textbooks and dancing around bonfires of their old paper copies (although there are of course reasons why this wouldn't be such a terrible thing), as compared to France, where students are still made to copy out chalked notes from the blackboard (erm, in some places...see right!). While a lack of technology in French schools is partly linked to the country's slow uptake of e-readers and so on (given that children and adults arguably haven't been shown the benefits to any advanced degree), it also links back to the fact that French education is still very traditional indeed. It's probably roughly where Britain was back in the eighties or maybe even the seventies. "Special needs" go largely unaddressed; little account is taken of students' differing learning styles (kinetic, aesthetic and so on); rote learning is highly prized; arts, sports and even sciences take a back seat in primary schools, while most of the learning time is spent on literacy and numeracy; and learning is overall very book-based, with focus on individual rather than group learning. 

Perhaps this sounds harsh and a French student who's left the system recently (or is still in it) will soon come along to debunk this. But it seems doubtful. One of the strengths (and weaknesses) of the French education system is its lack of overall change across the years, and this would explain the lack of technological assimilation in French schools. The "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy prevails. Why would students need ebook readers or smartboards? Textbooks and blackboards work just as well. In 2010, only 66% of French teachers claimed to have used technology in their classroom in the last 12 months, compared to 96% of UK teachers. The teachers in France cited reasons for this which included potential disruption to the class, difficulties in installing the technology, and doubting the technology's pedagogical efficacy. All of this amounts to an attitude and ethos whereby physical books are highly prized by French children and adults. Combined with the income levels and gadget prices mentioned above, this makes them more likely to use paper books than electronic ones.

Bookshop, rue de la Convention, Paris
The same pattern pervades the French book market. Having spent their education with the value of physical books being reinforced, the French are keen to continue prizing this, with the prices of paper books being highly protected so that authors are paid properly. High book prices have driven consumers in other countries to flock to online sellers, but as well as cherishing paper books and the academic institution of the country's authors, the French also like to uphold the livelihood of independent booksellers, which is partly driven by anti-capitalist sentiments as well as a sense of intellectual honour. This all means that in France, large online companies (and suppliers of ebooks) cannot win over independent (or at least physical) retailers - at least for now. 

A smartboard being used in a French state school
One can therefore conclude that far too many factors are still too strongly at play in favour of paper books for the French to even consider converting seriously to ebooks. So could this ever change? The French have already started stealing Britain's TV shows (creating their own versions of Money Drop and Come Dine With Me, to name but a few), even if some of these were programmes that Britain decided it didn't want anymore way back in the eighties (such as Family Fortunes); will they therefore be following the UK and US suit in the near future? Back in 2010, when the above data was initially released, then-education minister Luc Chatel announced a €60m investment in school technology, and in October 2011, telecoms company Orange worked with the French government to establish a promising pilot scheme in schools. Called the Tablette Elève Nomade project, 300 Samsung Android tablets were provided to six schools across three French districts, and it went so well that the initial one-year trial was extended to last a further year. Teachers noted several positive changes, including easier motivation of disaffected learners, easier differentiation, increased team work and bonding among students, and increased parental involvement. 

Maccy D's, French-style...a sign of progress?
All of this indicates that in the right environment and with appropriate support, parents, students and teachers are all receptive to the use of new technology. As children who were born into a world where smartphones and at-home web access are normal begin to grow up, it's possible that the new young population (who, if current trends continue, are more likely to live in a shoebox of a studio flat than a roomy detached house) will be keener to read digitally (even if only to save space). Perhaps only then will ebook sales increase. France is slower to pick up on trends - but it often gets there eventually. For better or for worse, celebrity magazines such as Voici! are gaining in popularity in France, Amazon is well-used (even though discounts are nowhere near as large thanks to laws protecting authors), and even McDonalds (you'd think the arch enemy of the French) does well throughout the country. Ebook sales are likely to do this too in the end, with likelihood perhaps being increased with the decline of traditional physical bookstores such as the Fnac. However, somehow it seems less probable that France will ever stop loving books in general. Vive les livres indeed.

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