A Day trip to the Paris Book Fair

When I was invited by the French Ministry of Culture to speak at the Paris Book Fair, I thought for all of two seconds before agreeing; I did French language and literature at A level and am a complete Francophile, so it really was a no-brainer.

I was asked to be on a panel with a German and a French librarian, talking about our experience of eBooks and my involvement through Shelf Free, in the discussions between UK publishers and public libraries around eBook lending. Libraries across the world are having problems persuading publishers to give them rights to loan eBooks, and only a small percentage of the most popular authors can currently be loaned in any country. In some ways, the UK is better off, as many libraries were able to establish eBook collections before the problems with supply started; some European countries were later establishing eBook lending and can have very small collections as a result.

The initial invitation seemed tenuous, there was a lot for them to organise, and I convinced myself that it wouldn’t come together in time, so the only preparation I really did was to send my passport off for renewal. Then suddenly, with ten days to go, the train was booked, the speakers were booked and I was in the programme!

Now I had to prepare – here are some issues you might want to consider when you are speaking at a conference in a different country, where English is a second language:

  • Powerpoint – I prepared a presentation, then lost confidence in it. After all, “Death by Powerpoint” is all too common, but if I kept it in English, the audience might struggle. If I translated it into French, there might be some grammatical howlers and the audience could be laughing so hard they couldn’t hear me! I abandoned the idea.
  • Translating my talk into French – I considered asking the organisers to translate my talk into “proper French”, knowing I could deliver it quite fluently, but then I would be reading from a script, and I risked sounding completely wooden. Worse still, there would be no opportunity to adlib, which is how I do most of my talks. I abandoned that idea too
  • Interpreters –so, this left me planning my talk in English, thinking about the speed the interpreters could work at, and explaining any UK library specific jargon that would throw them.
  • Cultural issues –do Parisians have the same sense of humour? British humour is very dry; mine especially, so I knew I would have to be prepared to change things on the spot if the talk failed to hit the mark.

That was just the talk. To be honest, I was more worried about getting there and back than delivering the talk itself. I’ve passed through Paris, but never visited it properly, so trains, the Metro and the streets were all new to me.

So, Monday 24th March found me at St Pancras International at 7am, waiting for the Eurostar train. By 11.30am I was stepping off the train at Gare du Nord, in good time for my talk at 2pm. I even had time to stop off briefly at Notre Dame (considered a selfie to prove I was there!) and got a breath of fresh air before descending to the Metro again for Porte de Versailles, the stop for the Paris Expo.

The whole area was mobbed with people, and there were actually ticket touts selling passes for the Paris Book Fair; it was like being outside a One Direction concert! The London Book Fair is always busy, but this was amazing, not just publishers, librarians and booksellers, lots and lots of ordinary people too. The French have always been a nation of readers, and the Book Fair proved to me that this still holds true.

Then came my one stumbling block – getting in. My instructions had told me which door to go in, but this had changed over the weekend, and every door I went to had burly bouncers refusing to let me in! For thirty minutes I went from door to door, without a pass and only my schoolgirl French, being told the equivalent of “you’re not on the list”. My mobile phone refused to work when I tried to call the organiser, and for a while I had the horrible vision of having to turn round and come home again, having failed to make my entrance! Eventually, a young French receptionist took pity on me and got me through the doors.

Finding the right stall in a venue as big as the NEC was the next challenge, but eventually I was sat down with a glorious French lunch that I didn’t have time to eat – a tray full of pâté, meats, cheese, salad, pasta and cheesecake, complete with glass of wine of course. All I had time for was a chunk of bread and cheese, a sip of water and on stage we went!

The chair kicked off with an introduction in French, which he had given me in English, so that I could nod in the right places. Then the German librarian, Andrea Krieg, spoke. She was speaking in English, and using PowerPoint, which convinced me that I’d made the right choice, as two PowerPoint’s would have been overwhelming. Andrea was from the State Library of Karlsruhe and she covered their eBook lending model, which looked similar to ours, but sat within their library catalogue (ours is a separate platform). She demonstrated their downloading process, and talked about the EBLIDA’s right to E-read campaign, which Shelf Free is supporting.

Next, my turn, and I spoke about the issues we had had in the UK with a lack of eBooks to buy, and how the market was changing with the use of smartphones and tablets (most of our downloads are “mobile” these days). The interpreter was fast, about three seconds behind me, going by the nods and laughter, and there were lots of people scribbling notes as I spoke, so I think I was providing useful information. I counted about 120 people either sat or stood at the back, listening, with more passing by the stall, so a good audience.

The French speaker, Annie Brigant, came from the Municipal Library of Grenoble, where they are part of a pilot project creating a dedicated digital platform, with bookseller and publisher partnerships. The project is looking to create a single platform that all parties are happy to work with, so that no “aggregator” or library supplier is needed. I hope I have represented Annie’s project well; I had to put on headphones to listen to the translation, as her speed of delivery was too fast for me to keep up in French, but again the translation was good, and it sounded like a project we should all watch.

By the time we moved on to Q and A, the simultaneous translation all felt quite natural, and I only answered the wrong question once, having tried to beat the translator – one of the perils of having “a little bit of language” is your brain tries to translate, even when you try to stop it!

It was almost two hours in total on the stage, and most of the audience sat still for all that time – I was really impressed with their interest and enthusiasm. At the end, I managed to meet up as planned with Alan Inouye, Director for the Office for Information Technology Policy from the American Librarian Association, so you never know; I might get an invite there one day!

It was all a whirlwind of a day. The only bits of the book fair I saw were those I passed as I dashed in, looking for the right stall, and those I passed as I flew out, desperate not to miss my train home. Next time I would definitely stay overnight, so I could network more and just take it all in.

I caught the Eurostar back at 6pm, and was back in Luton at 8.30pm, dazed and shattered, but pleased to have managed the day and met some interesting people. I feel like I’ve made some useful contacts, and thanks to social media like Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook, I’ll be able to keep track of some of the work our European colleagues are doing.

Fiona Marriott

Strategy and Development Manager

Luton Libraries

Facebook: Luton Libraries

Twitter @lutonbookworm

To find out more about EBLIDA’s right to E-read campaign, click on the link: http://www.eblida.org/e-read/the-right-to-e‐read-statement.html