Impact Journalism Day - Solutions to global issues - 2017
Lire c'est partir: selling books at the price of bread
Through his organisation Lire c'est partir, the 'low-cost' publisher Vincent Safrat is selling children's books to disadvantaged families for 80 cents each, and in doing so, is revolutionising the French publishing market.
It's Sunday on a long spring weekend in Paris, and the mini Parisians of the 18th arrondissement are all jostling for a spot in the Jacqueline de Romilly library. The kids make their way towards the stacks of books piled up at the Lire c'est partir stand, which has been set up as part of the Salon du Livre de Jeunesse Solidaire (the Youth Solidarity Book Fair). The children's shared sense of excitement makes it hard to move, never mind reach one of the coveted works of fiction.
This hyperactivity has a sole reason: as if by magic, these little ones – who have never owned a book in their lives – are suddenly proprietors of a novel or two. Once in their hands, the frantic reading of these tales begins.
Without delay, Sophie dives into Neige Blanche et les 7 géants (Snow White and the Seven Giants), while Paul joins the queue to get his copy of L'Apprenti Mousquetaire (The Apprentice Musketeer) signed by the illustrator Grégoire Vallancien, who is there alongside several authors. "Sir, I only have 2 euros right now, but I'll return with 40 cents more to buy a third!" At only 80 cents each, these books are a bargain. In this quarter, not far from the Paris ring road and bordering Saint-Ouen – a low-income suburb – Vincent Safrat has brought a little happiness to more than one home.
Whether in Saint-Ouen or Clichy-sous-Bois, each book fair sees around two thousand books snapped up by these avid young readers. Safrat may not run in the prestigious Saint-Germain-des-Prés literary circles, but that didn't stop him selling around 2.5 million books in 2016.
So what's the secret behind this publishing disruptor? The key lies in the price: since a children's book costs an average of seven euros, Lire c'est partir is able to defy all market competition hands down. What may look like a tour de force from the outside is actually just an idea based on a simple equation: "60% of the price of a book is from distribution costs." Therefore, in discarding traditional transport channels and instead taking on the distribution himself, Safrat is able to drastically reduce his expenses. Even the printing stage of the process only costs 30 cents for a paperback with less than 160 pages. As for the publisher's profit margin (which is usually around 15% on average), with Lire c'est partir, it's non-existent. For the company's founder, "any profit is a scam."
An innovative entrepreneurial approach
It's not everyday you meet a literary miracle worker like Safrat, who's able to sell books like they're bread rolls – and at the same price as a baguette. Having grown up in the suburbs of Essonne, this self-educated book enthusiast came into reading a little late. Through discovering Gustave Flaubert's L'Education Sentimentale (Sentimental Education), he had a real revelation. "I believe that reading can replace studying. Hence my notion of bringing reading to those who don't read."
In 1992, following his first experience of the publishing world, Vincent Safrat began visiting different publishing houses on a daily basis to pick up their unsold books, which are usually destined for the scrap heap. He would then go door-to-door to distribute them every weekend for free around the Essonne region. "It's the gratitude that the parents express for their kids that strikes me. For them, these books are synonymous with classroom success."
However, despite the support of some of the biggest names in the business like Robert Laffont, many publishers have been hard to convince. Obviously, part of Safrat's success is in being able to print these works himself at a low cost. In 1998, a friendly salesman explained to him that a paperback doesn't cost much more than a franc to make – a fact that had an immediate effect on Safrat. That's when – despite being on government income support (RMI) – he took the risk of ordering 400,000 copies that he then needed to sell in under four months. "One printer put his trust in me, and I never gave him cause to regret it, since I've never had a late payment!" recalls this bold entrepreneur.
When Safrat realised that many schools lack the means to equip themselves, he had a second light-bulb moment. This was when he decided to make educational institutions his company's main focus. To make contact with teachers, Safrat went through the National Education Inspectors who, enthusiastic about his plan, were very cooperative. Through Lire c'est partir, schools are free to buy books for their students and organise book sales for the parents. Once again, this exceptional entrepreneur has generated a positive change.
Bringing books to disadvantaged areas
For five years, this regular, lanky-looking guy has been on the road almost continuously, voluntarily delivering his boxes of books to both urban and rural disadvantaged areas. Equally, the authors of these works of fiction aren't losing out thanks to the revenue generated by massive print runs. These original works – which are "often much easier to access" and make up the majority of the 130 titles currently in the catalogue – are frequently chosen over the classics that, due to being right free, are cheaper to print.
Not yet satisfied with his social impact, Vincent Safrat also organises book workshops for kids in Paris' 19th arrondissement, on one of the company's public book deposit sites. "He has revolutionised the market economy because he thinks differently," explains the writer and co-founder of Lire et Faire Lire, Alexandre Jardin. Today, Lire c'est partir has 12 employees and six vans distributing books, and even Vincent Safrat finally has a salary. And this is all without this organisation ever asking for even the smallest subsidy from the public authorities.