Claims of independence are increasingly common in the fields of symbolic production, and in particular in the publishing industry. Many publishing houses and bookshops describe themselves as “independent”1 in a context of economic rationalization that they see as a threat to their autonomy, such as it is defined by the sociology of culture. It is particularly interesting to contrast these two similar notions—one (independence) evoking “indigenous” categories used by actors in the field, the other (autonomy) referring to the intellectual sphere. According to Pierre Bourdieu (1996: 61), autonomy refers to a given field claiming the right to define the principles of its own legitimacy for itself, or to a social sphere affirming its independence from external (political and economic) powers. In the sociology of culture, the notion of autonomy is more often used to describe the production of intellectuals and artists than that of the intermediaries who publish or publicize their creations. However, the growing importance of these intermediaries in the field of cultural production (Jeanpierre & Roueff 2014) makes this a prime site for the observation and understanding of the reconfigurations of the different sectors of the economy of symbolic goods (Duval & Garcia 2012).
This article aims to contribute to reflections on the notion of autonomy by questioning the uses of the term independence, which has become omnipresent in cultural sectors (Hesmondhalgh 1999; Hibbett 2005), and analyzing the links between the two notions and the realities to which they refer. In so doing, the goal is to shed light on the issues surrounding the mobilization of the theme of independence by two central categories of actor in the publishing industry: publishers and booksellers. In order to achieve this, we will draw on a study (see the presentation of the methodology below) conducted with structures that are legally independent, i.e., those who control their capital,2 in the sector of generalist publishing and bookshops. These actors face similar problems while occupying different positions in the book chain.3
Our hypothesis is that the emphasis on independence by actors that are very different from each other—whether in terms of size or economic activity—is due to a loss of autonomy in the sociological sense of the term. This notion of independence provides them with a weapon with which to protect their vulnerable positions in a sector where belief in the singular nature of book production remains strong. In a context in which economic constraints and competition between actors are becoming increasingly urgent, independence operates as a symbolic resource and has become a key issue in the struggle for the legitimate definition of “originating” publishers and “quality” bookshops. We will discuss these terms further below. Independence has also become important for gaining the recognition, both external and internal, that partly conditions the attribution of public subsidies.
Yet independence is a vague term. Definitions often lack precision and do not allow us to clarify the positions of those who use the term in a given social space.4 The elasticity of the term, in historical, geographical, and sectorial terms, raises a certain number of problems while also presenting the benefit of being able to bring together actors with various characteristics and interests (Habrand 2017). Revisiting the origins of the rhetorical uses5 of the notion of independence in the publishing sector will allow us to begin by clarifying these ambiguities before trying to disentangle the main elements of this polysemic category. We will then see how independence is mobilized as an effective resource in different social spaces and contexts, and what issues and limitations it encounters.
This research draws on a study conducted with independent publishers of social critique in France (Noël 2012a) and on analysis of documents relating to generalist publishing (professional literature, specialized publications, white papers and reports, analysis of catalogues and online presentation pages). It is also based on an ongoing study with independent bookshops in France (Noël 2018). Twenty-two semi-directive interviews were conducted with managers of bookshops set up in the last twenty years in Paris and other regions in France. Interviews were also conducted with publishers, professional representatives, and unions.
It is important to remember the general context in which claims of independence occur, in a sector that has gone through significant transformations over the past thirty years (Mollier 2015a). Since the 1980s, the movement towards the concentration of capital has increased rapidly and become more international, leading to a larger proportion of major players at all levels of the book production chain, the decline of family-run publishing houses, and an increase in the number of small entities on the fringes of the oligopoly.6 The rise in the volume of production (81,263 books were published in 2017 in France, all sectors combined7), the increasing importance of bestsellers, a drop in the average size of print runs, and the acceleration of turnover in bookshops have all led to the marginalization of more fragile actors to the benefit of structures that have a privileged access to the market because they control distribution. In France, the ten largest publishing businesses were responsible for 88.9% of publishing in 2016, while the number of independent publishing houses (in terms of capital) went from 144 to 110 in two years.8
The key elements that make up the publisher’s role in the field of limited production9—the time spent discovering authors and balancing mainstream and more niche texts, which are elements associated with autonomy—have suffered from this convergence of evolutions. As Pierre Bourdieu argued (1996: 345) the division of the market into two, characteristic of the field of cultural production since the mid-nineteenth century, seems at risk of disappearing due to the increasing interconnectedness between the worlds of art and money. He pursued his observation in a later article dedicated to publishing, where he argued that “acquisition and integration generally result in a reduction of the number and literary autonomy of decision-making entities,” which encourages a “commercial universal” (2008: 145-146). In this context, there has been a growing number of calls for “resistance” within the book chain and a return to the (often mythical) sources of publishing, in other words the organizing values and principles linked to the history of an artistic and intellectual field in its most autonomous phase. These involve the affirmation of a creative logic, a diversity in production that is not subject to the siren calls of commercial success. This presentation made at the alternative book fair L’Autre livre10 is a typical illustration of this:
While we try, with limited means, to be vectors of imagination, ideas, or words that lead to discoveries, knowledge, poetry, indignation […] others—investors—have understood that books, with all that they represent in terms of emotion, can have a market value with which it is possible to make a profit.11
This emphasis on independence can be seen across all markets for symbolic goods in numerous places around the world. Although publishing only became aware of this phenomenon somewhat late in the day—compared with other sectors such as cinema12 or music (where the term “indie” was used from the 1970s)—it was all the more brutal because of the symbolic weight associated with books as vectors of culture and knowledge. A look at the history of the situation will allow us to understand how in France the concept of independence has progressively come to dominate in a sector that was long controlled by family-run businesses.
Whether in terms of the control of political and religious power through censorship, or economic and financial constraints, the world of the written word has always had to define itself in relation to the external interferences (Jouhaud 2000) that operate at all levels of the book chain between the author and the bookseller. It was in the second half of the nineteenth century, as the field of cultural production (Bourdieu 1996) became progressively more autonomous, that the specific nomos that would feed the complaints of “loss of independence” began to take form. The Dreyfus affair played an important role in this, with intellectuals affirming their independence in opposition to temporal authorities (Charle 1990). The term was later taken up during the inter-war period, as groups of intellectuals mobilized to maintain control over their writings through the Presses Universitaires de France13 project (Tesnière 2001). The problem of the economic independence of distributors as a guarantee of the independence of the content produced also applies to the funding of the major encyclopaedic projects of the nineteenth century, from the perspective of the freedom of knowledge, as well as attempts in the 1930s to go against major companies (Douyère 2008). The independence of intellectuals and artists was seen as inseparable from that of the structures that allow them to publish and publicize their works (publishers, art galleries).
This issue took on new forms after the war. In a context in which the intellectual field was heavily politicized due to the Cold War, and then the war in Algeria and decolonization, the question of engagement became central, closely combining intellectual and political considerations. The “politically engaged” or protagoniste (instigator) publisher (Hage 2016), was the striking figure of the period, particularly around the Éditions de Minuit (Simonin 1994) and François Maspero’s publishing house,14 before a new cycle of economic centralism brought the notions of financial independence and pluralism to the fore in the 1980s. There was once again a slippage from a primarily political definition of independence—as a form of engagement—to a primarily economic definition. The two notions are clearly linked, however, as we can see in the expression “market censorship” (Schiffrin 1999).
The lasting inscription of independence as a theme can be traced back to the 1990s, however, with the rising awareness of the dominance of publishing groups such as Hachette and Vivendi in France (which would culminate in the partial absorption of the latter by the former in 2004).15 In 1993, Jean-Marie Bouvaist denounced the predatory approach of the major publishing groups in his article “Crise et mutations dans l’édition française.” In 1999, the US publisher André Schiffrin’s L’Édition sans éditeurs became the symbol of resistance against the excesses of capitalism in the publishing industry.
Fig. 1. André Schiffrin book cover L’Édition sans éditeurs
André Schiffrin (1999). L’Édition sans éditeurs. Paris, La fabrique.
Source: La fabrique éditions.
This book exported the theme of independent actors’ resistance against major corporations outside of the United States. It made an important contribution to the globalization of struggles against dominant actors, which are themselves globalized. Associations such as the International Alliance of Independent Publishers—created in 2002 and federating more than eighty publishers in five linguistic areas—also played a role in spreading and circulating the concept (Lehembre 2017) by connecting it to the problem of bibliodiversity (cultural diversity applied to the world of books). Since the early 2000s, conferences, professional fairs, collectives, and debates have been organized regularly on the subject, and a literary corpus emanating from professionals and analysts is being developed, contributing to the formalization of the idea of independence. It would be impossible to list here the vast number of articles, white papers, accounts, and opinion pieces published in the media or on the internet that have followed the emergence of the independent actor in the publishing sector and its becoming an identity reference in the public space. However, and unlike what happens in other cultural sectors, the state does not use this category (see below) nor distinguish between independent publishers and the major players in the market. Long-term connections with Hachette (Mollier 2015b) along with the need to encourage “national champions” capable of competing with international conglomerates in the sector goes some way to explaining this.
In the twentieth century,16 the category of independent booksellers gradually replaced that of traditional booksellers, which were more commercial than cultural (Ozanne 2008), although it still presented the same vagueness of vocabulary.17 The title of independent bookshop18 in fact brings together strongly heterogenous actors, ranging from very large structures—notably regional structures, such as Mollat in Bordeaux (the third biggest bookshop in France with a turnover of nearly €25 million in 201719)—to very small bookshops with limited profit. In spite of these disparities of situation, independent booksellers have come together around the feeling of a threatened identity. Since the 1990s they have protested against Fnac and other major retailers, and from the early 2000s they campaigned against Amazon’s online sales in a context of dwindling market share20. The French booksellers union (SLF), which represents nearly 600 bookshops, thus chose to promote the identity of the “independent bookshop” in 2017, without laying out specific criteria, so that its members (from the chain Gibert Joseph to the neighbourhood bookshop, including publishers’ bookshops) might come together around a certain number of major values (quality, advice, diversity, etc.) summarising “an independent way of practising this trade.”
Fig. 2. Poster of the Charte des Librairies Indépendantes (Charter of Independent Bookshops)
Charter of Independent Bookshops, French booksellers union (SLF) campaign 2017.
Source: French booksellers union (SLF).
Having seen these converging issues centre around the concept of independence within the publishing industry, we will now examine the problems and implications of the fact that this term is used by profoundly heterogenous actors.
Independence is a polysemic term that is often defined in relative and generally negative terms (not belonging or depending on anything but oneself). It also takes on an agonistic aspect, often seen as something desirable, to be attained, to be seized, or that one must fight to maintain. Used in different contexts it evokes the stakes of various struggles. Three main dimensions can be identified in clarifying this.
The first dimension relates to both legal status and ownership. It reflects the opposition to major corporations, and to the prevalence of the mercantile logics associated with them. According to this usage, any business that is not legally connected to an external structure, usually a larger one, is independent. This definition, particularly prevalent in a context of increased concentration of capital, draws on an established opposition to the “big” players in the commercial sector, as Laura Miller (2006) has demonstrated in relation to US bookshops. Behind the independent publisher or bookseller is always the idea of the “little guy,” the artisan – an image that carries a certain sympathy capital in the collective imaginary.
The association L’Autre Livre (2005: 20-21) considers that independent publishing covers “all publishers who do not belong to major publishing groups.” This minimal foundation reflects a self-evidence that is widely shared among the broader public and actors in the industry, even though the notion of “group” is clearly problematic, and the question of thresholds has never been resolved.
Salon L’Autre livre, an annual alternative book fair organised by small publishers, 2013, Paris.
Source: L’Autre livre.
The example of Actes Sud is instructive, given that it has been a paragon of independent publishing (its capital is controlled by its founding members21) since its creation in Arles in 1978. Today it is the ninth largest French publisher22 with an annual turnover of €80 million. It has also invested in several other publishing structures—Jacqueline Chambon, Gaïa, Le Rouergue, Textuel, Payot-Rivages…—creating what has to be called a group, although the founding members reject the use of that term. A whole range of euphemisms, whether evoking natural groups (“an ensemble”) or friendship and community (“associated publishers”) have been employed in the media, thus preserving the high-status image of the atypical provincial publisher.23 Should we consider that beyond a certain volume of activity a publishing house can no longer be described as independent? In which case, what criteria should determine the threshold? The vision of the publishing market polarized between increasingly large groups and a myriad of more or less professional small structures leaves little room for medium-sized organizations.
Conversely, some go to great lengths to draw attention to the insecurity of independent actors. Philippe Picquier, for example, the head of the eponymous publishing house [specializing in Asian literature], says, “Fortunately, I have lost part of my independence, and that has allowed me to go further.24” Michel Valensi, who has published works in humanities and literature since 1985 within Éditions de l’éclat, recounts the recurring economic difficulties of structures that operate without any external support:
I do not know if I publish freely, nor if I am independent. But for the moment, I feel like my hands and feet are tied by a difficult economic situation, and like I don’t have much freedom of movement.25
For actors who have “made the choice” to be bought up or absorbed by an external structure, loss of legal independence is the price they pay to escape self-exploitation and amateur-type practices that leave them sidelined on the fringes of the publishing world. In fact, publishers who have been absorbed by a larger group often value a form of independence facilitated by the protection of a head office that provides them with the economic security to create freely. This follows the classical division between creative principles and management principles (Chiapello 1998).
Moreover, Christian Robin (2008) argues that independence is nearly always relative: the relationship of dependency that a publishing house has with its sales and distribution suppliers26 leads to a loss of control over its commercial policy (conditions of sale, discount rates, etc.). The children’s book publisher l’École des loisirs27 is, according to these criteria, one of the rare exceptions in being “genuinely” independent, because they have their own team of representatives in bookshops. Similarly, a bookshop, especially a small one, only has a small margin of manoeuvre, because they do not control the prices of the books nor the discounts that are applied by the sales team.28 They are often subject to unsolicited book deliveries, or a greater number of volumes than ordered, which must be returned to the publisher at the cost of the bookshop. One Parisian bookshop owner explains how she has to defend herself against the pressure of suppliers:
I still receive unsolicited items from the big distributors. It’s a hellish battle because I don’t have room to stock the books, it’s harder and harder. So I order the minimum, on a just-in-time basis.29
This first definition of independence is associated with a second that is more artistic and intellectual, which can be understood in terms of a mastery of the content developed in relation to demand, and which reflects an avant-garde, art-for-art’s-sake mentality. This understanding is particularly visible in other sectors of cultural industries, such as rock music where the independence of music labels is historically associated with an alternative production, dissociated from the approaches and formats of mainstream music (Newman 2009). The underlying idea is that independent producers, synonymous in this case with what sociologists call the field of restricted production, publish and prioritize texts that are more original and more diversified than those chosen by actors who respond to a pre-existing demand. This is what the definition of the International Alliance of Independent Publishers implicitly refers to, through the notion of “originating publishers.”
Independent publishers […] are originating publishers: through their often innovative publishing choices, freedom of speech, publishing and financial risk-taking, they participate in discussions, distribution, and development of their readers’ critical thinking. In this regard, they are key players in bibliodiversity.30
A publisher in an economically fragile position may want to retain control over their editorial line (choice of authors, themes, etc.), much as a bookseller may wish to control the range of books presented. In both cases they affirm the right to define the principles of their own legitimacy, according to the scholarly definition of autonomy. In the words of the manager of a press focusing on foreign literature: “Being independent means controlling the ideological and intellectual orientations of one’s publishing house.”31
For booksellers, independence on an intellectual level is often associated with the ability to maintain backlist titles in stock—ie., those that are not new releases—or to promote privileged relationships with publishing houses that share a similar philosophy. By carving out a small space of freedom on the margins of what they consider to be the current tyranny of media-fed bestsellers, they affirm their role as prescribers rather than simply as sellers. One bookseller in the east of Paris puts it like this:
Independence, you really see it when the best book you’ve read in a month, you display it, and you sell it, without any media, or any publicity. When you’re not independent, you’re not allowed to do that, to put a spotlight on classics, or on a book which came out three years ago.32
And yet the independence of a press or a bookshop is not always associated with the quality or the originality of its production/stock, whereas these criteria for evaluation tend to dominate at the pole of the most autonomous productions. Many small structures have an ephemeral or extremely marginal existence (Legendre & Abensour 2007), and their production is by no means remarkable. If the actors’ usage of independence and the sociological concept of autonomy cannot be considered strictly equivalent, this is because large publishing houses (whether they belong to a group or have absorbed their competitors) also publish authors who are widely recognized by their peers, as we can see in Gallimard’s catalogue of foreign literature (Sapiro & Bokobza 2008). The coexistence of different series within a given publishing house, which creates spaces of autonomy alongside spaces dedicated to more commercial production—for example Robert Laffont’s series “Bouquins”33—further complicates things.
We know that it is often difficult to make a clear separation between intellectual and commercial criteria. As Anne Simonin (2004) has demonstrated for the case of Éditions de Minuit, well known for their uncompromising editorial line in the literary sphere, even the “purest” choices are associated with more commercial decisions, if only to leverage successful works against more specialist ones, fundamental to the functioning of an industry as uncertain as publishing. Considering the publishing field as a mosaic of subfields of varying autonomy that combine economic with symbolic logics depending on their position in the distribution of limited resources undoubtedly provides a more realistic image, rather than a strict opposition between a field of restricted production and one of large-scale production (Thompson 2005: 30-36). Similarly, independent bookshops tend to balance their stock of books between darlings of the literary season, which are sure to sell, and their own, less well known, favourites. They are therefore able to retain the ability to not promote the authors for whom they have less consideration.
The third dimension is political: independence can be understood in the sense of challenging the dominant order, the expression of subversive thought. It is therefore incarnated in forms of alternative, underground, or protest publishing. Since the 1990s, small publishing houses that focus on social critique (Noël 2012a) have revived the idea of political and intellectual engagement mentioned above. One of the best examples of this is the non-profit publishing body Raisons d’agir created in 1996 by Pierre Bourdieu, which aimed to give academics and researchers the means to better control the dissemination of their work, while also dealing with social issues and current affairs directed at a broader public. This publishing initiative aimed to reclaim a certain autonomy in the face of economic and media forces, by promoting analysis that runs counter to the dominant perspective while still benefiting from efficient distribution channels thanks to the commercial power of Éditions du Seuil. The political dimension of independence, having waned after the “golden age” of the 1960s-1970s, thus returned in full force in the early 1990s in several publishing sectors, such as graphic novels34 and children’s literature, although it remained complimentary to the two other dimensions discussed above.
From this rapid review of different meanings of independence in the publishing industry, we must conclude that the criteria employed are both vague and normative. The definition of the term independent has become a stake in various struggles (Boutet 2010), as we can see in the controversy that preceded the acquisition of part of the Vivendi group by Hachette in 2004. Medium-sized publishers (as they were then) such as Le Seuil, Gallimard, and La Martinière considered “independent publishing,” which they saw themselves as representing, to be in opposition with major groups that threatened to unbalance the market with their hegemonic positions. This controversy above all demonstrated the extent to which the term independent has become an issue of definition, with each actor “aiming to impose the definition of the conditions of belonging that best suits their own interests” (Mauger 2007: 5). It has become a figure of distinction that allows one to situate oneself within a space adorned with positive (even virtuous) characteristics, which are also principles of classification and legitimacy by opposition to the major publishing groups and the practices associated with them in a context where the commercial aspects of the business are increasingly significant. The somewhat heroic figures of the “small independent publisher” or the “local independent bookshop,” which the media adore, provide a regular illustration of this. But how is this resource used in concrete terms by the actors who claim it? And how effective is it really?
3. A Central Resource in the Struggle for a Legitimate Definition Within the Field of Restricted Production
We can see that independence is primarily mobilized at three levels in the publishing industry: directed at government authorities; the general public; and other industry actors. In each instance, it is the obtention of symbolic and material resources that is at stake.
Since the 1970s, public authorities in France have acted as a buffer against market forces (Dubois 1999), and this phenomenon has only accelerated in recent years. The state guarantees the maintenance of a certain diversity in production and actors, through subsidies and assistance to both publishing houses and booksellers (the Centre national du livre [CNL], as well as regional funding for cultural affairs and Association pour le développement des librairies de creation [ADELC]35). It also does so through an institutional and legal framework of exemptions that allows them to offset commercial approaches with the law on the fixed price and reduced VAT on books.36 The state’s role in the autonomization of the book trade is also reminiscent of the cinema industry, in which, since the 1950s, public funding has helped create an official definition of “quality” and contributed to the independence of “creation” in opposition to the market (Duval 2016: 262).
All of these programmes enable the production of projects perceived as financially unviable, due to the restricted nature of their “natural” market or their intellectual ambition. In the early 2000s, for example, a young press without resources such as Les Prairies ordinaires was thus able to pursue a policy of publishing high-quality social science books with the help of the regional government of Ile de France, translating a selection of major English-language authors into French (David Harvey, Mike Davis, and Fredric Jameson). However, this kind of small publisher is in direct competition with larger publishing houses, which emphasize the quality of their production. Indeed, it is the “dominant” generalist publishers, such as Gallimard, Le Seuil, or Flammarion who receive most of the funding from the CNL intended for “slow turnover works” (Cartellier 2008) (ie., those with low or moderate sales over several years). Indeed, government authorities prioritize the autonomy of publications associated with the field of restricted production, rather than actors’ independence (legal and financial). There are tensions that result from this: small independent publishers have challenged the criteria upon which CNL funds are distributed, and the lack of transparency in recruitment to its commissions.37
This issue also affects bookshops, which are the subject of increasing attention by authorities. This can be seen in the creation of the official LIR label (Librairies indépendantes de référence) for independent bookshops in 2009, which provides access to tax exemptions for bookshops that respect strict specifications.38 The bookseller trade union, Syndicat de la librairie française (SLF) managed to negotiate the creation of a second, less restrictive label (Librairies de référence) that could include bookshops run by publishers or groups of bookshops. Although the latter are not independent in the legal sense, they are involved in maintaining diversified stock whilst controlling their selection, unlike chains such as Fnac. Beyond the financial advantages (tax exemptions), the goal of the SLF is to maintain a united front between members of different sizes and statuses. This twofold label thus illustrates the disconnection between independence and autonomy and what is at stake in defining strict boundaries between actors.39
Independence is also a symbolic resource in the eyes of the public. Obtaining it means being able to set oneself apart in the eyes of buyers, in a market that is saturated and lacking differentiation. The adjective resonates with the expectations of more cultivated fractions of the public and with new “more human” forms of consumerism based on authenticity and local services. This can be seen in the renewal of independent and artisan shops in town centres (Leblanc 2017). The success of the “Indiebound” movement in the English-speaking world is another example of this, exalting the local nature of independent shops in gentrified areas, and bookshops in particular.40
For a major generalist publisher such as Gallimard (the fifth largest publishing group in France with a consolidated turnover of 432 million euros41) which calls itself the “first independent French publisher,”42 it is essential to cultivate a belief in the image of the literary publisher par excellence. To do this they draw on a prestigious past, directly opposed to the disembodied financial logics of a group like Hachette—which is all the better as a foil because it is objectively close. Conversely, for small structures that are economically subjugated, valuing independence and the alternative nature of their activity is a way to gain symbolic capital and attract authors and readers. Because of its vague nature, independence thus brings together the various interests of actors situated at opposite positions of the editorial field, who come together in claiming intellectual autonomy, regardless of their economic status. However, this malleability raises certain problems, particularly in terms of recognition between peers, which is the third issue at stake here.
The virulence of the struggles for classification and the need to issue some calls to order in distinguishing “true” independents (who incarnate a form of purity and virtue) from “pseudo” independents (characterized by their compromising behaviour and search for profit) demonstrate the importance of this issue. Several texts published by actors in the publishing industry have reactivated this theme, attempting to reaffirm the legitimate forms of the practice according to the logic of the artistic avant-garde: artisanal ethos, vocational investment, and refusal of any form of economic opportunism. The former director of Agone publishing house, which focuses on political essays, calls for a distinction between “businesses that are governed by a logic of growth through acquisition” and “those who produce books that are not just like any other commodity” (Discepolo 2011: 17-18); although the distinction between the two is above all based on moral criteria. The opposition between “true” and “false” independents also reflects the traditional opposition between the actors in the field of restricted production, who evoke the nomos of art for art’s sake by referring to a previous, purer state of the field, and the actors of large-scale, mass production, who tend to identify with an entrepreneurial and depoliticized definition of independence. These classification role plays cannot be disconnected from economic issues to the extent that small structures traditionally play an exploratory role, developing authors or formats that will potentially be taken up and developed later by larger publishing houses. In this respect we can cite the philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s increasing shift from small marginal publishers to prestigious publishing houses from the 2000s,43 or more recently, Flammarion’s poaching of Fred Vargas and her successful crime novels.44
Although attempts to clarify the criteria of independence demonstrate the growing polarization within an editorial field upset by technological and financial changes, they also reflect the increasing banality and dilution of the term’s meaning. The fact that certain actors are able to appropriate this adjective in order to play on the ambiguities of their situation, presenting themselves as both independent and alternative while benefiting from the support of a large structure, is a clear indication of this. The increasing reticence of certain actors to use a term they see as having lost its discriminatory power is undoubtedly related to this phenomenon. They will therefore switch to the term “autonomy,” used in a quasi-sociological sense. One poetry and literature publisher had this to say, in reference to the current economic context:
I’ve ended up telling myself that perhaps it would be more accurate to talk about autonomous publishing rather than independent publishing […] in the sense of a resolution to make one’s own rules, decide one’s own modes of functioning.45
The use of the adjective “autonomous” reflects an attenuated and modest understanding of the word, focused on the intellectual aspect of the activity to the detriment of elements relating to economic independence, which are considered illusory in the current context. The choice of autonomy as a more specific and more realistic replacement for the catch-all term independence is perhaps the sign of a reconfiguration of terminology between dominant and dominated actors in the editorial field. The former allow the latter only the lucidity to perceive their very relative independence, presented as an island of autonomy within an ocean of dependency.
We can see just how complex and changing the stakes around notions of independence and autonomy within the publishing industry are. Several traditional oppositions aggregate and combine around these “carryall” terms, which only partially overlap. There is the opposition between small and large structures, between the pole of restricted production and that of large-scale production, or between avant-garde and established structures. In light of this cartography of the struggles over classification and their diverse issues, it seems that the categories of independent publishing and bookselling reflect a social reality that is as vague as the categories that preceded them, such as that of radical publishing or traditional bookshops. Ambiguity is in fact constitutive of these categories to the extent that, as Frédéric Lebaron (1997) emphasized in relation to the Banque de France, France’s central bank, independence is a social fiction. However, it is a fiction that is particularly useful in a sphere such as the book trade in which there has long been a widespread belief in the “special” nature of these goods.
This fiction provides a mask for the contradictions inherent in the spaces of symbolic production which must “buy and sell what is priceless,” while also incarnating a desirable model and a degree of soul in a context of waning autonomy over recent decades. However, not all actors can legitimately lay claim to it. The extensive use of the term “independent,” beyond the demonetization that it implies, can paradoxically be seen as a sign of reduced autonomy, in the sociological sense of the word. The emerging usage of the term autonomy by actors within the sector, somewhat minimized in comparison to its intellectual usage because it refers to independence in content that is disconnected from the economic independence of the structures themselves, is a symptom of this. This is all the more disquieting in that it consolidates the separation of two realities that, since the nineteenth century at least, we know to be deeply interconnected.