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Talks in the Bookshop: A Social Science Cultural Programme on the Margins of the University

Rencontres en librairie. Une offre culturelle de sciences sociales à la lisière de l’université
Thomas Douniès, Cyriac Gousset et Maialen Pagiusco
Traduction de Delaina Haslam
Cet article est une traduction de :
Rencontres en librairie. Une offre culturelle de sciences sociales à la lisière de l’Université [fr]


Cet article s’intéresse aux « rencontres » d’auteur·rice·s d’ouvrages en sciences sociales organisées dans une librairie d’une grande métropole française. L’étude de la programmation et du dispositif, conjuguée à une série d’entretiens avec des visiteur·se·s, fait émerger les logiques d’une offre culturelle locale de sciences sociales révélatrice de la transformation de l’activité d’intermédiation culturelle des librairies. La librairie joue comme une instance de consécration hybride, à l’interface entre l’Université et le grand public, et trouve dans les rencontres un levier pour entretenir son capital symbolique, dans une relation étroite avec le monde universitaire.

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  • 1 Known as the “Lang Law” (Loi Lang) after Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture responsible for (...)
  • 2 French National Book Centre, a public agency which operates with the French Ministry of Culture to (...)
  • 3 Toulouse, located in the south-west of France (the Occitania region), is the fourth largest city in (...)

1In addition to their traditional trading activities, many bookshops, especially those claiming to be “independent”, offer a specific type of public event for readers consisting of “meet-the-author” events or talks. Such events are part of a structural transformation of these businesses. The weakening of bookshops’ market activities and visibility (Chabault 2014; Talbot 2013; Sorel 2021) has encouraged the development of practices additional to the sale of books, which constitutes the core of the “bookseller’s business” (Leblanc 1998). The move from the commercial to the cultural sector (Leblanc 2010) began in the 1960s. It accelerated in the 1980s with the introduction of the fixed book price law1 (Surel 1997), which allowed bookshops to focus on their product range and cultural events rather than on setting prices. The implementation of regular events of a high standard has more recently become a criterion for obtaining the “LiR” certification (Librairie de référence, recommended bookshop) issued by the Centre national du livre2. Located in the historic heart of the city of Toulouse3, the Ombres Blanches bookshop is symptomatic of this general tendency of a proliferation of events between writers and readers (Noël 2018). The shop shares in a distinctive approach taken by independent bookshops, with the means to allow it to build a large-scale system of events over time.

  • 4 See “Bookshop Rankings”, Livres Hebdo n°1219, 24 May 2019. The ranking was based on bookshops’ turn (...)

2Indeed, Ombres Blanches, the top bookshop in the Occitania region, is ranked among the ten largest bookshops in France by Livres Hebdo4 industry magazine. It has a retail space of 1,600m² for stock of around 120,000 titles, and employs a permanent team of forty-five people including thirty specialized and unspecialized booksellers, meaning that it is in the roughly 10% of bookshops with more than twenty employees. Thus, while not on the scale of a cultural mass retailer, Ombres Blanches is not a neighbourhood bookshop. It is nevertheless part, in exacerbated form, of the general transformation of independent bookshops via the organization of author events. These almost daily (or even twice daily) events take place in a dedicated room. They mainly concern literary works, but also humanities and social science (HSS) publications, on which this article is focused.

3The events are a meeting point between different links in the book industry—writers, readers, and booksellers. But unlike reading groups (Albenga 2007) or reader “circles” (Burgos, Evans & Buch 1996), author events bring readers and writers into direct contact. Thus, approximating other cultural systems such as festivals (Sapiro et al. 2015; Picaud 2017), readings in libraries (Guillopé 2019; Rabot 2012), book fairs, and also the fêtes du livre (national annual promotions of reading) (Le Marec & Ploestean 2012: 38-44; Clerc 2010), these talks place booksellers in a role of cultural intermediary between producers and consumers (Roueff 2010).

4Bookshop talks do not only represent a transformation in literature, in reading’s role within the literary experience, and in the status of author (Meizoz 2016). They also correspond to a transformation of bookshops’ role in the publishing industry as well as in the dissemination of knowledge on the margins of the academic field. The example of Ombres Blanches allows us to explore this reconfiguration of bookshop activity. The case study, which focuses on HSS publications, allows us to question what the bookshop does at the university by participating in consecrating and disseminating the symbolic goods produced there; and, conversely, what the university does at the bookshop by shaping the constitution of this specific cultural event. Understanding the two-way relationship requires us to consider in conjunction the dimensions that could arise from segmented research questions. From the history of the Ombres Blanches bookshop to the practical format of the events via the social profiles of their agents and attendees, it is the conjunction of a set of elements that makes it possible to understand the interweaving between this specific cultural event and the academic field, and its effects on the dissemination of social sciences beyond the physical walls of the university.

  • 5 The majority of respondents were women (32 out of 45) from the middle and upper classes. In particu (...)

5This article is based on research carried out in 2017. Before starting the investigation, we had practical experience of the system studied, having attended many presentations as part of our studies, and one of us was even involved in running one. This prior knowledge was then enriched by more rigorous observations conducted during six events and supplemented by listening to recordings put online by the bookshop in the form of podcasts. Forty-five informal interviews were conducted with attendees on their way into and out of events5 based on a set of questions to support a loosely structured conversation. In particular, we were able to ask about attendees’ reasons for coming, their expectations of and thoughts on that day’s session, their tastes and cultural practices as well as their frequentation of the Ombres Blanches bookshop (or lack thereof). Interviews were also conducted with the six people responsible for organizing the system of events, who were involved with creating them and with their physical implementation (company director, events and communications managers, and booksellers from the HSS and foreign languages sections, which are located in the same room as the events room). Finally, the survey was completed by a systematic study of bimonthly newsletters, published between January 2013 and November 2017, which announced the programme and with which we could identify talks specifically dedicated to HSS, their speakers, and the publishing houses concerned. The 382 talks organized with authors from these disciplines correspond to about 23% of all events over the period. The importance of the investigation lies in its cross-referencing of collected material (content analysis, observations, interviews with the organizers and audience, etc.), which makes it possible to highlight the salient characteristics of the system studied.

  • 6 We would like to address a word of thanks to Lionel Arnaud and all the anonymous reviewers of this (...)

6After first analysing how the increasing investment in author events allows Ombres Blanches to assume a distinctive role as cultural intermediary in proximity with the university space, we will next study the talks in practice, as “cultural” events, but characterized by several analogies with academic situations6.

1. Spreading Academic Culture with and alongside the University

7The bookshop studied presents itself, in the words of its manager in interview, as being more than a bookshop: a “cultural place like a theatre, cinema, or music venue”. The system of mediation of academic culture that author events constitute is one of the ways in which the bookshop assumes this cultural role, but also, in a distinctive logic, strengthens its position in the space of local (and national) bookshops by offering a large number of cultural events characterized by their proximity to the university space with the aim of disseminating the productions of an author who usually enjoys prior recognition.

1.1. “Opening the Door”: Establishing a Role as Cultural Intermediary

  • 7 According to the Centre national du livre, the term “librairie de 1er niveau” comes from the catego (...)

8The city of Toulouse is characterized by the presence of many bookshops: with about thirty listed, competition is particularly strong (Rimaud & Vacher 2016: 20). Ombres Blanches, located in the city centre, is in a special position because although it has the independent bookshop certification, it is far from the typical image of the small neighbourhood bookshop. In terms of turnover (around 10 million euros at the time of the survey), sales area, and number of employees, it is therefore similar to a large first-tier bookshop7 such as Kleber in Strasbourg, while remaining a fair way below other major names such as Mollat in Bordeaux (with a nearly 25-million-euro turnover for the same period), Decitre in Lyon (more than 60,000-million-euro turnover in 2017), or Le Furet du Nord (82-million-euro turnover). However, compared with the other general-interest city-centre bookshops in Toulouse—whether this be Gibert Joseph, located on the other side of the place du Capitole, with a 6,800,000-euro turnover and a much smaller range of new books; Privat (2,500,000-euro turnover), or Terra Nova and Floury Frères, which employ less than five employees and have a turnover of less than 500,000 euros—it stands out. Beyond the financial indicators, it is above all the bookshop’s activity that is a differentiating factor in the local space, both regarding cultural mass retail stores, such as FNAC located a few streets away, and to other independent bookshops in the city. The organization of events appears to be one of the central elements of distinction.

9Before the regular cycles of author talks were established at Ombres Blanches, several authors had already been welcomed “on a modest scale, and infrequently, but with conviction”, as company director Christian Thorel writes (2015: 25). The first social science author to be invited was Pierre Bourdieu, who came to present his book Distinction in 1979 following a proposal “from the university to host him near its city-centre campus” (Thorel 2015: 26). For this publication, the sociologist appeared during the same year on the television programme Apostrophes, which suggested that talks in bookshops should be considered in parallel with other spaces for the presentation of works: in university seminars; on television programmes; in radio broadcasts; or at a public meeting in a city (Mariojouls 2006). Rather than pitting these spaces against one another, we can instead observe the porosity and the transfers that may exist between these systems. Each framework of interaction has its own situational constraints that it is important to investigate, but forms of system may be relatively close, as we will show in relation to author events, which are established outside the walls of the university but which nevertheless reproduce certain codes. The organization of the first Ombres Blanches talk, initiated by the university, is a good illustration of the links established between the two spaces from the outset.

10From 1981, invitations were gradually systematized within the bookshop to “support the life of the bookshop and open it to the city” (Thorel 2015: 25-26). The book price law passed that same year provided a favourable context for the development of such activities. The fixed price system was indeed perceived, by actors supporting its introduction, as a means of shifting competition onto service and away from prices (Surel 1997: 154). While bookshops no longer differed in terms of their prices, they could still distinguish themselves in terms of what they offered and in particular in services related to the sale of books. In this context whereby symbolic distinction takes precedence over economic differentiation, the organization of cultural events is an essential tool which plays a role in the mediation of works, which aims, like publishing houses, to “reach a wider readership than the circle of specialists” (Auerbach 2009: 140), and builds a bookshop’s identity in the region.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 1.

Poster for promoting a meeting within the library.

Source: author’s repository.

  • 8 Former director of Les Éditions de Minuit, one of the most prestigious French publishing house in l (...)

11The events are part of a desire to “open the door” of the bookshop and to strengthen its “public” and “political” dimension, as explained in interview by Christian Thorel, who managed the store from 1978 to 2018. A central figure at Ombres Blanches, the latter has also long participated in national debates. Alongside the publisher Jérôme Lindon (1925-2001)8, he took a stand in favour of the fixed book price (Thorel 2021) and became vice-president of the French booksellers’ union (Syndicat de la librairie française) for several years. Very visible in the world of books, he is also an actor in the Toulouse cultural field and has held, for example, “in a personal capacity”, the positions of vice-president of Toulouse’s cinema institute (Cinémathèque) and treasurer of the Garonne theatre. Ombres Blanches’ place in the local and national space is thus closely linked to the career path, the multiple roles, and the network of its manager. Christian Thorel is also at the heart of the programme of the system of author events, which are an opportunity for him to “have a cup of tea” or have dinner with the authors with whom he enjoys “dining in the evening”. Over the years, he personally managed the calendar of invitations with a pencil and eraser, despite their intense proliferation. Indeed, the number of events continued to grow and, in 2011, a new position in “communications” was created specifically in view of the scale of the programme. The programme increased until it reached eight events per week. This then represents a significant expense for the company, or about 2.5% of its budget at the time of the survey, if we add up the payroll dedicated to this activity, contributions to meals and travel for stakeholders (authors are not paid for taking part and the publishing houses often cover costs relating to transport), the printing of posters and newsletters, and the payment of certain event leaders (only those whose job it is to facilitate talks, since others participate voluntarily). The very high number of events and the investment involved clearly distinguish Ombres Blanches from other bookshops in the city. Thus, in 2016, Ombres Blanches organized 417 events, compared with 70 for Terra Nova, the neighbouring much smaller independent bookshop.

  • 9 Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy of the right-wing UMP party.

12Ombres Blanches also stands out from larger bookshops such as Privat which favour other event formats that respondents consider to be more commercial, with guests who do not fit with Ombres Blanches’ “events policy”, as one booksellers pointed out: “Privat, for example, their policy is […] they had Sarkozy9. You’d never get Sarkozy here, but that’s how it is; our founding principles are different.” The events organizers at Ombres Blanches emphasize the fact that authors are not invited simply to “sign books” and “do promo”: as opposed to bookshops which offer “book-signing sessions”, Ombres Blanches offers an opportunity to “meet-the-author”, as one of them explains:

“We have always refused to do [just] a signing session; there is always a talk beforehand. Because this corresponds with all the work we do in the bookshop, in fact, we try to promote content and from the moment we try to promote content, when you invite an author it is to make them talk about what they put in their book; and it’s not just a kind of money machine.”

  • 10 See Article 1 of decree no. 2011-993 of 23 August 2011 relating to the “recommended bookshop” and “ (...)

13These events are thus designed not as commercial tools but as cultural happenings. They meet the specifications of independent bookshops which require an “all-year-round cultural programme with regularity and quality that is deemed sufficient by the committee responsible.10” The format of talk-debate allows authors to present their work more extensively and answer questions from the audience. The aim is to “promote the content” and transmit some background knowledge and information as per the editorial project behind the works presented. In contrast, book signings, which constitute the most widespread event format in bookshops (IPSOS 2019), are undermined on account of their mercantile nature, but also because they often target a less selective audience, and are thus a source of lower symbolic profits (Bourdieu 1991: 8). The same bookseller adds that the works presented “are not for the general public” and that they thereby address those who already have a certain level of knowledge. The events programmes, published by the communications department in the form of “newsletters”, also testify to a commitment to cultural forms established as legitimate. The iconographic choices of the newsletters (the vast majority of covers depicting reproductions of paintings) and their places of distribution (arthouse cinemas and theatres) reinforce the socially selective nature of the target audiences.

1.2. Valuing Selective Programming

14The orientation given to the programming is particularly revealing of the way in which the producers perceive the system. The importance given to HSS, the hosting of recognized authors, and the privileged links with certain publishing houses are all elements that contribute to producing this socially distinctive cultural offer.

15According to the manager of Ombres Blanches, “the very construction of a programme of events is a permanent declaration of intent”, confirming the importance given to the task of selecting books to promote a certain notion of the bookshop and to distinguish it from the competition (Noël 2020). The choice of guest authors deviates from the commercial successes of the day (“If you look at the programme, you will see that there are few best-selling writers”) and privileges specialized segments of editorial production. Talks specifically devoted to HSS represent nearly a quarter of events organized by the store. They are supported by the “humanities” section, which occupies a prominent place in the Ombres Blanches product range and generates profits every year, as the section manager notes in a book dedicated to HSS publishing (Pericaud 2020). The bookshop is one of the main places where students and researchers can obtain specialized books in their discipline. The importance given to HSS thus contributes to its positioning in the local space.

16The care put into creating the events programme aims to retain an informed audience, attentive to the quality of what is on offer, as a bookseller explains in interview: “The regulars in particular have not necessarily read everything, but come because ‘it’s an Ombres Blanches event’ and the programme is interesting in any case.” The survey confirms that the audience is interested in events without having read the books first: only three of the forty-five visitors surveyed state that they have read the book before the presentation. The regular audience thus appears to recognize the legitimacy of Ombres Blanches and to trust its choice of authors (Sapiro et al. 2015: 113). Another factor is that the programmes distributed by the bookshop systematically display evidence of the reputation of the authors it welcomes such as their academic position or previously published books. For more than 70% of invited authors, the newsletters mention at least one work, in addition to the one that is the subject of the presentation. There are sometimes up to six titles cited in the short biography on each page of the programme. The high number of publications, especially from recognized publishers, acts as a mark of legitimacy. Ombres Blanches therefore subscribes to a logic of recognition of authors who are already established, or about to be, which allows it to maintain its own legitimacy.

17The store is one of the links in the distribution of “current” books—that is to say, of recent publication—but which are then intended to constitute the bookshop stock. It is thus one of the main local authorities for the consecration and mediation of academic works, at the interface between the world of books and that of the university.

18Ombres Blanches has indeed forged strong links with some local university spaces, maintained over the years via the many HSS events. For example, it relies on teachers from certain grandes école preparatory classes in the city centre, from the history department of université Jean-Jaurès, and from the Institut d’études politiques de Toulouse to lead sessions and discuss the presentations. Nearly a quarter of the events held between 2013 and 2017 also featured publications by the city’s researchers. Whether the latter are authors or comperes, they generally announce the event within local research spaces via the mailing lists of their research laboratories, of their affiliated institutions, or of networks they participate in, such as the Arpège network around research on gender. External colleagues being invited to a university seminar in Toulouse is sometimes coupled with a presentation of their latest book at Ombres Blanches; or, conversely, the promotional tour of the book can become an opportunity to organize an event between peers. Communication emails then specify that “this seminar will be followed by a talk at the Ombres Blanches bookshop”, registering the store as a direct extension of the academic space. In a less systematic way, lecturers disseminate information to students in their classes or by exchanging emails on “promotion” lists. At the presentation of Le Beau livre de l’Antiquité by Laurent Avezou, a school student in the Lycée Fermat preparatory class for the École nationale des Chartes thus told us that he had come with a dozen classmates to hear his teacher. “We knew nothing about Antiquity, but we thought it was a nice idea.” Some invitations lead to a strong student presence, such as Bernard Lahire on L’Interprétation sociologique des rêves in March 2018, organized in conjunction with the Institut d’études politiques de Toulouse. The multiple interventions of actors from local HSS academic institutions (as guest author, audience, promoter, or co-organizer of events) thus help to anchor the bookshop in Toulouse’s university landscape. Ombres Blanches also greatly contributes to the organization of the L’histoire à venir (Future History) festival, a major scientific event in the city organized every year since 2017.

19There is therefore a whole network of relationships maintained by the bookshop to fuel the system and bring in the public. The “linchpins”, as those in charge of the events are called, assemble around twenty people “who are key in Toulouse” to mobilize certain audiences. These are people from the university world, but also the worlds of local culture and community. For example, Ombres Blanches maintains strong relations with the activist organization Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions and Citizen’s Action (Association pour la Taxation des transactions financières et pour l’action citoyenne, ATTAC) and the association linked to the Le Monde diplomatique newspaper (Amis du Monde diplomatique) in Toulouse.

20Close collaboration with certain publishing houses is another central element in the construction of the programming. While the bookshop is usually the distribution space for editorial production, author events give another dimension to this intermediary role. According to one of the managers, two-thirds of events are organized in collaboration with publishing houses. Programming therefore requires working alongside them on a daily basis and forging close ties with some. According to the division—accentuated by the Lang law—between “creative and/or independent bookshops” and “commercial bookshops”, Ombres Blanches is explicitly located on the side of the first pole, and therefore the pole of restricted publishing production that is linked to it (Leblanc 2010: 11). The similarity of their positions and the sharing of certain positions with regard to the production and trade of books enable this collaboration and, on the other hand, help explain the absence of certain other publishing houses in the events programming. The discourse on cultural industries put forward by independent bookshops is similar, in particular, to that of “small publishers” on many points. Their collaboration thus makes it possible “to celebrate a community of situation and vision, but also to access readers, and to compensate in part for the weakness of the media coverage from which their titles generally benefit” (Noël 2012: 77).

  • 11 Christian Thorel’s book on Le Seuil, published following the acquisition of the Martinière group by (...)

21Analysis of the newsletters shows above all the great diversity of the publishing houses behind the books selected for the talks programme with more than a hundred for the 382 HSS events listed, including regional publishers, although their involvement is relatively ad hoc. This is the case, for example, for Éditions Loubatières (with two events organized between 2013 and 2017), Presses universitaires du Midi (six events over the period), and Éditions Le Pas d’oiseau (one event). While the bookshop thus plays the “local” card, its programme of events testifies at the same time to its national scale, which is embodied in close links with leading publishing houses on this scale. “The houses we love”, as Christian Thorel calls them, indeed regularly participate in events, such as Le Seuil (47 times over the period studied11), La Découverte (29 times), and Gallimard (22 times). Unlike other publishing houses which have to make the move to contact Ombres Blanches to organize the promotion of their authors, these publishers are solicited systematically and several times a year. It is thus Christian Thorel who, looking at the publication programme, suggests to La Découverte certain authors to invite.

22The central place given to these publishing houses of established legitimacy can appear as a guarantee of quality. It is also explained by their dominant position in the HSS editorial market, where, while they are not specialist publishers, they continue to stock their humanities catalogue despite the prominence of discourse on the “crisis”, and manage to get the balance right (Auerbach 2020). Their strong presence in the author events programme is furthermore matched in the bookshop stock. The close relations created with these major publishing houses since the company’s beginnings are maintained by author events as much as they are the condition of their success. The events system thus participates in the construction and maintenance of Ombres Blanches’ position in the publishing industry.

1.3. The Expression of a Disinterested Relationship to Culture

23In addition, author events make it possible to place more emphasis on the cultural role played by the bookshop than on the economic and commercial dimension of its activity. While symbolic differentiation is central among independent bookshops, it is the absence of any claim or even the rejection of an explicit strategy aimed at building a “brand image” that predominates in the discourse of the Ombres Blanches manager.

“One day, there was a young man who had set up a communications start-up who said to me: ‘I’d like to have lunch with you and talk about how you wrote the [bookshop] brand.’ I said: ‘Listen, if you want us to have lunch, first you will change your vocabulary and then we will see.’ (Christian Thorel, bookshop manager)

24Here we see the self-assurance of the speaker rejected for his reference to the economic foundations of the bookshop. The bookseller’s antipathy towards him attests to the denial or euphemization of economic interests, which is a characteristic posture of agents of the cultural field (Bourdieu 1977). However, the fact that the store can afford to organize and guarantee the running of so many events is also a result of its relative financial stability, and the discourse on disinterest masks the conditions which enable this. In interview Christian Thorel discusses the bookshop’s ambivalence, caught “between two extremes” of “globalized trade” and the “supposedly small and local world.” Claiming the category of “independent” bookshop is not self-evident: it has been the subject of struggle (Noël & Pinto 2018) and is a representation issue, both internally (it falls within a certain definition of the profession) and for laypersons (it justifies the role of booksellers in the public space). In addition, to invest in a programme of events is also to claim certain endorsements (such as the LiR certification) and state funding, and it could be argued that it is a characteristic example of the “Small Business Front” described by Charles W. Mills (1951: 44). While the manager claims a dominant position by arguing that it is these companies that “provide work”, the “capitalist model” is very quickly tempered during the interview by emphasis on a “collective idea” consisting of “a long-term service to the ideas contained in the books”. This idea is reflected in the discourse of the employees at Ombres Blanches, who maintain the vision of a bookshop that is a part of the “life of the city”, and play upon the structuring oppositions of the cultural field (for example, quality versus quantity, restricted versus large-scale production) where, while the commercial interacts with the cultural, it is the latter aspect that is privileged.

25The scenography of the events system follows this logic of economic disinterest. The question of selling appears to be dismissed by the relegation, in a scarcely visible corner, of the books relating to the talk. In fact, author events are less about sales (their direct economic benefits are for the most part uncertain), and more about contributing to cultural life, which, as a competing bookseller acknowledges, “is part of this ‘plus’ that an independent bookshop brings”. Purchase of the book remains possible after the talk, though—as the compere reminds the audience. In addition, the communication tools around the event (in-store posters and the newsletters) contribute to the promotion of the book and can affect sales—although the organizers struggle evaluate this. The survey shows that nearly three quarters of attendees are bookshop customers. Of the forty-five participants whom we spoke to at the talks, thirty-two said they had bought at least one book from Ombres Blanches in the past twelve months. We may therefore assume that the events fuel an attachment to this bookshop and promote purchases there rather than from another store. While the organizers are more interested in the number of participants than in the quantity of books sold, the booksellers from the HSS section, who participate less directly in the creation of the events (although they might, for example, present some of them), maintain the aim of “selling books”. The sales objective remains at the heart of the definition of their professional identity, and the ideal of being at the forefront of local cultural life must not, in their eyes, eliminate economic needs. This is what emerges from the interview with one of the people in charge of the humanities section, who makes sales a criterion for evaluating events.

“[One of the booksellers from the HSS section] hosted an event on migrants in Calais. Apparently, there were seven people, but the seven people bought a book. So very good, it’s a very good event.

26Conversely, when the number of books sold is minimal, this bookseller’s disappointment is clear. “When everyone in the room looks very happy, very satisfied, and at the end you sell one or two copies of the book, it’s a bit…” The posture of disinterest therefore remains unequally spread among interviewees, depending on their role within the bookshop. It is much less of a concern for the section managers, who are closer to economic demands and more concerned with sales figures, than for the event organizers, who invest more in the symbolic register.

27This ambiguity of the system manifests itself in the way attendees are considered: are they customers in a commercial place or audience at a cultural place? The representations and expectations of the organizers towards them also emphasize a disinterested relationship to culture. For example, when managers claim not to understand why students do not come to events more often, they rekindle a perception of the ideal student they remember being (“In my time, I didn’t think twice about skipping classes to go to this type of talk”, states one manager). The booksellers’ complaints and the emphasis on “discovery” illustrate the universalization of their own relationship to legitimate culture, lived as free and disinterested (Bourdieu 1984: 23). At Ombres Blanches like elsewhere (Noël 2018: 58; Leblanc 2010: 2), booksellers’ shared notions of reading, readers, and of the place of the bookshop are thus strongly anchored in their own trajectories. The difficulties encountered at the beginning of our investigation are another illustration of this vision of the public and of the system. Managers’ initial refusal to allow the inclusion of questions relating to participants’ professions testifies to their belief in a socially unlocated public that would act only out of “intellectual pleasure” and “curiosity”. One of the managers justified this refusal by resorting to the image of a cultural event “like others”—free and socially disembedded—because he “likes there to be a free aspect”. This distancing of utilitarianism as well as of the enabling conditions of the practice actively participates in the vision of an ideal imagined audience. Another manager presents a working knowledge of audiences which does not require the slightest form of objectification: “The Toulouse bourgeois do not come to meetings. The petty bourgeois do. The petty bourgeois, he is a teacher.” This figure of the “teacher”, and behind it, the emphasis on legitimate culture, seems particularly present within the system of author events. It refers to university lecturers either when they come to present their book, or sometimes (even often) when they are chosen to lead a session. It is also embodied in the audience: in part the real audience, but especially the audience as anticipated by the producers of the system. Finally, we find it in the subtext of the practical form taken by the talks, behind the closed doors of the room dedicated to them, and which are similar in many aspects to academic lectures.

2. The Difficult Euphemization of the Author-Reader Barrier

28Our observation of the system corroborates the analysis behind its conception: the physical arrangement of author events and their temporal sequence; and participant behaviours reflect the porosity between the bookshop and the university space.

2.1. All Hail the Author

29Booksellers present author events as an opportunity not only to attend but also to participate in an exchange, with the idea that this favours the breakdown of the distance between author and reader. The reality of the encounters is much more nuanced. Booksellers, like librarians, help construct the figure of the author by placing her or him “at the heart of the scenographic arrangement” (Guillopé 2019: 66-68). The guest is on a slightly raised platform facing the audience. The contrast between the black of the platform and the light wood of the floor visually accentuates the delimitation between stage and room, which are also separated by several meters, marking “a clear separation between the role of the speaker and that of the audience” (Gumperz 1989: 70).

Fig. 2.

Fig. 2.

Platform for the lecturer and the interviewer.

Source : authors’ repository.

30Lawrence W. Levine (1990) emphasized the symbolic importance of such spatial division of cultural places. It is also reminiscent of the university, referring to a lecture given to students. The arrangement of the space builds the same symbolic distance as between teacher and students. Asymmetry embodies and constructs the authority of the author presented as a knowledge-holder. The authors are also highlighted in the newsletters, which introduce them (mainly through their professional status and their other publications) before the summary of the work which the session relates to. They are also emphasized by the bookshop staff (“We’ve got some real gems!” exclaims the person in charge of the events with genuine joy) and in the laudatory presentations of guest speakers by the compere at the beginning of each event. “These are people who have knowledge, a way of speaking; they command respect”, a member of the audience also explains to us before a talk. This formula reflects an alignment of the points of view of event producers and receptors regarding the authors’ social value.

31The distribution of speaking time prolongs this asymmetry of positions. It marks the privilege granted to the authors’ words at the expense of the exchange with the audience. The time devoted to it is already only thirty minutes in theory. Moreover, it is very often shortened to ten minutes or even dropped when an author exceeds her or his allotted talking time. It also takes a while to get off the ground: many people leave the room at the end of the talk, and a long silence can precede the beginning of the exchange with the audience when nobody dares speak first. It is usually the host, or someone known to the author who ends up speaking. The sense of interconnectedness that is reflected when a first name is added to the author’s thanks addressed to the person who asked the question (“Thank you, Nicole, for this question”, or “yes Mathieu?”) undoubtedly reinforces the feeling of illegitimacy to speak out for audience members who cannot claim it.

32This asymmetrical distribution of place between author and audience evokes social science teaching in a lecture theatre and the academic linguistic market, whose expectations determine the impact of the censorship and the activation of speech (Bourdieu 1991). The dominant format is that of a lecture similar to those at university (Boyer & Coridian 2002). The professorial analogy is, furthermore, sometimes explicit, and the pedagogical role put forward as justification for the event. Christian Thorel thus introduced the economist François Morin, author of L’économie politique du xxie siècle (the political economy of the 21st century), by saying to him: “Thank you for making yourself available for an economics lesson” (podcast of 04/27/2017). Nevertheless, the absence of obligation and evaluation strongly distinguishes author events from university education. In this regard, the discomfort of certain participants when faced with the proposal of a survey questionnaire can be read as a rejection of an academic test in a cultural situation that they perceive as being free and disinterested.

2.2. Publics Adjusted to the System: Between Reverential Posture and Selective Participation

33The majority of those who make up the audience at the author events are either greatly endowed with cultural capital or keen to acquire it, in a posture of cultural willingness. This predictable observation, given its classic status in the sociology of culture, allows us to question what this sociocultural property fosters in terms of ways of investing in the system.

Fig. 3.

Fig. 3.

Meetings’ room.

Source: authors’ repository.

34The attendees we spoke to first declared that they read regularly, with half even falling into the “avid reader” category as defined in national surveys of cultural practices (although these data must be considered with caution because of the potential retrospective bias induced by the question, Fabiani 2004), reading twenty or more books per year (DEPS 2008). This appetite for reading is accompanied by a stated liking of the most legitimate works, such as this man who compares Aragon to a “hard drug”; or this woman who, praising Proust as a “seminal author, a literary genius”, confesses as if to a guilty pleasure that she occasionally reads “thrillers, for amusement”. In accordance with established trends in the social distribution of cultural practices, these events are located in the “universe of cultivated leisure activities” (Coulangeon 2011: 33). Such activities continue to capture an audience endowed with cultural and academic capital, such as a neuroscience-themed event which “addresses an audience whose characteristics are close—in terms of level of training and socio-professional categories—to those of its speakers” (Lemerle 2021: 144). And this is especially true since, unlike other cultural fields outside the academic system, which require specific learning, participation in author talks is similar to previous experiences from the academic setting and does not therefore require the creation of new skills for those who possess “legitimate academic skills” (Lahire 2013: 175).

  • 12 For an extreme example in which “the rules of the game of a panel discussion are discussed,” see (M (...)

35The social homogeneity of audiences is reinforced by the way in which participants find out about the events: as in the case of theatre visits (Pasquier 2012), word of mouth is one of the main ways of circulating information. Eighteen of forty-five respondents said they had been informed of the event by this means. Twenty others said they had found out from newsletters distributed at cultural sites around Toulouse. Cultural willingness appears strong among participants. Frequent nods of approval express the attention they are paying to and their recognition of the author throughout the talk, and contrast with the self-censorship, visible at question time, which is favoured by the spatial organization and leads to participants looking around to see who “dares” raise their hand12. Involvement in the discussion is minimal even when permitted: respectful silence is the dominant attitude and, as elsewhere, “participants, even those who are involved, remain relatively ‘passive’” (Deluermoz & Singaravélou 2019: 421). In fact, the interaction framework favours actualizing dispositions of recognition of an asymmetry which remains in situation between author and audience, confining those present within a position of receiver (Rabot 2012: 373).

36The reverent posture produced by the interaction framework is exacerbated in the case of student audiences. Their presence may be imposed, for example when a teacher makes a talk the extension of a lesson. However, they are most often under no obligation to attend. But it remains justified by the objective of acquiring knowledge likely to be reinvested at university, especially in cases where a teacher has explicitly encouraged their students to attend an event of which they are sometimes the compere. Unlike the other attendees, students almost always have a sheet or notebook on their lap to write down what seems relevant. Like in a university class, they listen carefully to the speaker and take notes as soon as the tone used, or the emphasis placed on certain words, signals an “important” sentence. Such an audience is all the more inclined to conform to the implicit academic elements of the situation, which they relate to routine patterns of acting and being with regard to teachers. As they state in the informal discussions conducted before or after events, their presence is primarily motivated by the possibility of acquiring information that can be mobilized in the academic context. This is the case for a 22-year-old history master’s student who came to the Jean-François Muracciole talk on the advice of one of his teachers because, in the context of his studies, he “does personal research on the same subject”. This self-interested use of events certainly implies that, in a context characterized by increased access to higher education, the value of a reading is, for at least some students, determined by the added value they may derive from it for their studies (Dendani 1998; Beaud 2002). This self-interested investment evokes the uses of reading which Gérard Mauger and Claude Poliak have shown rarely elude the motivations of entertainment, learning, and even salvation (Mauger & Poliak 1998).

  • 13 This observation is in line with the results of a survey on audiences of oral events at the Centre (...)

37At the same time, these majority attitudes of withdrawal coexist with other postures that are more demonstrative, more participative, and more confident, with contributions to the discussion that are more assertive than interrogative in tone. These are mostly made by people who know the subject at hand. While interest in “the theme” is a frequent motivation for event attendees, their questions and comments reveal and imply not only curiosity about an unknown subject but rather familiarity with the presented theme13. Knowing the subject gives attendees the legitimacy to speak. The discussion that follows an hour-long talk by the lawyer and sociologist Jacques Commaille is an illustration of this. A woman immediately mentions that she is a lawyer as a token of legitimacy to show that the “credit earned by her statement is fully justified” (Pinto 1984: 107). She then demonstrates her ability to speak on a specialized subject, talking for more than five minutes. The end of her remarks testify not only to her mastery of the subject, but also to her ability to formulate and assume a personal opinion before a specialist:

“This is a problem, in my opinion, which I think people should be interested in, namely dejudiciarization and alternative forms of dispute resolution which are being developed. That is to say, today we are putting bad deals in place, and even more than bad deals: bad trials. Today we see the dismantling of exactly what I was taught, that is to say that access to a judge—which is actually a fundamental and international principle, and we’re not talking about Europe which claims it and of course recommends it—for financial reasons, today joins the issue of the judicial map: we increasingly restrict access to a judge by developing alternative modes. So you were talking about mediation, it is true that we are going towards mediation, but I personally deplore it.” [emphasis added]

  • 14 According to a phenomenon close to that observable in terms of political competence, in its both ob (...)

38Thus contributions can be underpinned by specific skills acquired through professional socialization which make participants feel more confident. The distribution of questions and comments here is therefore, like in other contexts, largely influenced by the presence of people who have a sense of legitimacy to intervene on the themes covered14. These interactions are also linked to the fact that humanities and social science events can be places of academic sociability. Some sessions organized around publications by local researchers are particularly favourable to making an acquaintance known. So it is at one of the events observed where the two authors present play on their acquaintance with a portion of the audience. For example, one of them says during the presentation: “All the modernists in the room know this very well.” The other, after citing the work of a historian colleague, asks the room: “Are you here, Pierre?” Reserved seats and greeting signals addressed to latecomers are other signs of these links between speaker and audience. The exchanges thus resemble an interaction between colleagues, in an extension of the university.

39Attendees therefore invest in different ways in the system of high cultural content that author events constitute—in the double sense of investing oneself in and investing one’s time into, which is part of the principle of the accumulation of cultural capital. Nevertheless, all these audience appropriations in the end have in common their approach to modes of interaction that are present in the university space by means of a crossover effect between the implicit expectations of the system and dispositions through which they invest in it.


40Located on the margins of market activity, “meet-the-author” events are an aspect that is part of a contemporary transformation of bookshops. Similar to art “tours”, these talks become a form of mediation of publications that is increasingly widespread in the book industry. The case Ombres Blanches shows that this reconfiguration of bookshop activity is based on the principle of a local humanities and social science cultural resource through which the store acts as an instance of hybrid consecration at the border between the university and the general public. The bookshop is all the more invested in the system since it views it as a tool with which to maintain its symbolic capital in a close relationship with the academic world. Beyond this case, bookshop events could thus constitute a particularly fruitful field of study to shed light on transformations taking place between the cultural and academic fields and their effect on the uneven circulation of knowledge produced by the humanities and social science today.

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1 Known as the “Lang Law” (Loi Lang) after Jack Lang, the French Minister of Culture responsible for creating the law.

2 French National Book Centre, a public agency which operates with the French Ministry of Culture to support all actors in the publishing sector.

3 Toulouse, located in the south-west of France (the Occitania region), is the fourth largest city in the country with 493,465 inhabitants in 2019 (INSEE 2022). Toulouse is distinctive for being a university city, or even a “host territory” for students (Mirouse 2015). Indeed, in 2019, 19% of the population aged 15 to 64 were pupils, students, or unpaid interns or trainees (INSEE 2022). Finally, the central sector of activity is aeronautics – with the presence of Airbus – but also the IT sector, which makes it a city with a significant proportion of executives and higher intellectual professions (31,5% in 2019 compared with 19% in France).

4 See “Bookshop Rankings”, Livres Hebdo n°1219, 24 May 2019. The ranking was based on bookshops’ turnover and compared 400 French bookshops in 2019.

5 The majority of respondents were women (32 out of 45) from the middle and upper classes. In particular, there were 20 students (who were studying grande école preparatory classes, a bachelor’s or master’s in history or anthropology, the brevet de technicien supérieur in graphic design, or at the Institut d'études politiques de Toulouse) and 11 teachers (from primary school to university level, sometimes retired), with almost all respondents being higher education graduates or in the process of becoming so. Aged from 18 to 84 years, they lived mainly in Toulouse, although a few came from the outskirts to attend an event.

6 We would like to address a word of thanks to Lionel Arnaud and all the anonymous reviewers of this article.

7 According to the Centre national du livre, the term “librairie de 1er niveau” comes from the categorization carried out by book sales representatives and refers to the biggest bookshops, which represent 60-75% of publishers’ turnover.

8 Former director of Les Éditions de Minuit, one of the most prestigious French publishing house in literature.

9 Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy of the right-wing UMP party.

10 See Article 1 of decree no. 2011-993 of 23 August 2011 relating to the “recommended bookshop” and “independent bookshop” certifications.

11 Christian Thorel’s book on Le Seuil, published following the acquisition of the Martinière group by Média-Participations in 2017, is a further illustration of his close relationship to this publisher (Thorel 2017).

12 For an extreme example in which “the rules of the game of a panel discussion are discussed,” see (Mariojouls 2006: 121).

13 This observation is in line with the results of a survey on audiences of oral events at the Centre Pompidou’s public reading library (BPI): “Why do people choose a particular conference topic? Profession and field of study are the main lures” (Camus 2008: 4).

14 According to a phenomenon close to that observable in terms of political competence, in its both objective and subjective dimensions (Gaxie 1978), about which work on participatory democracy mechanisms regularly confirms people’s differentiated propensities to make verbal contributions.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1.
Légende Poster for promoting a meeting within the library.
Crédits Source: author’s repository.
Fichier image/png, 1,1M
Titre Fig. 2.
Légende Platform for the lecturer and the interviewer.
Crédits Source : authors’ repository.
Fichier image/jpeg, 258k
Titre Fig. 3.
Légende Meetings’ room.
Crédits Source: authors’ repository.
Fichier image/jpeg, 36k
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Thomas Douniès, Cyriac Gousset et Maialen Pagiusco, « Talks in the Bookshop: A Social Science Cultural Programme on the Margins of the University »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 11 | 2022, mis en ligne le 25 décembre 2022, consulté le 31 janvier 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Thomas Douniès

PhD student in political science, université de Picardie Jules-Verne, Curapp-ESS / Cresppa-CSU

Cyriac Gousset

PhD student in political science, Sciences Po Toulouse, LaSSP

Maialen Pagiusco

PhD student in political science, Sciences Po Toulouse, LaSSP

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