Impact Journalism Day 2017

Food for thought: selling books at the price of bread

Vincent Safrat realised that a book’s price goes up due to high distribution costs. Photo: Le Figaro  

It’s Sunday on a long spring weekend in Paris, and the mini Parisians of the 18th arrondissement are all jostling for a spot in the Jacqueline de Romilly library.

The children make their way towards the stacks of books piled up at the Lire c’est partir stand, which has been set up as part of the Salon du Livre de Jeunesse Solidaire (the Youth Solidarity Book Fair). The children’s shared sense of excitement makes it hard to move, never mind reach one of the coveted works of fiction.

This hyperactivity has a sole reason: as if by magic, these little ones — who have never owned a book in their lives — are suddenly proprietors of a novel or two. Once in their hands, the frantic reading of these tales begins.

Without delay, Sophie dives into Neige Blanche et les 7 geants (Snow White and the Seven Giants), while Paul joins the queue to get his copy of L’Apprenti Mousquetaire (The Apprentice Musketeer) signed by the illustrator Gregoire Vallancien, who is there alongside several authors.

At only 80 cents each, these books are a bargain. In this quarter, not far from the Paris ring road and bordering Saint-Ouen — a low-income suburb — Vincent Safrat has brought a little happiness to more than one home.


Safrat may not run in the prestigious Saint-Germain-des-Pres literary circles, but that didn’t stop him selling around 2.5 million books in 2016.

So what’s the secret behind this publishing disruptor?

The key lies in the price: since a children’s book costs an average of seven euros, Lire c’est partir is able to defy all market competition hands down.

What may look like a tour de force from the outside is actually just an idea based on a simple equation: “60% of the price of a book is from distribution costs.” Therefore, in discarding traditional transport channels and instead taking on the distribution himself, Safrat is able to drastically reduce his expenses. Even the printing only costs 30 cents for a paperback with less than 160 pages. As for the publisher’s profit margin (which is usually around 15% on average), with Lire c’est partir, it’s non-existent.

For the company’s founder, “any profit is a scam.”

It’s not everyday you meet a literary miracle worker like Safrat, who’s able to sell books like they’re bread rolls – and at the same price as a baguette.

Having grown up in the suburbs of Essonne, this self-educated book enthusiast came into reading a little late. Through discovering Gustave Flaubert’s L’Education Sentimentale (Sentimental Education), he had a real revelation. “I believe that reading can replace studying. Hence my notion of bringing reading to those who don’t read.”

A hunt for unsold books

In 1992, following his first experience of the publishing world, Vincent Safrat began visiting different publishing houses on a daily basis to pick up their unsold books, which are usually destined for the scrap heap. He would then go door-to-door to distribute them every weekend for free around the Essonne region.

“It’s the gratitude that the parents express for their kids that strikes me..”

However, despite the support of some of the biggest names in the business like Robert Laffont, many publishers have been hard to convince.

Obviously, part of Safrat’s success is in being able to print these works himself at low cost. In 1998, a friendly salesman explained to him that a paperback doesn’t cost much more than a franc to make — a fact that had an immediate effect on Safrat. That’s when — despite being on government income support (RMI) — he took the risk of ordering 400,000 copies that he then needed to sell in under four months.

When Safrat realised that many schools lack the means to equip themselves, he had a second light-bulb moment. This was when he decided to make educational institutions his company’s main focus. Through Lire c’est partir, schools are free to buy books for their students.

“He has revolutionised the market economy because he thinks differently,” says the writer and co-founder of Lire et Faire Lire, Alexandre Jardin. Lire c’est partir has 12 employees and six vans distributing books, and even Vincent Safrat finally has a salary.

(This article was originally published in Le Figaro)

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 11:02:09 PM |

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