Browsing for books in France still holds the promise of discovery in the country’s three thousand independent shops—triple the number to be found in Britain. A wide range of books are stocked at their cover price, in contrast to the mountains of discounted titles filling the predominant chainstores in the us and uk. Small publishing houses, as well as the outlets likely to read and recommend their lists, are kept afloat by the exception culturelle and prix unique du livre when the industry otherwise is driven by speed and profit margins, not the originality and rigour of content. But the French model is progressively aligning itself with the market-oriented system elsewhere, in which new books tend to be catalogued months in advance, or are gap-fillers—bought already written, usually by a celebrity chef or sportsperson’s ghost-writer, and churned out immediately to meet the targets for that fiscal year. Like washing machines and cars, the aim is for the shortest possible shelf-life.

La Trahison des éditeurs by Thierry Discepolo expels any lingering notion that France is an independent-publishing bastion. This is a myth, he argues, and it is not a benign one: the longer it is sustained, the longer the ideals contained in it are destroyed. La Trahison states what should be obvious but is systematically denied or covered up: the publishing field in France is falling in line with the us and uk models, and the process has intensified since the 1980s, when buy-outs and mergers began rapidly succeeding one another and the industry moved towards an alarming state of concentration. By 2002, with the Hachette–Vivendi fusion, the entrepreneur, arms manufacturer and Nicolas Sarkozy’s erstwhile chou-chou Arnaud Lagardère and his affiliate controlled 98 per cent of French dictionaries, 82 per cent of school books, over 50 per cent of the popular paperback format livre de poche, 45 per cent of general literature and 65 per cent of distribution in the country—an unrivalled monopoly. To claim France offers an alternative is wrong and dangerous. It encourages complacency about an illusion, and to all those Francophiles who indulge in such romanticism, Discepolo’s book is a cold shower. Why, he asks, should France respond any differently to the same shifts that have taken place elsewhere?

Would the owners of French publishing houses really be the only ones to buy up businesses in order to allow the old bosses who have become their employees to better flourish in their careers, by protecting them from the burdens of management and profitability? Would they be the only ones to never concern themselves with their employees’ choices and use of resources? And would the new employees be the only ones not to internalize and anticipate the rules and orders from their new leaders? What is law everywhere else—the power of capital—would not apply here?

La Trahison des éditeurs—a title evoking Benda’s Trahison des clercs, though Discepolo never directly mentions it—completes a quartet of critical interventions on the media that was started by Pierre Bourdieu in 1996 with Sur la télévision. This was followed a year later by Serge Halimi’s attack on French journalism and its collusion with the political elite, Les Nouveaux chiens de garde, and in 2007, Marie Bénilde’s charge against advertising, On achète bien les cerveaux. All four share the same France-focused project: to expose the key industries engaged in controlling minds and shutting down debate. Each is designed to go off like a gunshot: short, sharp, to the heart of the matter, and, in the case of Discepolo and Halimi, witty as well. The latter two are closest in style and format, with toe-curling quotations culled from the main culprits themselves, and in their surgical qualities, with end-of-chapter extracts unpicking specific cases in minute detail. Discepolo’s tone is darker and more satirical, however; he gets his punches in through rhetorical questions or sarcastic asides. Taken together, the portrait of French intellectual culture that the quartet paint is bleak and alarming: puerile television shows crammed full of advertising breaks, servile news presenters and equally obedient journalists all singing from the hymn sheet of la pensée unique.

Born in 1962 to Italian immigrant parents, Discepolo grew up in southern France. He started but never completed two theses, one in neurobiology, the other in philosophy. Though never a member of any political organization, he was associated with the French far left. In 1990, he set up the journal Agone and eight years later founded the Marseille-based publishing house of the same name, which begins producing a French version of this journal at the end of 2012. Agone’s catalogue reflects Discepolo’s intellectual affiliations and influences: foremost Bourdieu, whom he first met in 1997 and whose characterization of the publishing field serves as a blueprint for his own critique. Others include Paul Nizan, Karl Kraus, Jacques Bouveresse—and from across the Atlantic, Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn. La Trahison is Discepolo’s first book, and one evidently written out of a necessity felt by a practising publisher rather than to realize a burning ambition to be an author.

Discepolo concentrates his attack on four key players on the French scene—Gallimard, Actes Sud, Hachette and La Découverte—and draws out three main issues. Firstly, the myth perpetuated by the remaining large independent publishers that they are different from the media conglomerates. The gap between Gallimard or Actes Sud and Hachette is now barely perceptible, though its bosses often claim otherwise. Discepolo then moves on to puncture the so-called renewed editorial engagement with anti-capitalism, which reveals more about the big publishers having an eye for a hot topic, and a vested interest in stamping their authority on the scene, than it does about a left-wing resurgence at the heart of the industry. Finally, he takes aim at writers, especially supposedly engaged academics who pick the biggest publishers to print their critiques while simultaneously bemoaning their rise. Whatever their claims of doing this ‘for the people’, Discepolo calls it hypocrisy.

La Trahison des éditeurs does not offer a full historical account of French publishing but takes a more idiosyncratic approach, picking a handful of key figures to focus on and using the fawning descriptions from journalists, or, usually worse, the words of the editors themselves, to expose their pretensions. Discepolo follows up every high moral claim with a devilish contradicting detail. A strong picture of the transformation of the industry nevertheless emerges from the partial portraits in each chapter and the chronological summary of the final pages. Three distinct phases can be discerned. First, 1800s–1920s, when publishing went from the small family business epitomized by the houses set up by bookseller-editors such as Louis Hachette (1826), Ernest Flammarion (1876), Albin Michel (1903), Bernard Grasset (1907) and Gaston Gallimard (1911), towards a larger, near-industrial model by the end of the First World War. The second phase, from the 1920s–80s was initially very lively, with a number of notables founded in that time, including La Pléiade (1922), Seuil (1935), José Corti (1938), Éditions de Minuit (1941), Presses de la Cité (1943), L’Arche (1948), Éditions Maspero (1959), capped by the latecomer Actes Sud (1978). A major takeover phase also started in this period: Gallimard aquired Denoël in 1951; Hachette took Grasset three years later, then Fayard in 1958, Stock in 1961; Presses de la Cité acquired both Rocher and Juillard in 1965. But none of this destabilized what was still a relatively protected industry. It is in the third phase, commencing around 1980, that the biggest changes have taken place, as French publishing has become increasingly controlled by the ‘big six’: Hachette Livre–Lagardère, Albin Michel, Gallimard, Actes Sud, Editis–Planeta, La Martinière–Chanel. As a result, France increasingly resembles the us model, in which the five biggest publishing companies are responsible for 80 per cent of the books on the American market.