Cooperation. Balance. Business. Erwan Leseul does business the way he leads his life: everything in its right place. Vice president of publishing at Les Éditions de l’Homme, Québec’s venerable publishing house, Erwan Leseul doesn’t own a bookcase: “My professional life is brimming with books. Once I have read a book, I don’t hold on to it, I give it to someone else or I abandon the book on a park bench so that it finds its way into someone else’s hands.”
By passing from one hand to another, Les Éditions de l’Homme has changed many times over the past six decades, selling, worldwide, over 25 million books in the process. In the 1990s, the publishing house dove headfirst in what was then a niche market: self-help books. Now, Les Éditions de l’Homme is Québec’s premiere book publisher, the third best seller of self-help books in France, a seller of foreign rights for more than 500 titles, and an emerging buyer of American rights for self-help, psychology, cooking, coffee-table, and reference books.
“In the last decade, there has definitely been a sense that the perception French and American publishers have of Québec publishers has changed,” says Leseul. “Gone are the days when French publishers would fight tooth and nail for the worldwide rights of a book. Now, with the current market conditions, they prefer purchasing rights in collaboration with a Québec publishing house so that they can spread the investment or share costs. There is an emerging triangle between English-language publishers, Québec, and France.”
Louis-Frédéric Gaudet of Lux Éditeur also notes how Québec publishers have gained in confidence and means. “By opening a Paris office in 2008,” he says, “it became easier for us to acquire the rights to important translation projects. Since then, our sales have seen a substantial increase, which has positioned us as the most influential independent publishing house of progressive books in the French-speaking world. This status is largely due to our American translations.”
According to Erwan Leseul, French publishers quickly realized that buying the rights to the Québec market wasn’t very profitable. Instead of benefiting from well-planned promotional strategies, good books with great marketing potential would often wind up as promotional tragedies. “There was no optimal exploitation of American foreign rights in our Québec market. On the flip side, American publishers and agents realized that sales were superior in Québec when a foreign book was promoted by a local publisher.” In this way, the emerging partnership triangle appears to be a win-win-win situation. Québec publishers have access to the titles they want, French publishers share the risks of costly foreign rights purchases, and American publishers receive excellent promotion and increased sales.
Québec publishers like Les Éditions de l’Homme and Lux Éditeur rely heavily on their well-developed networks in both Québec and France to ensure the success of a book. When Lux introduced author Chris Hedges (Empire of Illusion), he was virtually unknown in both Québec and France, but thanks to Lux’s grid of connections with national French-language media, university circuits, and prestigious progressive magazines, all were able to create real excitement with promotional strategies that fed off each other on both sides of the Atlantic.
For its part, Les Éditions de l’Homme has enjoyed quite a few translation successes but on a much larger scale. Steve Raichlen, the master of the BBQ pit, has had an enviable run in Québec, shattering sales records with hundreds of thousands of copies sold of his culinary books Planet BBQ! and the Barbecue! Bible series. Bestsellers from Les Éditions de l’Homme in both Quebec and in France include Lâcher prise (The Secret to Letting Go) by spiritual guide and author Guy Finley, La puissance de votre subconscient (The Power of Your Subconscious) by Joseph Murphy, and other classics of practical psychology, such as Je réinvente ma vie (Reinventing Your Life) by Jeffrey E. Young, which consistently sells thousands of copies a year. Leseul says that the publishing house’s philosophy is all about attaining equilibrium. “As a publisher, our mission is to help people in all facets of their lives so they can feel good, so they can feel better,” he says. “We want to give them the tools they need to deal with their health problems, their body issues, and to discover their spirituality. From self-help to cooking to spiritual books, Les Éditions de l’Homme has a holistic approach to mind, body, and soul.”
For Lux, publishing is about bringing indignation into action. Lux has been successful in building a catalogue around such English-language intellectuals as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and John Berger. “Our publishing philosophy is a throwback to another era of book publishing, when houses published only a few enduring books from memorable authors,” says Gaudet, “a time when publishers themselves did in-depth research and editing, when sales reps and publicists relentlessly promoted ideas, when booksellers meticulously followed a publisher’s list because of its coherence, and readers faithfully awaited a new literary season to discover new books and authors.”
Passionate for food, passionate for well-being, passionate especially for balance, Erwan Leseul promotes collaboration as a business model. “We’ve established a relationship based on trust with several Canadian publishers such as Robert Rose, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, Random House, and Penguin Canada, to name but a few,” he says. “Together with these companies we have begun to elaborate projects in both English and French simultaneously. Instead of waiting to sell or buy the rights at the end of a project and have to start a book all over again, we collaborate at the onset to design a book that will be even better adapted to each publisher’s market reality.”
Gaudet from Lux Éditeur agrees that the key to a successful business partnership is proximity, “Frequent direct contacts between our editors and American authors is an undeniable advantage,” he says. “In the last year alone, our editors have gone to Boston, New York, Chicago, and the West Coast a dozen times. We are at ease both with the American sense of pragmatism and the French sense for abstraction and ideas. Feeding and merging these two currents allow us to innovate.”
Examples of collaboration abound at Les Éditions de l’Homme, such as the gorgeous coffee-table book on fair trade practices by Éric St-Pierre, Le tour du monde équitable (Fair Trade: A Human Journey), which traces the photojournalist’s 15-year journey through fair trade communities. “What is marvelous with Éric’s book is that we were able to sign the rights to the Netherlands, to Germany, and we sold 20,000 copies in Canada. We are never alone,” says Leseul. “It is really by mixing all our different energies that we can arrive at our destination.”