Statistics are notoriously unreliable in our trade. Depending on who you listen to, French book sales are stagnant, slightly up or slightly down. But no one contests that translations are now strong in France, and for some publishers stronger than ever; in many cases, they are what works in an otherwise grim business climate. And the translations that sell best, apart from the occasional Eco or C lho, are from the English language. Last year, nearly 70% of rights acquisitions by leading publishers, according to French Publishers Association figures, were English-language books (696 titles out of 1,090). And this autumn, Paris trade weekly Livres Hebdo tells us, as much as half the new title output in fiction will consist of translations, and half the translations will come from Shakespeare's tongue.
Thus Mary Higgins Clark has been France's number one fiction bestseller--French originals and translations listed together--for several years running; the latest to lead the list is Before I Say Goodbye, published simultaneously with the S&S original. Before the year is over, it will have racked up the usual Mary Higgins Clark figure--400,000 copies in Albin Michel's original trade edition.
Albin's Tony Cartano, publisher of the foreign list, insists that Higgins Clark is only part of the story. Cartano, an Americanophile who has put America into more than one of his own novels--drops names like Stephen King, Tom Clancy and Thomas Harris (whose translated Hannibal sold 300,000 copies in the first six months of publication). He mentions U.S. authors who do better in France--Is it better publishing? Or France's secret admiration for things American?--than at home. Patricia MacDonald is one example; her sales have been growing from year to year, and now top 100,000 here. Cartano acted as prime publisher of her latest, Safe Haven.
Sure it's the house of Jack Higgins and Robin Cook, but often sales are in a small five figures, and that still means money in the bank. One such is Britain's Andrew Miller, whose Ingenious Pain won the gilded IMPAC Prize. The French translation did 20,000 copies for Albin, and so did Canadian-Indian writer Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance.
"That d sn't mean we always succeed," Cartano is quick to point out. "Sometimes we sell 2,000 copies and then stop, even with the best reviews." But he likes to take chances; he jumped at the bait when a Dutch-language bestseller was offered to him not long ago: 500 pages of Abyssinian Chronicles by Ugandan-born Moses Isegawa (first De Bezige Bij in Amsterdam, then Karl Blessing in Munich, Frassinelli in Italy, Knopf...). He preempted Knopf's American Rhapsody by J Eszterhas, and never mind how American it turns out to be....
Quality Down South
General trade accounts for 90 titles, and these are the ones that give Actes Sud its reputation as upscale and always surprising. Seven books in 10 here are translations; up to a third of the translations are from English, explains Marie-Catherine Vacher, publisher of the foreign list, working with editorial director Bertrand Py. On the Anglo-American side, for which Vacher is directly responsible, Actes Sud has a wunderkind in Paul Auster, who sells considerably better in France than in his native U.S.
It's also the house of Russell Banks, William Goyen, Ursula le Guin, Cormac McCarthy, Madison Smartt Bell, Alice Hoffman, William Kotzwinkle, William Kennedy. Fearless, Actes Sud launched a series of Korean (yes) fiction, building up interest through a special campaign to booksellers. After the first four or five titles, they broke the 2,000 barrier, and one book actually reached 5,000 (for that one, Actes Sud had world rights and sold it to Harvard University Press). In all, they've done 25 books in the Korean series, to everybody's astonishment--including their own.
For Actes Sud, a sale of 2,000 copies means they're home free; 5,000 signifies the house has created a market for an author. When the publisher took on Paul Auster's friend Don DeLillo, they knew they were doing right, and celebrated when one of his difficult new books reached the 5,000th sale. Then came the outsized, hard to decode Underworld, and they doubled their best previous sale. "Strangely, the size of the book became a positive attraction," Vacher recalls.
This publisher acknowledges the support of translation subsidies, chiefly from French government cultural funds. A grant can represent 40% of the cost of a translation. Grants from countries whose literature is being translated can also make a difference (they were getting $3,500 per title from Korea).
One always felt at home, paying a visit to the house of Robert Laffont. They used to call the founder "the most American of French publishers," and he liked that. He not only modeled his post-World War II enterprise on his New York counterparts, but called his bestseller series just that--"Best-Sellers." His successors at the helm pursued his editorial lines. Of course, the bidding has become more intense, with the rising expectations of American authors, agents and publishers. "But sales are rising faster than your advances," confesses president and publisher Leonello Brandolini (and not all of his colleagues will admit as much to an outsider).
Laffont was once the house of Graham Greene, of Norman Mailer and Jim Harrison (the latter two have moved on); it's now the French imprint of John Grisham and Michael Crichton, Jackie Collins and Nicholas Sparks. Laffont sold more copies of Bret Easton Ellis's Glamorama than his original publisher did. Upcoming in Pavillons (the imprint for literary translations): Helen Dewitt's The Seventh Samurai and Lisa Dalby's The Tale of Murasaki.
Yes, American books work for French publishers--and more and more, says Brandolini (who was formerly publisher of paperbacks in the same Havas group). Grisham was averaging 50,000 sales of his successive fictions; he's now up to 80,000- 100,000. Crichton's Timeline did 55,000 in the first month of publication. At Laffont, up to 40% of the list (some 170 titles per annum) is translated; the percentage would be higher, except that French originals dominate in nonfiction. Although here, too, imports count: the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness became their 1999 nonfiction blockbuster, and the upcoming Dalai Lama-Daniel Goleman collaboration (tentatively titled Negative Emotion) has been signed up. Brandolini obviously watches the American scene carefully, and during PW's visit was waiting for news of a "top-secret" title out of New York that will change his bottom line in 2001. He never misses a major fair; it gives him "a feeling of the market" he obviously can't get via e-mail or fax. He was at this year's BEA with his new foreign acquisition manager, Maggy Doyle (also with retiring rights manager and international editor Susanna Lea, who was leaving to set up her own agency, but with Laffont as first client).
But Triffaux found that she could also use the Belfond name to venture into new territory--literary first novels, for example, often succeeding with what we dismiss as midlist. It's true that the breakthrough came with a shoo-in, Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, which sold 170,000 copies for Belfond; then came the less obvious An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears (120,000 copies), This Side of Brightness by Colum McCann (a respectable 35,000) and Michael Cunningham's The Hours (80,000). This year a first novel by a young Australian, Nikki Gemmell's Alice Springs, sold 25,000 copies in French translation; Iain Pears's The Raphael Affair sold 40,000.
Françoise Triffaux is very much her own editor. Often a book that works nearly everywhere else is not going to work in France; at times a book (say, Angela's Ashes) seems made for her list (and she was the first foreign publisher to buy it). She takes a yearly trip to New York, and covers the growing London fair as well as Frankfurt. Of course, she checks out Oprah Winfrey picks (she'll do Tawni O'Dell's Back Roads). Actually, she discovered that several of her earlier buys subsequently became Oprah books; clearly they share tastes.
In the beginning there was Presses de laCité, brainchild of a Danish entrepreneur who knew little about the French literary scene but understood how Americans did their blockbusters and decided to prove that he could do the same in Paris (usually with the same authors). Presses grew into an empire, core of Groupe de la Cité, which in its latest incarnation is the Havas group, France's number one, with no fewer than 50 paper and media imprints. Here PW talks to publisher Renaud Bombard, who sketches out a program of 80-odd titles per annum, three-quarters of them translations (and no need to ask from what language).
Eight buyers in 10 are women, and they get what they want here at Presses de la Cité. The publisher speaks of Danielle Steel ("really in a category of her own"). Her sales rise from book to book, with a sure 60,000 for the original edition, 100,000 more in the club, 80,000-100,000 in paperback. Or take Barbara Wood, who sells better in France (and still better in Germany) than in her native U.S. Presses is also the French imprint of Maeve Binchy and Rosamunde Pilcher. And each of these ladies can expect a 50,000-copy printing every time. Bombard reports a customer reaction similar to that of Belfond readers: they don't take notice of the fact that they are reading an American author, only that they are being moved to fear or to tears.... And thrillers work everywhere (except for "legal" thrillers, since U.S. laws are so different from the French).
Renaud Bombard, in this happy house whose results improve from year to year, can't really complain about the cost of rights. All the same, like many of his French colleagues, he wishes that he weren't "penalized" for his achievements by ever-rising advances.
Starting from Scratch
"When you begin from scratch," d'Ormesson explains, "you have to buy a lot abroad--books that already exist." In his first six months, Rubinstein signed 200 contracts for fiction, 60 of them foreign. When Denoël reaches cruising speed, thinks he, a little less than half the catalogue--fiction and nonfiction combined--will be imported. The literary list will see 20 translations through the publishing process this year, and of course English will predominate.
But it won't necessarily be American. D'Ormesson has been finding a great deal of her talent in Britain and in former Commonwealth territories. Among the American novels published this year were David Leavitt's The Lost Language of Cranes and Rafi Zabor's The Bear Comes Home. In any case, the new team intends to stamp the house with a new image, publishing for their generation. They've joined the group of literary imprints (including Barcelona's Anagrama, Milan's Feltrinelli and New York's Seven Stories Press) that will be publishing the semi-annual Autodafé in the interests of freedom of thought.
To get some of its American books, Rubinstein and d'Ormesson are betting the Denoël backlist treasure chest (for Tropic of Cancer and other books by Henry Miller, say). They've also scheduled Norman Mailer's The Fight, the story of the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman battle published in the mid-1970s but never translated into French; one of their recent successes was Carolyn Cassady's inside story of the Beats, Off the Road, originally published a decade ago. Indeed, to believe the Denoël team, where U.S. publishing still has the edge is in provocative, documented nonfiction--books the French don't do as well, and which rarely come out of London. One they are proud of, although it didn't do as well as they'd have liked, is Philip Gourevitch's We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families. The upcoming list features Greil Marcus's The Invisible Republic (on the Bob Dylan years) and Nick Tosches's Sonny Liston.
Denoël's parent, Gallimard, born as a literary imprint, has spread out in all directions over recent decades. Today Gallimard, for some, means the prestigious social science list; for others, it's the children's book house par excellence, or it's the producer of the ultimate in guidebooks. On the fiction side, most translations appear in the series Du Monde Entier, which releases some two dozen titles a year. About one of them in three comes from English. PW sits down with the editor for English-language fiction, Christine Jordis, to hear some surprising things.
Yes, Gallimard is still the upmarket publisher. But if in the past the editors preferred not to talk about money, today they are expected to fight for the best. "It's our duty to be present at all major auctions," is the way Jordis puts it. She travels to New York and London, and pores over the regular reporting from scout Koukla MacLehose. She was one of the early readers of Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, won the auction for France, and sold 100,000 copies of the French translation. She has her American enthusiasms, too. She put together a book of stories by Bob Shacochis, using the title of one of them, Easy in the Islands. President Antoine Gallimard lets his foreign editors do what they think they should--knowing that he can't read all those languages. In all, of the 350 new titles published by Gallimard annually, some 10% are translations.
This, after all, is the regular publisher of some of America's finest--Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, William Styron; they were the publishers of Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck, and keep them (and many, many more of the old masters) in print.
Elsewhere in the Gallimard labyrinth, PW calls on Jean Mattern, coordinator of the trade publishing department's translation program. Although separate editors are in charge of books from German and Spanish, as well as English, everything else comes under his direct supervision. While Mattern agrees that English is important for the house, he d s make it clear that Gallimard d s more books from smaller languages than anyone else.
Seeking "Quality Commercial"Ever since the close of World War II, Gallimard's most serious challenger, especially in literature and the social sciences, has been Editions du Seuil. Today this still-independent powerhouse publishes so many books in so many areas that its CEO Claude Cherki, when asked for current title output, has to check it out. (He comes back with 474 new titles this year, of which 162 are translations--that's a whopping one-third of the list.)
In translated fiction, Seuil made its mark in non-English-language authors, with the likes of Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass; today Spanish authors like Manuel Vasquez Montalban and Arturo Pérez-Reverte count for much here, and Cherki is convinced that with a new and fresh batch of Spanish novelists on the way, they will continue to count. But he works just as hard for a Thomas Pynchon, and no matter that it takes "years" to translate and edit one of his books--all for a sale of 15,000 copies.
In the Seuil manner, each department d s its own foreign acquisitions--Dennis Roche for avant-garde fiction, for example, Robert Pepin for crime, Jacques Binsztok for children's books. Convinced that the future will be found in the United States, Claude Cherki has recruited a young editor, Christel Paris, whose mandate is to explore that future on the American scene. Cherki is well aware that what she turns up will often be what's called commercial; it just has to be quality commercial.
Talk about the tail wagging the dog. When Calman-Lévy's Nina Salter, editor of the foreign list, went head-to-head with her CEO a couple of months ago, the press noted that translations accounted for 40% of the house's turnover; the clash ended with the departure of the CEO. Slater, an American who learned the trade at Random House and Knopf before migrating to Paris, is willing to say that 40% is not wide of the mark. On her arrival half a dozen years ago, Calmann--an affiliate of the Hachette group--already had a respectable foreign list; she admits that she began by building on strengths.
Indeed, her path seemed cut out for her, with a list that included Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Michael Dibdin. Early on, she had the luck to be able to bid for Patricia Cornwell, and sold 120,000 copies on the first try; the latest Cornwell, Black Notice, is up to 230,000.
But suspense and crime aren't all. Salter divides her list into literary and commercial fiction, thrillers and nonfiction one-shots. She d s Kazuo Ishiguro, Ethan Canin and Patrick McGrath; she's proud of her Indians, Pankas Mishra and Kiran Desai, and of her Canadians, who often find a place in the category she identifies as upmarket female fiction (Carol Shields belongs here). She d s Bonnie Burnard, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Anne Tyler. Ruth Rendell can sell 45,000, Jacquelyn Mitchard 20,000, Joanna Trollope 15,000. She's delighted with 4,000 copies of Ethan Canin; she amortizes the translation with a club sale. Indeed, Salter pays close attention to post-publication sales to clubs and reprinters, which account for a considerable percentage of her department's turnover.
Whether commercial or crime or whatever, the books must be good books; Michel Lévy was the original publisher of Madame Bovary, and his imprint still stands for quality in France. In nonfiction, Salter has high hopes for Judith Thurman's biography of Colette, and for Sylvia Nasar's A Beautiful Mind. She did well with Vicki Iouine's The Girlfriend's Guide to Pregnancy, and is readying Sue Jenner's The Parent-Child Game. And this being Calmann-Lévy, whose house authors include Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, she has Leon Wieseltier's Kaddish and Idith Zertal's From Catastrophe to Power--Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel on the fall list.
Biggest Books: Imports
Editions Jean-Claude Lattès was founded back in 1968 as a jack-of-all-trades house, following the whims of its young publisher, who liked to recall that he had learned the business under maverick publisher Robert Laffont. So it's nice to be able to note that the house is now run by Robert Laffont's daughter Isabelle. Truly, she grew up in her father's house, as a globe-trotting foreign acquisitions editor--excellent training for her present position in a house whose biggest books are imports.
Today, Lattès is a freestanding imprint within the Hachette group. It publishes some 85 books each year, of which four in 10 are translations--mostly from English, although Isabelle Laffont is delighted when she can slip a promising Italian or Russian or German author into the catalogue.
Still, Laffont isn't ashamed to say that she genuinely enjoys English-language literature and likes to do her own reading. She remembers that the house's founder, Lattés, was the first French publisher of Stephen King, and she regrets King's loss and would like to replace him; her own taste runs to good writing that also happens to work in the market. Scott Turow (with the recently published Personal Injuries) is her kind of author, and she thinks his time will come. She is taking on Sue Miller (with While I Was Gone), did well with Arthur Golden's Geisha (90,000 copies), but she is also delighted when she can publish a Mary Karr (The Liar's Club) and sell 15,000.
Suspense is an important Lattés line--with Turow, also James Patterson and Sandra Brown. In nonfiction, Lattés has made a public for what Laffont calls the new science--Dava Sobel's Longitude, Simon Singh's Fermat's Enigma. Laffont finds that if most of her books come from the States, Britain is catching up, with a lively new generation that includes writers from Ireland, Australia and wherever else English is used. She mentions Richard Mason (The Drowning People), Isabel Wolff (The Trials of Tiffany Trott).
Grasset, another jewel in the Hachette crown, is the house of French literature par excellence. Here the foreign list is small, but telling. As Ariane Fasquelle, editor for foreign books, explains, they try to do one novel, one significant nonfiction work and one thriller on the translation list each month. This is the Paris home of Umberto Eco, earlier of Gabriel García Márquez--for the translated language d sn't have to be English. It was Joseph Heller's publisher, and Charles Bukowski's; now Fasquelle sees T.C. Boyle as a typical Grasset author, impertinent, self-mocking.
Thrillers are important to this list. Among the bylines Grasset follows are those of Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlow, Sidney Sheldon and now Lisa Scottoline. Ariane Fasquelle confesses that she is looking out for books that allow women the opportunity to display their professional competence.
She is joined in the interview by Grasset's new president and publisher, Olivier Nora (formerly in charge at Calmann-Lévy, and before that, head of the French Publishers Agency in New York), who confirms that on his watch, Grasset will continue to publish the same mix of literary fiction on one hand, suspense and crime on the other; later, when he has gotten a better grip on the house, he intends to do more with major nonfiction projects. Fasquelle says that every once in a while she throws caution to the winds and takes a chance--like on the Andy Warhol diaries, or Stefan Zweig's correspondence as a young man. Or even the memoirs of Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the Polish Jewish book critic who is Germany's television darling, but totally unknown in France. A particular favorite of Fasquelle's--also on the fall list--is Haitian-American Edwidge Danticat.
Seeking Out New VoicesTo sit down with Christian Bourgois is to get a refresher course in contemporary American letters. And he not only talks about our promising younger generations, he publishes them, and isn't scared off by first impressions (like the outsized dimensions of William Vollmann's Rainbow Stories). He can do them, he says, "because there's a new generation of French critics--and book buyers--curious about what comes out of America and prepared to embrace it."
Bourgois has been thinking along those lines for a long time, and acting on them. He is one of the rare publishers in France (or anywhere for that matter) publishing under his own name--and independent. Not being able to afford the greats, Bourgois began with writers of his own generation, such as Richard Brautigan. He shared with other European publishers in the revival of John Fante, who became more successful on the continent than in his native America. Then the Beats, with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg. He did Henry Miller's letters to AnaÃ¯s Nin, e.e. cummings, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ezra Pound, Jorge Luis Borges.
But his best days were ahead of him. He began publishing Toni Morrison long before she received the Nobel, had an opportunity to pick up Susan Sontag and ran with it, got hooked on Jim Harrison through his publisher Seymour Lawrence. The group to which Bourgois belonged changed hands a number of times, and eventually he was able to buy back his name, contracts and backlist. Today he holds 78% of his shares.
When he can, Bourgois d s the whole corpus of an author he cares about, when necessary buying backlist rights from earlier French publishers. He keeps all of Toni Morrison in print. And when he cares, he can do wonders; thus he has sold each successive Morrison title in the "tens of thousands" (80,000 of Beloved after the Nobel). He did a very gratifying 15,000 copies of Sontag's The Volcano Lover and expects to do at least that well with In America.
Jim Harrison, the kind of American writer the French think of when they think of American writers, has been heavily pushed by Bourgois. He got out his translation of the latest, The Road Home, before Grove/Atlantic did the original, and placed 65,000 copies--more than were sold in the U.S. Make way for Bourgois's latest enthusiasms. One is Laura Kasischke, a promising p t when she wrote her first novel, Suspicious River. Bourgois's edition (like the Houghton Mifflin original) drew raves; he brought her over to France for her second novel, White Bird in a Blizzard. There are some 50 titles a year here, and four books in five are translations. Most will be from American English, now and forever.
Now Hoffman has taken on the mandate to find and cultivate authors for the long haul. He knows that it won't be easy, in the present climate of inflated advances, to create personal relations with his authors, following them from book to book and getting readers to do the same. He spots some of the authors he needs on visits across the Channel; the ideal, says he, is to read a book in manuscript or proof, when his own input might make a difference. One of his recent acquisitions is Andrew O'Hagan, a Scot whose first novel, Our Fathers, created a sensation in Britain because of its heartbreaking theme (10-year-old Jamie has a violent father, a tender grandfather). Hoffmann picked it up before it was shortlisted and then runner-up to J.M. C tzee for the Booker Prize (Harcourt in the U.S.). Then there is Canadian Ann-Marie MacDonald, with a 600-page tale of a father's over-solicitous promotion of a daughter's career. Fall on Your Knees was a bestseller for Vintage Canada; he intends to make it a French one, too, and is bringing the author over to help make that come true.
From America, he has found another promising title in Juliana Baggott's first novel, Girl Talk, acquired from the unedited manuscript--which he read in Frankfurt last fall. (It's a Pocket Books release for next April.) He speaks of others on the upcoming list, such as Molly Giles (Iron Sh s) or the more classical Sarah Stonich (From These Granite Islands). There's the Indian U.S. resident Sharon Maas, whose Of Marriageable Age is sure to make a stir in Paris. Recently he was able to take over Doris Lessing, beginning with Ben in the World.
Because he won't try to compete for the big commercial bylines, Hoffmann can begin to relax when a book has sold 5,000- 6,000 copies, and celebrate when it attains 20,000.
Book Club FirstKarsten Diettrich is in a position to observe all of this bidding and buying before he makes his own moves. He is program director of France Loisirs, the giant Bertelsmann club run as a 50-50 partnership with the Vivendi/Havas group. Under France's punitive price-fixing law, the club can't produce a discounted edition of a book until nine months after original publication. But what Bertelsmann management discovered is that nothing prevents it from publishing a potential bestseller in the club before trade release. The Germans did it first with The Lazarus Child. In France most of these books published "avant-première" are also translations, and most, of course, are from English. They are offered at some 25% less than what will eventually be the cover price on release to the trade.
The most recent selection--still performing wonders at the time PW talked to Diettrich--is Nicci French's Killing Me Softly, launched by agreement with Flammarion six months before that publisher's trade edition. Sales are moving up to 400,000 copies as this g s to press, and an earlier Nicci French, The Safe House, promoted together with the new release, became the club's number two bestseller. All of the Bertelsmann clubs had been running out of steam, at a time when France Loisirs top sellers like Michael Connelly, V.C. Andrews and Patricia Cornwell are peaking at 60,000; these pre-pubs are bringing readers back. Indeed, France Loisirs has even opened up its club shops--128 of them wholly owned outlets, and 64 more operated as franchises--to new trade bestsellers, selling them at the full publisher's price, as the law requires.
Bertelsmann clubs endeavor to encourage the host country's literature, and Diettrich sounds sincere when he says that he has French writers who can match the Anglo-Americans. If the very biggest sellers for the club have been American authors, the British are fast catching up; most of the promising young are coming out of London nowadays. France Loisirs d s some 700 new books a year in all categories via four quarterly catalogues and two specials (early fall and Christmas). From 40% to 50% of general books are translations. Sometimes the France Loisirs bestseller list resembles that of PW or the Bookseller; sometimes not. "We can't sell Tom Clancy," Diettrich says. "Too masculine. Almost 80% of our readers are women." Diettrich scouts at all the fairs, but lets his French trade publisher friends do the buying. PW has often seen him shopping the fairs in the company of Presses de la Cité's Renaud Bombard.
While some club members (of whom there are now 3.7 million) say they don't like to see all those foreign books in the catalogue, in their purchasing habits they nevertheless prefer translations "from the American" to French originals; even an unknown American author outsells an unknown French one. "Members don't follow authors. What they want is a good story, and they know they'll find that in the American book."
Volume 246 Issue 36 09/04/2000