By now everyone who needs to know knows that half the French market belongs to two French groups—Vivendi Universal and Hachette Livre (closely followed by family-owned giants such as Albin Michel, Seuil and Gallimard). At the other extreme, some very good publishing is done by smallish publishers, such as veteran Christian Bourgois of his eponymous firm; Olivier Cohen and his Editions de l'Olivier; Héloïse d'Ormesson, editorial director for French and foreign authors at Denoël; Editions Odile Jacob's Odile Jacob, who makes bestsellers out of superior social science; and then, of course, there is the astonishing track record of translating champion Actes Sud.
But PW's focus this year is on a newer and lesser-known race of entrepreneurial publishers, some of whom entertain mighty ambitions—which don't always exclude tasteful publishing. At times, thanks to the agility made possible by their smaller dimension, they can do wonders with books the larger houses dare not touch.
Small Beginnings, World Dimensions at La Martinière
Strolling over to meet Hervé de La Martinière through the cluster of narrow Left Bank lanes near the Seine, the stroller can't help noticing, on one imposing façade on Rue des Grands Augustins: Picasso lived and worked here from 1936 to 1955. Just around the corner on even tinier Rue Christine, another plaque:
La Martinière Groupe
Editions de La Martinière
Like most plaques you encounter, this one is incomplete; the visitor could have added a couple of names (such as Stewart, Tabori & Chang), and this without including the group's recently acquired German illustrated book imprint, Knesebeck.
The visitor who pores over the catalogues in the waiting room quickly realizes that La Martinière has managed to touch all bases in illustrated books, while moving into general trade books as well. And it's soon to be more, as La Martinière explains it when the visitor is ushered into his office: a well-known publishing personality whose name must remain secret for a while longer is setting up his own trade list within the group to do fiction and serious nonfiction (first books are due as early as next January).
Hervé de La Martinière lets you know at once that he's a chap without a diploma to his name. He landed a job all the same, fielding bookseller complaints at Hachette (and it was an excellent introduction to the trade). From there he weaved in and out of Hachette's distribution web, after which he was put in charge of relations with publishers distributed by the group, winding up as sales manager. He moved into other empty seats after that, until he was asked to take over Hachette's art, illustrated, food, travel and living arts imprint, Editions de Chêne. He left to run the children's division at rival Groupe de la Cité's Fernand Nathan. La Martinière promised to stay four years and did, and when he left he took Nathan's art division with him.
That division became (in 1992) Editions de La Martinière. "I had done it all—distribution, publishing, all sorts of publishing," he explains. "So obviously I wasn't going to have any trouble finding my way around when I began putting the group together." He also knew that to be profitable in illustrated books he'd need bigger printings than the French market allowed; he'd have to go international (and, above all, go English). And he began diversifying early, creating De La Martinière Jeunesse in 1995 for children's books, Manise in 1996 for practical books, buying up Editions du Sorbier in 1998 (a children's imprint strong in the schools), declaring himself a group—and the world's number one in illustrated books—in 1998.
A year before that, there had been Harry N. Abrams. La Martinière credits Abrams publisher Paul Gottlieb with having convinced the Times-Mirror group that he was the right buyer for Abrams. (The acquisition led to a reorganization of his group's financing; at present La Martinière holds 27%, the American Chanel group 28%, Times-Mirror 10%, a French investment bank 9% and Rothschild New York 4%.)
With turnover of some $43 million from Abrams and Stewart, Tabori & Chang—but including only five months' sales of the latter, acquired last year—American business now represents 52% of total activity; the figure should rise to 58% this year. German sales should rise to 3%—4% (Knesebeck was brought into the group only last year.)
The growth of French business has been spectacular, a doubling of sales last year—and this largely due to a single title, published by Abrams and Thames & Hudson as Earth from Above. It sold 1.2 million copies around the planet, 850,000 of them in France , boosted by an unprecedented sales campaign including a major display sponsored by the French Senate (at this writing the outsized color views photographed in helicopter fly-overs are being shown in a large Paris subway station). U.S. sales have been more than satisfactory, and La Martinière mentions shows scheduled for major American cities next year.
So it should be no surprise that La Martinière continues to bet on illustrated books. He mentions five fall projects in the pipeline, each with a minimum printing of 50,000. His experience flies in the face of reason, but he doesn't want to be reasonable; he knows where he's going, for he has spent his life working alongside booksellers. Otherwise he is a loner—won't join the French Publishers Association for example. Still, he's glad that he decided to diversify into the general trade. He should manage that rather well, too.
Fixot's High Rise
Had PW's reporter ever ridden an elevator to meet a French publisher? The answer didn't come to him before he was ushered into Bernard Fixot's office on the 49th floor of Paris's only true skyscraper (the Tour Maine-Montparnasse), with its sweeping view of almost everything.
Fixot is another member of the Hachette warehouse gang. Raised in a working-class neighborhood on the Paris periphery, condemned to the education of a working-class child, Fixot began stacking books at 17 when others were getting ready for the sacrosanct high school diploma. After military service he was back at Hachette as part of the mass market sales force, moving up a grade when he joined the Gallimard sales forces—a compensation of sorts, for Gallimard published the books he was then gulping down (Sartre's Nausea, he says, changed his life).
In 1978, when after managing the commercial side of the Gallimard group for several years, he returned to Hachette to take the same job (but with a payroll of 600), the smart people in the group let him create his own publishing venture, Edition No. 1, which married book publishing to a powerful commercial radio station (a first, he remembers). When he was given a free hand he also created a literary logo, and soon he was put in charge of mass market paperbacks and children's books, in both of which Hachette was market leader. Finally in 1987 he broke loose. Editions Fixot was born.
He did the commercial books he knew how to sell, mixing literature and show business. His wife, Valérie-Anne Giscard d'Estaing (daughter of France's only living ex-president), created a World Book of Inventions that sold 130,000 copies a year in France alone (and got 14 translations). With France's leading commercial TV channel, he set up another logo, TF1 Editions (and published a French adaptation of the Guinness Book of Records). Then he began a joint venture with Berlitz to do its language programs in France.
In 1993, on the retirement of legendary bestseller publisher Robert Laffont, Fixot, then 50 years old, was brought in to run that group, in a deal that included a merger between the Fixot and Laffont imprints. He carried on the bestselling series that kept Laffont in the public eye, and began creating his own, including the five-volume Ramses cycle by Egyptologist Christian Jacq, translated into 30 languages, with 13 million copies sold worldwide.
In 1999, when his seven-year contract was up for renewal, Havas asked him to stay on but it seemed time to go it alone again. The logo Fixot was no longer his, so how about Editions XO? Vivendi Universal Publishing—the new corporate logo for Havas—took a 25% stake in his new company, 20% more went to his top staff, and he holds the balance. His self-imposed mandate was to do popular fiction of a decent level, such as a historical fiction cycle by historian/journalist Max Gallo; a trilogy set in Inca times; finally, another multivolume pharaonic series by Jacq. "I know how people who don't read find reading difficult," Fixot says, thinking back to his own childhood. "You've got to make them want to."
His benchmark for bestsellers has of course been Anglo-American publishing, and he's a good pupil. Last year, largely thanks to Jacq, he was France's number four in market share for fiction with 30% of total sales (only Albin Michel, Gallimard and Laffont topped him, in that order). To date, the second Jacq series has seven million copies in print worldwide. Inca has been sold to 19 countries; Judith Curr, who snapped up the second Christian Jacq series for Pocket Books, has also bought Inca. Fixot's been going further and further afield to bring in his books. One of his finds was Ingrid Betancourt, an outspoken young Colombian senator who has been combating her country's gangsters; XO's edition of her personal story quickly became a bestseller. He snapped up world rights for a book that came over the transom, from the U.S., in English: a novel by a Russian on the Russian mafia (La Sibérienne by Igor Panich).
Fixot published only eight books last year, racking up $14 million in sales and nearly $1 million in profit; this year, with 10 books but sans Christian Jacq, his turnover won't top $10 million, and profits will be halved. He does all this with a staff of nine.
And he's only beginning. At the outset he had two goals: to publish books that could be sold to the whole world, and then to exploit them in movies. He achieved his first goal in his first year of operation. Now meet XO Productions, recently set up as a means to keep film and TV production in-house. He'll do the motion picture version of Christian Jacq's Ramses series (published under his watch at Laffont, even if he isn't financially involved in cinema rights to it).
For her part, Giscard d'Estaing, part of the Fixot editorial team, is now running her own company, which might become as important in her field as her husband's in his. It's called Photos 12, and it gathers together Europe's leading collections of photographs in art and history, including the fine arts, history of photography and cinema, science and technology. In a word, it's Europe's answer to Bill Gates's Corbis, and in its first year of operation it has collected over nine million images, of which 70,000 are already digitized and available for downloading from its Web site (www.photos12.com). Among collections assembled by Photos 12 are the Bridgeman Art Library, the Bertelsmann Lexikon Picture Library and the Société Française de Photographie.
PW's reporter moves from wonder to wonder—like this massive palatial townhouse on the edge of the old central markets, labeled "Historical Monument." Now it's home to the Archipel group. PW mounts a red-carpeted stone stairway to reach the throne room of group president and publisher Jean-Daniel Belfond.
Belfond is a familiar name in bookshops, but Jean-Daniel can't use it; his parents Pierre and Franca Belfond, when they retired, sold their eponymous firm, logo and all, to the group now called Vivendi Universal Publishing. Jean-Daniel worked for his parents for some years, and welcomed the chance to go it alone—with the name of his own.
His dream was to set up a house with both a commercial and a literary side; that led to Editions de L'Archipel for the general trade and the logo Ecriture for literary fiction and essays. It sounded like fun, and Belfond saw himself coining money with blockbusters, putting it back into literary discoveries. Like many young publishers faced with the challenge of building a list from scratch, he began with untranslated books by John Dos Passos, Joyce Carol Oates, Alberto Moravia—and Ludwig Winder, a contemporary of Kafka whose expressionist novel The Jewish Organ is "the jewel of our catalogue," he insists. And an unpublished scenario by Luis Buñuel, a study of Marguerite Duras, Moravia's diary of his years as a Communist member of the European parliament, and Israeli filmmaker Yitzak Ben-Ner's highly praised novel The Man from There. He had a ball, but almost lost his company. "I published 11 literary books and lost money on 10 of them," he confesses. That was when a Canadian friend showed him Danielle Steel's first novel (Their Promise), never published in France. He went back into the black and has stayed there since.
One highlight was Walter's Lord's A Night to Remember, which sold 52,000 copies, a figure he'd like to see more often. But success came not from blockbusters but from better-than-average sales up and down the list. (Hooray for the 40,000 copies of Tom Clancy's SSN, but also cheers for the 20,000 of Seymour Hersh's The Dark Face of Camelot.) Since then Archipel hasn't touched a book that sold fewer than 10,000 copies.
Archipel opened for business in 1991. By 1995 Jean-Daniel was ready to add new lines in spirituality, health and self-improvement, but for that he needed a separate imprint. Presses du Châtelet was born, named for the neighborhood in which it is located. The imprint publishes books by the pope and the Dalai Lama as well as, in the healing department, Penguin Australia's blockbusting The Little Book of Calm (followed by The Little Book of Calm at Work and—why not?—Instant Calm.
Belfond is satisfied with his decision to run an eclectic house, allowing him to take advantage of whatever looks good. He does 80 new books annually, 50 at Archipel, 25 at Châtelet, and a modest five on the Ecriture list. All this with a staff of 10, including himself and wife Isabelle (who handles the sales side).
The publisher buys a lot from America for the main list—lately James Patterson (Cradle and All), Richard North Patterson, the posthumous Mario Puzo book on the Borgias, the Oprah picks Vinegar Hill by Manette Ansay and Jane Hamilton's The Book of Ruth, and half a dozen thrillers by Michael Dimercurio. Belfond does his own picks, with the help of agents, and his own book fair explorations. And he doesn't hesitate to push sales of his own rights, through agents in 15 countries. Many of these books are on serious subjects—psychology, health, history and biography, written by authors with a track record. (But his best sells are posthumous Jules Verne titles; he sold one of them, The Golden Volcano, to nine countries.
He likes the pace and is happy that he can publish good writing in all categories, and popularbooks when they happen to be of literary quality. And he is always ready to reissue when a movie pops up.
The Many Mansions of Vera and Jan
Paris's newest group has the strangest history. It began as a dream of two book people in a Swiss village. Swiss-born Vera, daughter of a Russian/Ukrainian mother raised in Austria and a Swiss father, and her Polish-born husband, Jan Michalski, thought they could make the literature of Europe's East better known in the West; in 1986 Noir sur Blanc was born. Their first book, published in 1987, was by Polish painter Joseph Czapski, who as a prisoner of the Soviets after Stalin's invasion of his country in 1939 lectured in his camp on Proust; the book, whose French title translates as "Proust Against Defeat," contains the text of his lectures, illustrated with sketches he made in the camp.
The Michalskis keep this and subsequent books by Czapski in print; he's a good example of what they were trying to do. In passing, Vera shows the visitor a book she published by her grandmother, Princess Catherine Sayn-Wittgenstein: it translates as "The End of My Russia (Diary 1914—1919)."
But the real story began in Paris in 1991, when the couple managed to get the widely dispersed shareholders to sell them a bit of Poland's cultural heritage, the Polish bookshop at Saint-Germain-des-Près, which had long served as a symbol of cultural resistance.
Scene switches to newly freed Warsaw, where a Michalski company called Oficyna Literacka Noir sur Blanc began to publish Polish translations of world authors (Paul Auster, Henry Miller, Lawrence Durrell, Margaret Atwood, James Salter); it also became the publisher, both in his native Poland and in France, of Slawomir Mrozek. The publisher began in Warsaw with books that had been banned previously, then went on to books good for their own sake, and later—taking account of the slump that followed early euphoria—books that guaranteed sales. The Michalskis do the acquiring for their Polish list; in Warsaw a staff of five does final editing and marketing.
Meanwhile back in France the Michalskis bought into Phébus, a respected imprint in literature French and foreign, fine arts and Eastern studies (70 books a year); they hold 49% of the company that controls the house. In April 2000 they took over Buchet-Chastel, a pre-war imprint that had kept many of its authors, as well as a townhouse in the heart of the publishing district. The building will be renovated, enabling the Michalskis to put all of their publishing properties together under a new group logo, Meta (the name of the village where they keep a house in Switzerland). And with Buchet-Chastel, the new owners acquired several smaller imprints that had been acquired by the last owner—religious imprints Lethielleux and Le Sénevé, a "creative" leisure house called Le Temps Apprivoisé and a record publisher, Studio SM.
All told, this should equal some $6.5 million in sales for this group-to-be (the figure includes the Michalskis' share of Phébus). When the dust settles and the new programs begin to show their covers, when distribution is reorganized and, finally, when the owners have decided how to build on the promising leisure-time logo, sales are expected to soar. Vera Michalski warns the visitor not to expect miracles in the short term; sales will rise, but profitability will take a while longer. There is a warehouse requiring remodeling to handle the expanded group. Likewise, computer programming is being revamped to allow for growth—the owners are far from having completed the cycle of acquisitions—acquisitions that will henceforth be tailored to the group's gaps and needs.
Nothing is haphazard here. To recreate a major literary logo, the new owners of Buchet-Chastel hired experienced publishing director Henry Marcellin, formerly in charge at Denoël, and American-in-Paris Cynthia Liebow, who was foreign acquisitions editor at Denoël, with a new editor for French authors, Pascale Gauthier (ex-Rocher); their writ is to build up the literary side and then to make it profitable.
New Boy in an Old House
Editions Grasset & Fasquelle isn't exactly a start-up, but new things are about to happen here. Bernard Grasset founded his firm early in the 20th century; if you count sister imprint Fasquelle, its history goes back a bit further (say to Zola). Today it's an affiliate of the Hachette group, and the last Fasquelle, Jean-Claude, retired only last year.
The company's move into the next generation was concretized by the appointment of a new president and publisher, Olivier Nora. Now 41, Nora got his start as a line editor at Hachette Littérateur and moved up to editor at Calmann-Lévy, before spending three years operating the French Publishers Agency in New York (selling or trying to sell French rights into the American market). He returned to Paris to become general manager, later president and publisher, of Calmann-Lévy (another Hachette affiliate).
Calmann-Lévy's founder had been Flaubert's publisher; at Grasset Nora knew that he was going to occupy the chair of another entrepreneur who had been part of France's literary history. Grasset had published both Proust and Malraux before Gallimard took them over. Grasset's authors came in yellow jackets, and still do; Gallimard's in white. Both colors remain givens, symbols, untouchables. "Grasset was the competitor, and we'll stay that way," says Nora. He doesn't forget that Gallimard's trade turnover is at least three times that of his own; but Grasset is part of a major group, alongside the country's number-one reprint house.
Part of updating Grasset involves slimming it down in order to cope with today's more exigent market. On his arrival at the beginning of last year, Grasset was publishing 170 new titles annually; Nora intends to reduce that to 130. In earlier times, a literary house could depend on what Nora calls the "top to bottom" system, where an elite dictated taste, and got books sold. Today the corner bookseller creates the excitement, and this is where the promotional effort must be concentrated.
PW asks Olivier Nora about the foreign side. Grasset in recent years has been the publisher of both Umberto Eco and Gabriel García Márquez, and more recently of Isabel Allende, T.C. Boyle, Vikram Seth. Nora feels that Grasset has proved that one needn't translate from the American to be successful; he intends to continue to strengthen the European list. This is not to snub American culture. Grasset has published Joseph Heller, Henry Roth, Louis Begley and Harold Brodkey. In a bestseller series they translate Robert Ludlum, Clive Cussler and Sidney Sheldon. One of Nora's concerns is to refine the categories of popular thrillers so as not to overpublish; there are separate markets, say, for techno-thrillers (men mostly) and psychological thrillers (mostly women), and print runs and packaging must take this into account.
"Don't see me as the young guy who's come in to change everything," Nora pleads. "It's the market that's changing. And my job is to try to understand it and to make it work for us."