04. 20. 2009. 08:18

Books take time

An interview with Gallimard editor Jean Mattern

Jean Mattern, representing Gallimard, answered our questions concerning the current state of publishing in France, as well as the recent release of works by Hungarian authors.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Nouvelle Revue Française, the predecessor to Gallimard. Throughout this time, Gallimard has succeeded in preserving the high level of quality and openness to new ideas typical of NRF. To what other circumstances does Gallimard owe its history of success?
I believe it owes the most to Gaston, Claude and Antoine Gallimard, three men from three different generations who were passionate about books. They were responsible for establishing a catalogue that has withstood not only the test of time, but of changing values as well. The books they selected—books that are considered classics today—created a firm financial foundation that allows the publishing house to keep its doors open even today, 100 years later. At the same time, we naturally do our best to preserve the original inspiration behind Gallimard. We owe all this to the faithfulness of these three men, who never forgot that books take time. This means that a publishing house’s catalogue must be built upon lasting values. I think this is one of the secrets behind Gallimard’s success.
Has Gallimard ever been considered an “elite” publishing house?
It is not an elite publishing house. If it were, or ever had been, then it wouldn’t be around today. Our collection of pocket-sized books, the Folio series, attracts a wide audience. We possess an imposing list of titles that are varied enough to interest all of our readers. Naturally, we also publish an amazingly wide variety of literary—or “heavy”—works that only appeal to smaller audiences, but I am convinced that we have managed to combine the two. Our goal is to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, while still upholding the fundamental importance of our literary standards.
Two factors that may significantly influence the market for books everywhere around the globe are the global recession and the appearance of e-books. How much do you think the global recession will affect Gallimard, or French publishers in general, given the fact that fewer people will be buying books due to the economic situation? And what role will e-books play in your opinion?
E-books are definitely a big question. At this point nobody knows the exact answer to what role e-books will play in the future, but right now we are talking about a very narrow audience. We certainly have to be prepared for the eventuality that a much larger demand for books available in an electronic, instead of a printed format could spring up even tomorrow, but, to be perfectly honest, we haven’t run into this yet. I think literature will continue to be associated with the joy of reading. A book is an object in its own right, a standard of quality: most readers think an elegant cover and good-quality paper is important, even today. I can’t say that there won’t be changes, which is why we are prepared to digitalize our books. We can’t afford to be caught unprepared by any economic changes that would demand the marketing of e-books—within a reasonable framework, that is.  But currently e-books are still a big question mark for us.
Similar to e-books, the global recession is another big question. Of course, we have to face the fact that there is a financial crisis going on that will cause a widespread economic recession in France, as well as in the rest of the world.  At the same time, large publishing houses like Gallimard have yet to see the effects of this in their sales statistics. This is partly due to the fact that a book is still the least expensive way to spend some free time—it’s cheaper than the cinema, a restaurant, a DVD or travel. It’s also true that certain cultural traditions are unshakable, even in the France of today. Travel, for example, is something many people are willing to give up, but they still refuse to give up reading. In December, just before Christmas and the end of the year, the sales statistics for bookstores actually rose. A lot of people obviously decided to give the gift of a book instead of buying something more expensive. Of course, we must take into account the fact that we, too, will feel the effect of this recession because an increase in unemployment will definitely lower our customers’ buying power. But at this point we still haven’t felt this yet, even though we discuss it a lot. I think we’ll certainly be affected by this global recession, but perhaps to a lesser extent than other kinds of markets will be.
For years now, the marketing of books in France has been regulated according to a system of fixed prices. What are your experiences concerning this?
Yes, it is, and this system is extremely important to us. Actually, the government recently emphasized the importance of this law, which was passed in 1981. So this system has been working for the last 28 years. In short, the law we’re talking about basically regulates how the book market works. Without this law, a whole network of independent bookstores wouldn’t be able to survive. As of 1981, there isn’t any difference in price between, say, a book sold by large chains like Fnac and one found in small, independently owned bookstores.  Thanks to this system of fixed prices, French publishing has kept its diversity. It should also be mentioned that independently owned bookstores receive a lot of active support; there is, for example, an organization in France that purposely aids independent bookstores in financing their business and increasing their sales market. On a national level there is an extremely strong will to keep the diversity of these independent bookstores alive, because these stores serve as a kind of guarantee for the future of independent publishing as well.
Besides, there is a strong tradition in France of publishing pocket-sized editions, or livres de poche, like the Folio series you mentioned before. According to this custom, books that sell a lot of copies are published again in a pocket-sized edition, thereby becoming available at a much lower price. How does this fit in with regulated prices?
The pocket-sized editions are a part of the book’s “afterlife,” if you will.  Books are initially published in a traditional form and consequently sold at a higher price. Once a certain amount of the book’s publishing costs have been recovered, then the publisher can start thinking about distributing this book on a wider scale, at a lower price. But these pocket-sized editions are sold at fixed prices, too, just like any other book. There aren’t any discounts. It doesn’t matter what form the book takes, France’s regulatory system works according to very stringent requirements.
What works by Hungarian authors will Gallimard soon publish?
György Dragomán’s novel, The White King, was released just this week and is our biggest novelty at the moment. Péter Esterházy’s latest work, No Art, is also scheduled to appear soon. I think we can comfortably state that certain Hungarian authors are well-known in France. Of course, I can’t claim that the number of sales for these books are astonishing, but a certain class of educated readers and critics are definitely familiar with their works. We try to reach a little farther with each new publication. I hope that The White King will really do well, thereby paving the way to other books. In my opinion, our task is, among other things, to contradict all the clichés and stereotypes that frequently surround Eastern European literature. It isn’t their background or native language that should matter, but the fact that these are really good authors.
In that case you must agree with the often voiced opinion that it is difficult to introduce a foreign author through their own life and work, as opposed to introducing them as representing their country.
That goes without saying. All authors who come from the same country naturally share the same language, culture and a similar background, but every author always strives to express this in his own way, in his own style. Of course, certain things are always the result of a country’s history, but we must never forget to look at these authors as individuals possessing their own brand of sensitivity. The author’s personality is always first and foremost, and it is from this point of view that Gallimard strives to introduce each and every author.

Anna Marczisovszky

Translated by: Maya J. LoBello

Tags: An interview with Gallimard editor Jean Mattern, Jean Mattern, Gallimard