Publishing in a bind: An interview with François Maspero


A crucial figure in radical publishing, François Maspero (19 January 1932—11 April 2015) published some of the 20th century's most important works: Fanon, Althusser, Che, Malcolm X... In the interview below, given to Bertrand Leclair for La Quinzaine littéraire, he addressed some of the troubling developments in the "Darwinian" world of publishing, where "the big predators are constantly on the march." Translated by David Broder.

François Maspero has an exceptional knowledge of the world of books, from the hand drawing in on a blank page to the delighted reader smiling as he leaves his shop after picking up a promising tome. A writer and translator, author of twenty titles starting with Le Sourire du chat in 1984 [1], and a long-time member of La Quinzaine littéraire’s editorial committee, Maspero was first of all a bookseller and publisher. Following on from an April 2005 article entitled “Main basse sur l’édition”, here he agreed to return to discussing the tumultuous changes in the world of publishing.

You were a bookseller from 1954 to 1975, and a publisher from 1959 to 1982. The publishing house you founded, historically connected to your own engagement, then became La Découverte, before being bought out by Vivendi a few years ago. And today it is part of Éditis, having fallen under the control of Wendel Investissement, run by baron Seillière…

I stopped being a bookseller thirty years ago and stopped being a publisher twenty-two years ago. That is, my so-called successors today have now been running their publishing house longer than I ever did. They have created their own identity, which certainly has nothing to do with mine, and is perhaps stronger than mine was. That’s not a value judgement, but I don’t like anyone being presented as my “inheritors” (after all, you only inherit from the dead), not least since the conditions for publishing have changed considerably. I was one of the last bookseller-publishers, in the image of José Corti; despite the century-long gap, I was closer to the techniques used in Balzac’s day than the ones that are de rigueur in the kind of publishing that baron Seillière has appropriated. This overhaul—which happened quicker than any of the ones that went before—began in the 1960s when Plon was bought out by banking capital: that was the moment when outside investors started to enter directly into publishing. At the time, publishing was still an extremely closed scene. A number of publishers were set up in 1945, including Minuit, which had been created during the Resistance and was led by Jérôme Lindon; and then the likes of Seghers, Laffont, and Julliard. But a lot of them quickly disappeared, and it was not until 1968 that a new type of publishers emerged, linked to a real social agenda—like Éditions des Femmes, for example. And most of these latter were marginalised or recuperated, over time.

One of the striking changes linked to this intrusion of the business world into publishing is today’s constant comings and goings of execs, which had never previously been the case. Nowadays the literary supplements every week have a page or two full of news of Mr. or Mrs. Duchemole leaving Thingamajig Editions to join Whatitsname Books, or whatever… not that anyone cares about that. The first time my publishing house was mentioned as such in the press was in February 1960: the front page of Le Monde referred to the banning of “a book published chez Maspero”; I thought, “What? ‘Chez Maspero’?” as if I’d been around forever! [The book in question was Frantz Fanon’s L’An V de la révolution algérienne]

Delving into your past, the first temptation would be to suggest that your career as a publisher would no longer be possible today. But on reflection it might be more accurate to say that this type of career is never possible, and that it is necessarily outside of the norm: it always risks running aground on the rocky shores of the establishment and of the dominant way of thinking.

No, I think that anyone could have done what I did at that time, so long as they had a little money: my investment to open up the bookshop was the cost of an apartment (before the property boom!), and that gave me a shop window that helped when it came to creating the publishing house. An investor like Lagardère, Messier, Seillière or whoever would never have put a penny into my business: it held out thanks to friends and a lot of the authors themselves. At least then you knew where you stood.

That said, even if the conditions have completely changed today you could still create a publisher without having a lot to start out with. One of the big problems in 1959 was distribution: there was no structure for it. The only publisher who was interested was Pierre Seghers, who owned the Intercontinentale du livre together with the Belgians. But soon enough, after the police prefecture gave him a phone call, he told me that he couldn’t distribute Partisans magazine. I smacked him in the face, which wasn’t too clever, but, well…. After that we had to distribute it ourselves. For ten years Jean-Philippe Bernigaud, who had a real skill for totally improvised organisation, took sole charge of everything to do with distribution, contacts with bookshops, mailouts… Today there are still very serious publishers who work like that, taking the whole process in hand—Claire Paulhan for example—but it’s become very rare. Distribution bodies have formed that are so big that they’re looking for publishers to distribute for—the fact that they do so very badly is another question. André Schiffrin very insightfully explained that in radically separating the distribution arm from the publishing one, you can rake in the maximum possible cash on the first front and then get rid of the second when it starts to struggle.

You published a review of Schriffin’s book Le Contrôle de la parole in La Quinzaine littéraire—a title that made a splash, though it wasn’t exactly cheering…

What Schriffrin said was that if pension fund investors or weapons dealers or perfume manufacturers really expect publishing to bring 10 or 15 percent or more in profits, then it’s hard to see how that can be achieved—or rather, it’s only too clear. Back in the day, the big publishers stuck to just a few shareholders, and each of them had a leading personality. Gallimard was not Grasset. Even if they were bourgeois, these publishers did not belong—as most of them now do—to holding companies counting ten, fifteen or twenty publishing houses often reduced to mere “labels”, and which also run media conglomerates. Schiffrin talked about four or five big players who control the printed word from start to finish, from the book’s publication to its treatment by the media, allowing them to create publishing “events” out of thin air.

When La Découverte published José Bové, and its then owner Jean-Marie Messier said he was very happy about this, you could revel in the “postmodern” liberalism of today’s wealthy investors, or ask yourself questions about the meaning of a comedy where anything goes so long as the money is rolling in. In fact, the important players in the publishing world are getting into the same habits as all businesses, increasingly being led by managers who no longer have any interest in the content of what they’re publishing. Indeed, it would be interesting to work out one of those “ratios” (which they hold the secret for) establishing the relation between the ever-greater number of technocrats in publishing to the also ever-greater number of bankruptcies, takeovers, fusions, restructuring programmes etc. for publishing houses whose quality output you thought would have stood them in good stead forever. We saw as much at Éditions du Cerf, at Presses Universitaires and elsewhere… Of course fortunately there are still some people in charge who are passionate about literature and knowledge (that still seems to be the case at La Découverte) but there’s an ever growing number of execs who only survive because they know how to work their “address book” in accordance with the canons of modern marketing, while also trying to gun down everything that moves in the office next door. Like everywhere, people are constantly in fear of losing their jobs, and many of them have good reason to be particularly worried: copyeditors and proofreaders, for example. Only a few big traditional publishers still employ copyeditors, even though they’re the last guarantee of linguistic integrity: their disappearance, which is catastrophic in terms of quality, can easily be dismissed as harmless so far as marketing is concerned.

The paradox is that it seems increasingly easy to become a publisher—new ones keep being set up, and some of them will happily publish what the big ones can’t take on anymore.

Yes, starting is easy, but it’s very hard to keep going. Schiffrin himself brought his book out with a small publisher, La Fabrique, which has a very strong character behind it. Now it’s easy to sit yourself in front of a computer, use desktop publishing and bring out ten titles a year; they’ll be of excellent quality and express real originality. This ease of access can also help any old rubbish to come out, but some people make really good use of it. Take the example of La Fosse aux Ours, which makes intelligent, carefully-produced books, and in particular the works of Rigoni Stern, who the big French publishing houses showed no interest in. Or take the case of Agone, in Marseille: it has an uncompromising, challenging spirit, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Or—to take another among the hundreds of possible examples—Éditions du Sansonnet, based in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, who do a remarkable job publishing on neighbourhood histories and working-class memory. But this space to publish is a terribly fragile one, as the big predators are constantly on the march. After all, for them this is a very happy hunting-ground. It’s Darwinian. I find this all the more poignant because these are really impassioned publishers, whom I can only admire.

Could we say that you are less alarmist than Schiffrin, then?

No, I wouldn’t say so. But I simply think it’s fantastic that there are so many people with the passion to keep at it, who think that books can still be at the heart of life. For me up until the time of the Algerian War books were one medium among others. Along with magazines—which were much more important at the time—books had their place among means of information like the papers, radio and TV. They were a means of information in the full sense: today they are at best a secondary one, or a form of entertainment, or a promotional tool. In any case, now they only exist thanks to other complementary media.

As a kind of echo for this issue’s coverage, could you tell us about your own attachment to La Quinzaine littéraire?

I’m totally attached to it. La Quinzaine appeared at a moment of intellectual ferment: a lot of researchers were thinking about constructing conceptual tools that could change our understanding of intellectual life, and there was a manifest need for a space where it would be possible to take stock of this interdisciplinarity. That was a real literary necessity. That’s what La Quinzaine offered: it didn’t just announce new titles, but allowed people who were publishing to speak to one another, and to go further. There had already been an outline of that in Les Lettres nouvelles’ impressive attempt to go weekly: that experience was ultimately doomed to failure, but it certainly excited us, in the bookshop. Today the one word that you could use to describe La Quinzaine would be “unique”. In what other paper do you find reflections on literature? It’s a formidable guide, one you learn a lot from—and that’s very rare in the French press. There were reviews in journals, but very little in the papers. What La Quinzaine offers is an account of what the new titles are saying, even if of course we don’t always agree with all the contributors.

[1] In March 2006 he published Le Vol de la mésange and L’Ombre d’une photographe (on Gerda Taro) with Éditions du Seuil.