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Quais du Polar 2018 : Fascinating conference about republishing old crime fiction books.

April 9, 2018 9 comments

At Quais du Polar I attended a fascinated conference among publishers about republishing old crime fiction books. The participants were Oliver Gallmeister, from the eponym publishing house, Jeanne Guyon, in charge of Rivages Noir, Jean-François Merle for the publisher Omnibus and Jérôme Leroy, writer, reviewer and in charge of the collection La Petite Vermillon at Gallimard.

The journalist started the discussion by asking about each publisher’s view on reeditions. All said that it was part of the strategy of their publishing house as a way ensure the transmission of a literary heritage. Rivages Noir started with a new edition of Pop. 1280 by Jim Thompson. For Omnibus born 30 years ago, it was the origin of their existence as they started with the project to publish an omnibus collection of Simenon’s work. You know how prolific he was and it ended up with 27 volumes of 1000 pages each. A colossal work of researching all the books, getting them and arranging them in consistent volumes. Gallmeister has started to republish Ross McDonald, mostly because Oliver Gallmeister wants to share this writer with new readers. When he launched his own publishing house in 2006, he had in mind to release half of new books, half of reeditions. The first reedition was The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey. (French title: Le gang de la clé à molette). He was inspired by François Guérif, the creator of Rivages Noir.

Reeditions are a way to help a new publisher to create a catalogue and start their activity. At the same time, they quickly become a tricky economic equation. Indeed, there isn’t as much press coverage for a reedition as for a new book. And there are less prescriptions from the libraires. Why is that? Well, for these well-read and sometimes older readers, these books are old news. They’ve read them before and don’t see why they should write about them or recommend them to clients. Gallmeister has republished seven books by Ross McDonald and it hasn’t been profitable since book three. He said he will keep on republishing them anyway, as it is his duty as a publisher to keep this literary heritage alive. Jeanne Guyon said they had the same problem at Rivages Noir where they endeavor to reedit every book by Donald Westlake and Elmore Leonard.

The root of the economic equation is: Is there a public today for this book? They never know if a reedition will be a success. For example, they republished We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson. (French title: Nous avons toujours vécu au château), and it was a huge success. Gallmeister republished Margaret Millar and it was a failure, total silence in the press. On the contrary, when books by Chesterton were republished, glowing articles appeared in Le Figaro and Le Monde and the book was launched. The publisher’s thorough work is a not a sure recipe for success in bookstores. There’s a good dose of serendipity. The corporate executive in me understands the economic angst coming out of this serendipity and the need to ensure a return on investment for their good work and the aim to earn money and not endanger their company. The passionate reader in me is happy that selling books is still something different from selling peas and that the whims of the reader remains an unpredictable variable in the equation.

With this economic problem comes another tricky question: should they be completist and republish every single book by a writer or leave behind the less worthy ones? Westlake’s books were of unequal quality; is it worth it to republish the bad ones?

The question of the publisher’s duty in the transmission of book heritage was a crucial one. Gallmeister recoiled a bit at this idea, probably because it smelled a bit too much about duty and mothballs and not enough of passion for books. Jérôme Leroy said he was in a very comfortable position: as the director of a small collection of four books per year at Gallimard’s, his only guide was his urge to share with other readers books by writers that have been formative to him and kindled his love for reading. He loves to republish long forgotten books like La princesse de Crève by Kââ or La langue chienne by Hervé Prudon or oddities in a writer’s career like Drôle de salade by Cécil St Laurent, a penname of the very conservative Jacques Laurent.

The question of republishing one book in a writer’s work or all of their books came back because it’s a crucial question for the publisher. Gallmeister said that no matter what, he will publish the whole work of Ross McDonald. For other writers, he will leave some lesser works behind. He thinks it’s also part of the publisher’s duty to let some writers fall into oblivion. Do former Nobel Prizes like Anatole France deserve republishing? He’s not so sure. (Me neither, btw. Same for Voltaire. Most of his plays are OOP and for a good reason, from what I’ve heard)

I guess that all these parameters are valid for all countries and all literary genres. There’s a specificity to crime fiction and Noir in France though. Books by Thompson, Chandler, McDonald, Westlake and others were first published in collections called Série Noire or Fleuve Noir. They were named romans de gare, books to be bought in railway station by travelers. They used to sell their collection through subscriptions, publish ten to twelve books a month. Books had to be 250 pages long, not more. It was considered as popular literature aimed at a popular readership. They thought about their readers before thinking about the writers. And they had –in my view—quite a low opinion of their readers. They assumed that these readers weren’t able to read long books or that they could enjoy digressions and detours in their crime novels. There’s a lot of contempt from the literary elites on their working-class readers. White collars just assumed that their blue-collar readers were idiots.

So, they took liberties with the original and tampered with the translations. The publishers kept a team of writers/translators who worked according to precise specifications. There wasn’t much time for proof reading. Passages that didn’t contribute to move the action forward were cut, accuracy wasn’t a golden rule for the translator who adapted the text to the reader’s everyday life references. These butchery cuts sometimes erased the singularity of the writers and could reprensent from 10% to 30% of the original. Pop 1280 became 1275 âmes in its first edition probably because it sounded better than 1280 âmes. In the end, 1280 âmes is a book by Jean-Bernard Pouy where he investigates the disappearance of these five souls.

A same writer had a lot of different translators which resulted in inconsistencies in the translations. Two characters would say vous to each other in one volume and tu in others. What’s their relationship? How do they address to each other? The choice must be consistent throughout the translations and it wasn’t. It’s the case for 87th Precinct by Ed McBain published by Omnibus. The foreign authors had no idea of the poor quality of the French translations.

It was another era, a time where French readers knew less about America and translators tried to translate the books into French but also into French references to help the reader. This is behind us with globalization.

This doesn’t correspond to our vision of what a translation should be. Now translation contracts specify that the translation must be faithful, complete and accurate. Publishers are also more respectful of authors and now readers buy a book by a certain writer and not the latest Série Noire or Fleuve Noir. That’s a major difference too.

However, this past isn’t without consequences. Any reedition implies a retranslation of the book, adding to the cost of the new edition. This is also why the participants to this conference consider the republishing of older crime fiction books as a literary duty, a way to preserve and foster a literary heritage. It allows new readers to discover the books that were seminal to their contemporary favorite writers. This trend also means that crime fiction is now seen as a noble and literary genre. Excellent news, if I may say so.

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