Publisher and Revolutionary (1969)

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This arti­cle was first pub­lished in Mag­a­zine lit­téraire, 29 (1969), 39-41.

I began to work in pub­lish­ing in 1959, so 10 years ago, but I had already been sell­ing books since 1953. I was 21 years old then. I needed to make a liv­ing while going to school, and I worked in a book­store. I had the oppor­tu­nity to buy a book­store that was com­pletely falling apart for an extremely cheap price, the for­mer La Hune, on rue Mon­sieur-le-Prince. I couldn’t con­tinue my stud­ies and run a book­store at the same time. I chose the book­store. Already at that time, I had a clear polit­i­cal com­mit­ment – I was a mil­i­tant in the PCF – and I believed that I could com­bine the book­store and polit­i­cal activism. In the book­store and in pub­lish­ing, I did what a book­seller and an inde­pen­dent edi­tor with a cer­tain polit­i­cal com­mit­ment has the capac­ity to do.

In 1959, I had already resold my first store to buy another, big­ger, one, which I bought for a very good price, La joie de lire, on Rue Saint-Séverin. When I began to pub­lish, the finan­cial prob­lem was both raised and not raised. It was raised to the extent that I had nei­ther the finan­cial resources nor the cap­i­tal, but it was not raised because, since this book­store already had a cer­tain rep­u­ta­tion, I did not have any dif­fi­cul­ties find­ing a printer.

If the first book had been a fail­ure, I would have suf­fered the con­se­quences and very seri­ous prob­lems would have come up: this hap­pened after­wards, when other books didn’t sell and I came very close to bank­ruptcy. But the book, La guerre d’Espagne by Pietro Nenni, sold well. We sold 10,000 copies of it, and for me, who was only pre­tend­ing to be a pub­lisher, this was a con­sid­er­able suc­cess.

In 1959, polit­i­cal doc­u­ments didn’t exist. This was the time of the ref­er­en­dum and de Gaulle’s return to power, the time of French Alge­ria, and no pub­lisher thought that read­ers in France would be inter­ested in them. If we take a look at the pub­lish­ing scene at that time, we see that there were only some polit­i­cal works from Seuil, in the “Fron­tières ouvertes” series, a quite inter­est­ing series, but which was in a period of cri­sis. There was one extremely bril­liant attempt, the “Petite Bib­lio­thèque Répub­li­caine,” from Edi­teurs Français Réu­nis, directed by a great edi­tor, Fran­cois Monod, but it only lasted three months. This series reached out to peo­ple out­side of the party to be able to pub­lish books that opposed the regime. Pub­lish­ers did not have their polit­i­cal series like they all do today.

The excep­tion was Jerome Lin­don, who had already pre­vi­ously pub­lished an extremely coura­geous book, La let­tre aux directeurs de la Résis­tance, by Paul­han, and who had just released two books against the war in Alge­ria: La ques­tion [The Ques­tion], by Henri Alleg, and Pour Djamila Bouhired. I was very impressed by Édi­tions Minuit; at that time, oppo­si­tion to Paris was spread­ing across France, and I thought that it made per­fect sense to give polit­i­cal texts and doc­u­ments to all the mil­i­tants who needed them, and who hadn’t been given them, or not suf­fi­ciently so.

Pub­lish­ers want to believe that they are free to pub­lish what they want. Pub­lish­ers are inter­me­di­aries, echoes at best; at worst, they are like oscil­lo­graphs, who fol­low the fluc­tu­a­tions of the mar­ket and writ­ers. If I pub­lished Nenni to get going, it was because the French press had dis­cussed him, the book seemed inter­est­ing to me, and no other pub­lisher seemed to want it. It was not a ques­tion for me then, as tiny as I was and with­out a con­nec­tion any­one and espe­cially not with the French Left (I was a book­seller, a pro­fes­sion that was not held in high esteem by intel­lec­tu­als, and a rank and file mil­i­tant in the Com­mu­nist Party) of whether I wanted to estab­lish myself as a pub­lisher, it was not a ques­tion of pub­lish­ing any­thing other than a for­eign book.

That’s the mate­rial expla­na­tion. There is also a “noble” expla­na­tion. In 1958-59, var­i­ous antifas­cist forces were busy assem­bling; there was noth­ing more sym­bolic of antifas­cism than the strug­gle of the Span­ish peo­ple, and noth­ing had been pub­lished in France on the Span­ish Civil War until then. Show­ing that, above all, I wanted to con­tribute to the antifas­cist union, I pub­lished a book on the Span­ish Civil War with the inten­tion of pub­lish­ing a book on the Alge­rian War imme­di­ately after­ward--and that was L’an V de la révo­lu­tion algéri­enne [A Dying Colo­nial­ism], by Frantz Fanon.

In 1959, how­ever, the French peo­ple were not inter­ested in polit­i­cal works. Despite the Alge­rian War, Lindon’s books, like mine, had a mar­ginal impact. La ques­tion had a wide cir­cu­la­tion, but less than two thou­sand copies of the other titles in the same series from Édi­tions Minuit were printed, and they couldn’t be found in book­stores. L’an V de la révo­lu­tion algéri­enne appeared in Octo­ber 1959. By the time of Fanon’s death in 1961, hardly three thou­sand copies of it had sold. Fanon’s books only began to have a wide dis­tri­b­u­tion start­ing from 1965, even well after Sartre wrote his pref­ace to Damnés de la terre [Wretched of the Earth]. More­over, there was never an in-depth arti­cle on Fanon in the French press.

In these ini­tial years, the first book that attained the same print run as Nenni’s book was La révo­lu­tion algéri­enne par les tex­tes, by [Andre] Man­douze, because it was impor­tant for both mil­i­tants and the nego­tia­tors at Evian. But it was long, and this is typ­i­cally the kind of book that doesn’t attract the gen­eral pub­lic, but nev­er­the­less had a large impact.

I do not know my audi­ence, and I am unsure of them. One can only be sure of a few hun­dred peo­ple. I know that an audi­ence exists for cer­tain books, but I can’t say the same for all of my pub­li­ca­tions. We had a telling expe­ri­ence here: since the begin­ning, we have taken sub­scrip­tions to our “Cahiers Libres” series, which is the polit­i­cal axis of edi­tions Maspero. Now, we have reached a fig­ure that seems sig­nif­i­cant to us, 433 sub­scrip­tions; even just two years ago, we had 180. And still, the sub­scrip­tion price in rela­tion to the nor­mal sale price of the books is very low.

I have never wanted to cre­ate a pub­lish­ing house just for the sake of cre­at­ing a pub­lish­ing house. But things develop all by them­selves, and it’s hard to stop them. My prob­lem is that I often send books to other pub­lish­ers that will han­dle them bet­ter than myself, and only keep those that I think I would be bet­ter able to han­dle than oth­ers would.

I am most attached to the “Cahiers Libres,” because that is the series that got me off the ground. Then, more recently, there have been two impor­tant series, both seri­ous axes: the “Théorie” series, edited by Louis Althusser, and the “Économie et Social­isme” series, edited by Charles Bet­tel­heim. These two series have given the pub­lish­ing a new dimen­sion and a more con­sid­er­able influ­ence. More­over, Althusser and Bettelheim’s affil­i­a­tion with us has undoubt­edly meant that we don’t have to pre­tend so much to be a pub­lish­ing house.

In a very gen­eral way, I believe that I’m always pre­tend­ing. I don’t know if other pub­lish­ers are true pub­lish­ers. I’d say that there are very few true pub­lish­ers. In my opin­ion, the true pub­lisher is Gal­li­mard, as they are able, on all lev­els, to respond to all the prob­lems they face in an ade­quate fash­ion. One aspect where I pre­tend is that I don’t work enough with the author. It’s obvi­ous that there is always more to get out of an author, which is what I don’t do. There’s a “noble” expla­na­tion for this too, and that’s that we respect the author’s free­dom. Then, we send the book to the print­ers, and we pre­tend to pre­pare it. In fact, it’s badly pre­pared. there are always typo­graph­i­cal dis­as­ters, and it seems that this is indeed true for all pub­lish­ers. As for the book’s launch, this is a scan­dal of unpre­pared­ness. Finally, we release the book and wait for the cus­tomers to come.

My strength is the book­store, La joie de lire, which sells, on aver­age, 10% of my print runs – some­times more, when the book falls in line with the ori­en­ta­tion of the book­store, and other times only ten copies. But the book­store has allowed me to see, more quickly,  what peo­ple required, to con­tact peo­ple directly, and to sell a part of the print runs faster. This has also been a lim­i­ta­tion, because the book­store can’t sup­port every­thing, and some­times this gave a reduced impor­tance to pub­lish­ing. When I chose to pub­lish La guerre d’Espagne, it was because I had seen at the book­store that there was noth­ing avail­able to peo­ple on the sub­ject. For Fanon, it was dif­fer­ent. Nobody knew who he was, and Peaux noires et masques blancs [Black Skin, White Masks], which Seuil pub­lished, did not sell well. Still, the book­store is an instru­ment of impor­tant infor­ma­tion.

How­ever, I chose my books not for the book­store, but on the basis of a polit­i­cal strug­gle. Besides, in my view the book­store was, at other moments, also an instru­ment of strug­gle – and remains so today. The polit­i­cal con­text changed and, espe­cially since May, pub­lish­ers have under­stood that texts of polit­i­cal strug­gle can be absorbed, inte­grated, digested, and they are not dan­ger­ous so long as they are received in a cer­tain form; whereas up until the end of the Alge­rian War, pub­lish­ers were afraid of polit­i­cal lit­er­a­ture. There has been a process of gen­eral inte­gra­tion, polit­i­cal lit­er­a­ture is now com­pletely wide­spread. In May, pub­lish­ers dis­cov­ered that the “left­ist” mar­ket does not con­sist of only a few thou­sand peo­ple, but of hun­dreds of thou­sands who took to the streets, and that there was a “stu­dent” mar­ket. The result was the hurry to bring out books about May, with pub­lish­ers often falling into the most con­temptible flat­tery. How­ever, the books about polit­i­cal strug­gle and reflec­tion remain quite sec­ondary in rela­tion to reportage.

A year and a half ago, we intro­duced our “paper­back series.” I had tried to pro­pose some of my books for already exist­ing paper­back series, like Lindon’s. I suf­fered sys­tem­atic rejec­tions, and I decided to pro­duce my paper­back series myself. In this case, too, I am pre­tend­ing; there were 5000 copies printed of the first titles. The 6F price was too expen­sive for a paper­back book series, and insuf­fi­cient for such reduced print­ing runs. Still, it found a mar­ket. Almost all the books printed at 5000 copies have been repub­lished, and now we print 10,000 copies of all the books. There are a lot of tech­ni­cal prob­lems. For exam­ple, the reprint­ing took four months, and we couldn’t keep up with the reprint­ing sched­ule, either mate­ri­ally or finan­cially.

The most press­ing prob­lem for me is know­ing whether pub­lish­ing is a means of rev­o­lu­tion­ary activ­ity. From the Alge­rian War up until May 1968, and maybe even now since we are see­ing a sharp decline com­pared to May, the project of pub­lish­ing rev­o­lu­tion­ary texts – from the per­spec­tive of infor­ma­tion and con­fronta­tion – could have a pos­i­tive effect. But in the course of this project, one runs into nearly intractable con­tra­dic­tions. Either one founds and devel­ops a pub­lish­ing house in order to develop the work of pub­lish­ing, which is inevitable since we are in a cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem where one works to cre­ate and main­tain a firm. Or one does the work of rev­o­lu­tion­ary for­ma­tion. In many cases, these are not com­pat­i­ble, or more pre­cisely, there are impor­tant con­tra­dic­tions between these two objec­tives. Only aim­ing to do rev­o­lu­tion­ary work is to lie, because it means deny­ing a whole aspect of the pro­fes­sion­al­ism of the publisher’s trade; and to fall back too strongly on this voca­tion – which is a great temp­ta­tion, pro­vid­ing much sat­is­fac­tion at the pro­fes­sional level, in the best sense of the word – means largely sac­ri­ficing the work of rev­o­lu­tion­ary mil­i­tancy. And even if one does not per­son­ally live this con­tra­dic­tion, the pub­lic is there to live it in your place, and to sys­tem­at­i­cally reproach you for bour­geois inte­gra­tion. There are even some sim­ple­minded peo­ple who would reproach us for being only an instru­ment of rev­o­lu­tion­ary action, and not of rev­o­lu­tion itself …

I think that at this first stage, such work is impor­tant, and can even be effec­tive. But at a cer­tain point, one has to move beyond the stage of being at the ser­vice of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary cur­rent to the stage of being this cur­rent one­self . In other words, this means either dis­ap­pear­ing, or not play­ing the same role that I played before. That’s why I con­sider, in a cer­tain way, the Édi­tions Maspero a fail­ure: from the pro­fes­sional point of view, it is a suc­cess, but it isn’t the suc­cess it should be. To be a pro­fes­sional suc­cess, it would have to be Le Seuil or Gal­li­mard. I think I would have no trou­ble becom­ing Le Seuil in the next two years if I had wanted to. But this isn’t the goal I have set myself, because my goal is to serve a cer­tain rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment. I think that at a sec­ond stage, the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment, rev­o­lu­tion­ary groups would have to take hold of their own presses, pub­lish­ing houses, means of infor­ma­tion. But there exists a very clear con­tra­dic­tion, at any given moment, between these empir­i­cal work that is pub­lish­ing, the echo of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary move­ment, and deep the­o­ret­i­cal work, which is the work of rev­o­lu­tion­ary thought, and which can only be accom­plished through already-exist­ing plat­forms, and a move­ment tied to the masses, a whole series of things that can­not be the work of a lone pub­lish­ing house. As a pub­lisher, I am the echo of polit­i­cal prob­lems, but I do not have at my dis­posal the the­o­ret­i­cal means to resolve them, in con­trast to Althusser, for exam­ple, who can say in his series: we work in such and such a per­spec­tive because we want to achieve such and such a result. One can also antic­i­pate the echo, com­ing up with a book, but if I elicit a book, it is because I know that it is already demanded, and one will always reproach me for act­ing in the same way as a pea seller who makes his peas larger or small depend­ing on the demand.

At present, pub­lish­ers have inte­grated pol­i­tics; I don’t know if under other regimes they will have the same free­dom as under Gaullism. Gaullism, being a strong regime, prac­tices what intel­li­gent strong regimes prac­tice, that is, it con­sid­ers pub­lish­ing like a pres­sure valve and like a dis­trac­tion that masks repres­sions far more vio­lent at the level of every­day life. Free­dom of press is very con­spic­u­ous at the inter­na­tional level, and per­mits this dis­trac­tion a good con­science: “see, 150 meters from the Pre­fec­ture of Police is the Maspero book­store (where every­one knows quite well that they give demon­stra­tors axe han­dles), and we are nev­er­the­less still strong enough to let them do this.” The weaker power, the harder it is, above all in this area, and the left is stu­pider than Gaullism: it’s under Guy Mol­let that the most news­pa­pers and books were seized.1

A num­ber of pub­lish­ers a bit like our own have been set up in other coun­tries over the last sev­eral years, in Ger­many, in Italy, in Spain, and in Latin Amer­ica - this being the most tragic case, since they have all just been banned. Even in Swe­den they have cre­ated a new pub­lish­ing house, which is called Par­ti­sans-Ver­laget. These pub­lish­ers are doing what we did in the begin­ning, that is to say, mainly pub­lish­ing trans­la­tions of for­eign books, out of neces­sity; they are pub­lish­ing things that we have already pub­lished, more than the other way around. For a very long time we have had dif­fi­culty pub­lish­ing our books abroad. It was very dif­fi­cult, for exam­ple, to get oth­ers to admit that Fanon is impor­tant. Right now, it’s the oppo­site: for­eign pub­lish­ers are inter­ested in us and all the books we pub­lish in French are trans­lated abroad. We even have a choice of pub­lish­ers. It’s a strik­ing con­trast. Finally, what makes me most proud is not appar­ent at first sight. This is the fact that my pub­lish­ing house rests on a large net­work of trust­wor­thy peo­ple and friends, which has noth­ing to do with the reg­u­lar con­nec­tions that I often see the Parisian pub­lish­ing world built on. Every­thing that we pub­lish is the fruit of the labor and advice of  a series of peo­ple, of com­rades who con­sider the pub­lish­ing house a use­ful instru­ment: that and noth­ing more, and it’s already enor­mous. There aren’t just close col­lab­o­ra­tors like Émile Copfer­mann, Jean-Philippe Talbo, Fan­chita Gon­za­les, or Georges Dupré, the direc­tors of the var­i­ous series, such as Althusser, Bet­tel­heim, Char­rière, Memmi, Dury, and authors like Pierre Jalée, Gérard Chaliand, Maschino, Moumouni, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Jean-Pierre Ver­nant, Georges Haupt, but also all those who thought all of a sud­den of a book, of a sub­ject, that “this would be impor­tant for Maspero” (in other words, it would be impor­tant for them), or who came to tell me: “You have just made a blun­der.” Jean Baby has advised me enor­mously. And how can I say how much I owe a com­rade like Régis Debray, not for his books but for the dis­cus­sion that we’ve been able to have? It’s this phe­nom­e­non of con­stant exchanges, with­out for­mal­ism, that con­sti­tutes the liv­ing force of my pub­lish­ing house, and which makes me think that I am per­haps not com­pletely wrong to keep going.

– Trans­lated by Patrick King and Salar Mohan­desi. The trans­la­tors would like to thank David Broder for com­ments on the draft.

  1. Translator’s note: A French social­ist politi­cian, Guy Mol­let (1905-1975) was Prime Min­is­ter from 1956-1957. 

Author of the article

was a French author, translator, journalist, editor, and publisher. He was also the owner of La Joie de lire, a radical bookstore in Paris.