Jane Aitken and Pilar Webb met when they were both working at Random House children’s, and they went on to co-found Gallic Books in 2006. Headliners Muriel Barbery (trs. Alison Anderson), Antoine Laurain (trs. Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken), Michel Déon (trs. Julian Evans) and Yasmina Khadra (trs. Howard Curtis), have an enthusiastic following among discerning British readers who relish a classy well-written read from foreign shores.
Ebury Street in London’s Belgravia: a quiet, residential, affluent area. The perfect place for a bookshop where readers can enjoy peaceful browsing away from the madding crowd, and dip into some of the best French writing available in English translation. However the Belgravia Books Collective is not just a shop, but also the home of independent publishing success story, Gallic Books. It has been very much on my radar and, at last, I am going to talk to one of the founders.
While living in Geneva, Jane had noticed how so much that was published in the UK was picked up and translated across the Channel, yet so little came the other way. Despite the pioneering work of John Calder and Marion Boyars; Pete Ayrton and Stephen Pickles; translation largely stayed stuck in a publishing ghetto. There was a premium on books written in English. The commercial success of Patrick Süskind’s Perfume, Umberto Eco and Garcia Marquez was an exception rather than the rule. After the publication of The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, (which has allegedly sold 15 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best-selling books of all time), there was a sea change. Then Christopher Maclehose kicked off the Nordic Noir tidal wave with Henning Mankell – “Sweden’s biggest export since Abba” according to The Guardian. From 2005 onwards, more translations began to come out, but much was still to be discovered: hundreds of books were published in France.
What do commissioning editors specialising in translation look for?
Jane and Pilar spent much of 2006 reading all they could lay their hands on. They’d go to a big FNAC in Paris and look at everything. Their idea was to choose books that reflected England back at itself through French eyes. They launched Gallic Books in 2007 with Jean-François Parot’s historical crime featuring Nicolas Le Floch, a detective in Ancien Régime Paris, (now a hit TV series in France).
Jane Aitken has always been a bookaholic. When she was at boarding school, age ten, her mother gave her a Chalet School book by Elinor Brent Dyer set in an Austria. There were fifty-five titles in the series: two years later she was still reading them! Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit were also favourites, but other than aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince, foreign books were scarce. Later she read Jean de Brunhoff’s Babar to her children, but there still was very little available other than German or Danish fairy tales. Nowadays she always carries a book around with her, and prefers the real thing to its digital cousin, although “We read all our submissions on kindle.” Jane is emphatic, “It is NOT the end of the book.”
I ask her about Muriel Barbery. “She was sold to us by Gallimard, no one was looking at her. Alison Flood wrote in The Guardian that The Elegance of the Hedgehog was ‘too spiky for the English’ and talked the book down. But then it was reviewed in all the broadsheets and started to sell. When The Scotsman gave it a fabulous review it took off. We had sent out hundreds of proofs, it was a bookseller-driven success. It had been published at the same time as Jonathan Littell’s Les Bienveillantes in France, and Gallimard had printed 3000 copies, so the fact that it had done so unexpectedly well and was a word of mouth hit was picked up by the press over here.”
The office we are sitting in is behind the bookshop and one wall is covered with tube posters. What about marketing? “We publish about ten titles a year, and are very active on social media. The Twitter campaign has to be clear and focused, not scattergun. We run one campaign a month to raise the book’s profile so it begins to sell itself. We use NetGalley, and sometimes outside marketers, and decide for which books to send bound proofs to booksellers. We do a lot with the Reading Agency. Bloggers are important, but I’m not so sure about blog tours and how much that helps. To get noticed by traditional media is hugely competitive. We’re distributed by Macmillan here and Consortium in the US.”
And how do they choose what to publish? How do they operate? “It’s a judgement call . . . me and Pilar must both like the book. Our level is the commercial end of literary. Now we’re established, publishers know what we like, they pre-select for us at trade fairs like Frankfurt. Pilar works at home so comes in every couple of weeks, and there are bi-weekly meetings with our colleagues to discuss cover design and other issues. At Random House I was in finance and Pilar was editorial. When we set up on our own it was just the two of us, Emily Boyce came on board later. Our plan was to take in someone, train them as a translator and editor so we could do it all in-house. We met Emily one year at an International Translation Day at The British Library. Although we use outside translators like Sue Dyson or Howard Curtis, we like to translate in-house as it makes it much easier and smoother.
“To acquire a book and design the cover, we have to read it anyway, so have in mind what it’d be like to actually translate it. And if there are different voices, as in Laurain’s The Red Notebook, I can work on one character and Emily the other, so it does not all sound the same, and is more realistic. You end up with a very good translation doing it like this. We both translate while Pilar edits, and we use an outside copy editor.
“Julian Evans brought us Michel Déon whose writing is heavily autobiographical since he studied in US as a young man. The Great and the Good is about a Frenchman who moves to the US in the 1950s and becomes a wealthy stockbroker, while Your Father’s Room, due out in June next year, is about a bourgeois yet unconventional childhood in 1920s Paris and Monte Carlo. Déon is ninety-seven and an Academician. Julian is making a film of both books intercut with coverage of his life – a kind of homage.”
“Our author Antoine Laurin is huge. We’ve published three of his novels. After The President’s Hat (namely Mitterand’s. Ed.) we published a love story, The Red Notebook and his third, French Rhapsody, is topical and modern yet nostalgic.
Gallic is an author’s dream team: committed to building them up and promoting them properly, (no ‘underpublishing’ here!). “Yes, we like to follow our authors and publish a range of their books, not just one offs,” says Jane. “Of course balancing profitability and originality is tricky and we need to sell between 5000 – 8000 copies for a book to work. It also depends if the translation is done in-house or not, and if we get funding. For some we get grants, and others not, though there is less funding around now. We were given a grant from English PEN for Déon’s Le Jeune Homme Vert.”
I am particularly keen to read Laurent Gaude’s Hell’s Gate. The killing of a boy during a mafia shoot out in Naples leaves his parents in a million little pieces. The distraught mother entreats her husband to find the murderer and finish him off, or else bring back their son. So he sets off on his quest and meets people who tell him there are doors into the Underworld. He finds the boy and brings him back, but the door back into this life will only let the son through, and not the father. Death is angry . . . It sounds a bit like a 21st century Orpheus in the Underworld with some Faust thrown in for good measure.
The Belgravia Books Collective has recently branched out and is now publishing new writing and eclectic fiction from around the world written in English. Aardvark Bureau now publish prize-winning South African author Henrietta Rose-Innes.
The Collective has partnered with Jumeirah Lowndes Hotel nearby, in the creation and curation of a lending library to celebrate Belgravia for hotel visitors to enjoy.
Andy oversees a programme of events at the bookshop as well as sending out regular newsletters.
With all this activity, I ask Jane if she ever manages to relax? “Of course I do! I love reading of course, and don’t watch much TV. I enjoy winter sports in Chamonix, or walking, hiking, and swimming in the summer, in Germany.”
I ask about her favourite authors? “Maggie O’Farrell, Kate Atkinson, Jonathan Coe . . . the literary end of commercial,” she answers. “Though it shifts, depending on who I’m reading at the time. I love Trollope and Waugh. And I’m fascinated by Françoise Sagan.”
Jane’s favourite quality in a man is loyalty, and in a woman, straightforwardness. She says her chief characteristic is positivity and I agree! Her enthusiasm and positive outlook are infectious.
We discuss heroines and heroes in literature, and in real life. “Dinner with my favourites from fiction would have to include the Bennetts, especially the older daughters, Jane and Elizabeth. I have four so I have a soft spot!” There is such a dearth of good leaders in the world around us that Jane can only think of great women in publishing – “The ones who do not tear people into shreds, or grind them into the dust” – as worthy of consideration. She admires Alessandro Gallenzi and Elisabetta Minervini, at Alma Books, “Wonderful individuals and successful too.”
Her greatest achievement is The Elegance of the Hedgehog. “Barbery was not an obvious winner. She is an inspiration. She rises above everything, does not look at her reviews, does not react to things. Everything is on a very high level with her. She is extremely clever. Also generous and supportive of independent publishers.”
Does Jane Aitken have a favourite motto, especially when things go awry? “Not really, as I try not to get too exercised when things go wrong. However Brexit is a dreadfully backward step.”
So we will just have to go In Search of Lost Time – apt for the publisher of graphic novel Swann’s Way, the perfect introduction to Proust’s masterpiece. Stéphane Heuet re-presents Proust for the reader who has always dreamed of reading him, but is put off by the sheer magnitude of the undertaking. Newly-translated by Arthur Goldhammer, Proust’s own discerning observations render the narrator’s childhood home, the town of Combray, as never before!
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