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Literary Escapade: an evening with Gallmeister at Au Bonheur des Ogres

March 7, 2020 26 comments

I suppose that every usual reader of this blog knows that I’m huge fan of the publisher Gallmeister. Last month, the bookstore Au Bonheur des Ogres organized a meeting with one of Gallmeister’s representatives, Thibault. The aim was to talk about this publisher’s story and editorial line.

Before telling you all about this fascinating insight of a publisher’s workings, let’s talk a little bit about Au Bonheur des Ogres. (The Ogres’ Paradise, if I translate into English the French play-on-words on Zola’s novel The Ladies’ Paradise). It’d be a strange name for a bookshop if it weren’t the title of the first installment of the Malaussène series by Daniel Pennac. Read Guy’s review here and rush for this series if you’re in need of good entertainment. In Lyon, Au Bonheur des Ogres is a cozy bookstore operated by an enthusiastic libraire (*), Antony, who welcomed us after hours to discuss Gallmeister’s literature.

Thibault started the evening with a warm thank you to Au Bonheur des Ogres and a statement about the unique book ecosystem that we have in France. It survives under the shield of the Lang Law, something I’ve mentioned before and that is the fixed price for books. The price of a book is set by its publisher and only 5% discounts are allowed. You’re not tempted to browse through books in a bookstore, go out empty-handed and buy your book online. It won’t be cheaper. So, you buy it right away and this helps maintaining a dense network of independent bookstores in the country. This network is not always doing well, but they’re still there.

In France, ebook sales don’t take off and Amazon only represents 4% of Gallmeister’s turnover. We, readers have the power: we are the ones who decide through our buying habits where we’d rather purchase our books and we can keep the big bad American wolf at bay. Our libraires participate to the diversity of the French book ecosystem: they ensure that a large diversity of books reach their shelves and are available to meet their readers. They are a link between indie publishers and readers.

Therefore, Gallmeister’s policy has been to bet on independent bookstores and libraires.

Oliver Gallmeister founded his eponymous publishing house in 2005. Maybe I should say home instead of house, because it seems to be a good home for books, writers and literature. OG is an avid reader of Nature writing and stories featuring trappers, cowboys, and nature as an essential part of the narration and the plot. He’s able to read American literature in the original. Sadly, some of these marvelous books weren’t translated into French and that where the adventure began. A publishing house centered around American literature about nature, people living in the wilderness for a while, of people living in small towns and rural areas. Gallmeister publishes what OG loves to read and reflects his passions. He loves fly-fishing and Thibault told us with a kind humor that they publish a book per year that features fly-fishing. The employees call it “The Trout” and it comes out every November. Now you understand why I keep stumbling upon books about fly-fishing or where fly-fishing is involved! It’s even become a family inside joke.

The first Gallmeister books were The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey, a story about fun and crazy eco-terrorists in Utah, and Indian Creek by Pete Fromm. I’ve never read Pete Fromm but Thibault told us that he writes about nature beautifully but truthfully. It’s not always a welcoming place for mankind and he doesn’t romanticize his experience of living in the woods. I now have his A Job You Mostly Won’t Know How to Do on the shelf.

Gallmeister’s first bestseller was Sukkwan Island by David Vann, a novella included in Legend of a Suicide. Interesting fact, a bestseller means selling 80 000 copies of a novel. They sold 300 000 copies of Sukkwan Island. David Vann is better known in France than in his own country.

This novella was a turning point in Gallmeister’s young life. US agents started to contact OG directly to push new books. (Fun fact: in France, anyone can send a manuscript to publishers, there’s no need for an agent but in the US, you can’t.) And Gallmeister sometimes publishes books in French that haven’t even been published in America.

One of OG’s goal is that his writers are able to live of their writing. He also pushes their American agents to keep fighting and find them a US publisher when they argue that the book was already a success in France.

French people are HUGE readers of American literature and literature in translation in general. Gallmeister has found an editorial line that appeals to the French public. For example, Gabriel Tallent has sold more copies of My Absolute Darling in one year in France than in three years in the US. (Last time I saw it in a bookstore, it had a banner that said 400 000 copies) I wonder how it is in other European countries.

Thibault explained that right from the start, Gallmeister decided to rely on indie bookstores to promote their books and it made the difference, it’s part of the DNA of the house and a reason for their success. And of course, they need readers to keep buying books in these bookshops.

I think that they publish a kind of literature that fascinates the French readers and a type of books that has no French equivalent. It makes us travel, it’s far from our everyday life and doesn’t linger on first world problems of the upper classes. Their books tell stories about hardworking misfits, loners and blue-collar people. They question the American dream and show a lesser known side of America.

Thibault was here to talk about literature, share his passion for his job and tell us about the book industry and the innerworkings of Gallmeister. He failed to mention that part of Gallmeister’s success is also their innovative and killer marketing. It’s respectful of literature and readers. The books have original covers, all in the same style because there’s one illustrator. No pictures of faceless people. No aggressive colors. No cheesy or girlish stuff for female writers. The books are classy and distinctive. Here are bookmarks and a stylish catalogue of their paperback collection, Totem.

I have read or bought 34 of their 161 paperbacks, 21%. The catalogue gives a short bio of the authors and a blurb of their books. The last pages say all about the Gallmeister spirit. It’s a resume of the Totem collection with random facts like: which translation took the longest time, which one is the most beer-soaked book and the list of the most encountered animals. I loved the humor in the mention: “we didn’t list all the fish, for the lack of space”

They pay attention to the whole book chain: the printers, the illustrators, the authors and of course, the translators. The translations are impeccable, the American vibe is there and yet, it’s perfect French. New translations are crucial for Noir as their first translation was sometimes sketchy when they were published in Série Noire. This is why Gallmeister has started to re-translate all of Ross McDonald’s books.

The choice of books shows flawless literary tastes, whether the book speaks to you or not and their books are centered around five themes now: Wilderness, Cities through Noir fiction only, Intimate stories, the place of America in the world and a common theme: Noir is the Ariadne’s thread, different in each book but always present in the background.

The next big release is a new translation of Gone With the Wind, not a book I would have picked but I might after Thibault shared some passages. In 2021, they’ll expand to new countries, Italy, UK and Germany.

You know I lack of objectivity when it comes to this publisher but I truly had a lovely evening. It’s nice to hear about what’s behind the scene and how a small publishing house operates. Many thanks to Au Bonheur des Ogres for hosting this event. For me, it was a breath of fresh air after a day in the office, a wonderful way to leave my office-related worries behind and focus on reading and sharing the love for books with likeminded people. Of course, I brought two books home.

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(*) A libraire is a booklover who recommends books to other readers in a bookstore and eventually sells them. In English: a bookseller.

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