Georgia de Chamberet talks to Florent Massot, French publisher of Virginie Despentes, Kurt Cobain, Mike Tyson and Valérie Trierweiler. Baise-moi (Fuck Me), his first hit, published in 1994, sold 50,000 copies for éditions Florent Massot before being released by Grasset and J’ai Lu, nudging up to 200,000 copies.
Why publishing and not music or film?
I started work on my first book age 17 in 1982 about a group called Urban Sax. Why publishing? Because my generation went into music and film, but I’m not competitive, it’s not my way. For 15 years I was the youngest publisher in France and the only one of my generation. Publishers who are 50 now all began their careers 20, not 30, years ago. So for 12-13 years I was alone. My friends were all in music which was great, but I was the only young indie publisher which is why I carried on, since I don’t like having to be combative. I wanted to be the best publisher of my generation and was . . . the worst! . . . there was only me!
I had a go at journalism and published a magazine called Amazone in 1984, then Intox in 1990, but that world moves too fast. I like a slow burn, and am not speedy. In publishing you meet up, the project develops over 1-2 years, it takes time, isn’t fast and furious, all on the surface. A book can really make a difference, go deep, whereas an article is ephemeral.
Publishers are in the game for different reasons: for some it’s a love of words, for others because they want power. What interested me was to meet the movers and shakers. A friend said, “If you go into publishing you’ll meet the people making it happen, who are the zeitgeist.” He often spoke to Cartier Bresson on the phone because of a book he was working on about the great photographers behind photojournalism. I wanted to meet these people. Since then, over the last 32 years, I have met so many people from different walks of life, that publishing has been good to me on that level.
As an object, a book can be a bit fetishistic. For me it is neither the object, nor the words, but the encounters. A book is a meeting place for people and ideas.
Tell me about your family.
My parents were very cultivated. My father got his baccalauréat very young, avec mention très bien, and studied at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (Ena). He had encyclopaedic knowledge, knew everything, even music and sports. It was hugely impressive. My mother was a lecturer specialising in historical monuments at the École du Louvre. Her knowledge stopped at 1950. Now she has changed and opened up – she acknowledges there is art after Picasso!
Were they big readers?
Yes, they read a great deal and pushed me to read too, so much so it put me off − I was livrophobe. I rebelled age 12-13 as I did not like the books that were imposed on me. School wasn’t a help. I read a bit of Sartre and Camus who I quite liked, but anything old school like Balzac’s Les Chouans was slow and boring. When I first began to publish I did illustrated books as my generation was visual − our thing was the image. And at 19-20 I wasn’t mature enough to deal with words. So for about ten years I did illustrated books, graphic novels and magazines. I love street artists, graffiti on trains and walls. It’s vibrant art, in its context − I’m not so keen on gallery art. I turned to literature later when I published books that you couldn’t find in France. What was on offer wasn’t sexy or contemporary so I published lots of English language literature in translation. I love Anglo Saxon culture, it fascinates me, and I like to bridge cultures. What I do is not just a cerebral, intellectual exercise.
Did you want to be a writer?
No, I am a publisher. There are lots of publishers who are writers, but it’s hard to be both. It’s more a case of being good at one, or the other. Publishing is a helping profession in which you enable a writer or a story come to fruition. Whereas a writer appropriates things for him or herself, making it their own. To go from being a writer to a publisher means you take everything for yourself. My role is to be of service. And I’m so curious about everything that working in publishing means I can explore all kinds of subjects. If you look at the 350 or so books I have published you can see the eclecticism of my universe.
How did you start your first publishing company?
First there was Chambre Noire in 1983 then Florent Massot éditeur, then éditions Florent Massot. That’s when I took over the Paris office of Actes Sud who are based in Arles. I published Virginie Despentes and she triggered an uproar. Up ’til then, from 1983, I published 5 books a year, had worked out of a chambre de bonne and the basement of a friend’s office, and was not making much money, so I was also a waiter and a salesman at the Virgin Megastore bookshop. Just before Despentes I found success with Paris Tonkar, a book about Parisian graffiti by Tarek ben Yakhlef and Sylvain Doriath. It was a runaway success. I was living in a squat in Villejuif publishing the street-zine Intox, which had ten contributors. It was chaos. Virginie Despentes sent me a mix tape of her group for review in my magazine and I told her it was too “soft” so she sent me a manuscript. I published Baise-moi and it took off a year later, in December 1995. Here was a woman writing in a totally different voice and style to what was deemed acceptable. All about feminine aggression, its narrator was a woman who had been raped. No one was doing that kind of thing. She wrote about women having their periods and people were disgusted − publishing was macho then, it was a male-dominated universe. Now more women are running the show. Despentes broke taboos. Fanzines loved the book − now it would be bloggers – ‘cause for them she was the real thing, writing for her generation. People had had enough of women writing pretty sentences and doing what men told them to do. The music press like Rock et Folk, which is inspired by fanzines, picked up on Baise-moi, then TV talk show Nulle part ailleurs. The mainstream followed. Les Inrockuptibles and Canal + have remained loyal to her to this day.
How easy is it to be an entrepreneur in France?
It’s perfectly possible. My family was cultivated but I had zero financial support. I began without a penny, but could spot a good sentence, knew what worked. And I filled a gap. There was a need for what I was doing. I didn’t try to compete with Gallimard or Flammarion. I did something different, something which no one else was doing. The key thing is your motivation. If you want glory or to do a hit and run, forget it. But if you are genuinely passionate and love writing and ideas − then go for it! I have always been passionate and that’s what carries me.
There are common denominators between the different people I have worked with, for example both Valérie Trierweiler and Virginie Despentes smashed taboos. A strong strain of machismo still dominates France. When a woman tells her truth and tells it straight, people don’t like it – they bitch and complain. Both women got this treatment, “Cette pute elle n’a pas à raconter ce genre de chose” . . . “She should know better and keep her mouth shut, (especially when it’s about the French President!).” She’s a mother, or a whore, and that’s it. No shades of grey.
I like to help women to be heard. I have published men too of course − most recently Mike Tyson. His story is really that of the wounded child, beaten up by his father; a kid pummelled in the street who is everyone’s scapegoat and totally overwhelmed. He goes on to become a Hercules. That’s what touched me when I read his book.
After Despentes, then what?
I began to publish romantic comedies, and chicklit by the likes of Tyne O’Connell, but I was publishing too many books and my shareholders lost faith in what I was doing. Editions Florent Massot went bankrupt. In 1999 I set up Florent Massot présente with Philippe Robinet. I sensed chicklit was the next big thing so at the London book fair, with Philippe, I bought 10-15 books. I also picked up David Sedaris. I said to myself that if these writers could make the English laugh, why not the French?
I decided to demystify the book. In 1999 we did a promotion along the lines of “buy two books and get a beach bag, sun cream, a condom and beach towel for free”. Since I knew about selling books from my time at Virgin Megastore, I got a space there to showcase all my titles. Back then, there was just Bridget Jones.
J’ai Lu had released paperbacks of my books published in the 1990s, under a series called “Generation.” Now they brought out my chicklit titles in a new series, “Comédie”. Publishers picked up on what I was doing and followed suit.
I still had a problem with my backers in that they could not see where I was heading. I was doing everything too soon. In 1995 I launched an internet provider called Prox&net − before google or amazon – but, once again, it was ahead of time. My financiers didn’t get it.
I met Bernard Fixot on a TV show and we set up OH! éditions together, as part of his publishing outfit XO. For 3-4 years it worked then he wanted to sell up, so he bought me out and sold for a good profit. I went on my way and relaunched éditions Florent Massot in 2004 with the backing of Hachette. Once again I had problems. The big companies will pay handsomely for talent that has already emerged, but they are wary of investing in new emerging talent.
How has publishing changed since you came into the profession?
Publishing has totally changed and it has little to do with ebooks. What has been huge is the way in which companies have regrouped and merged. Conglomerization means the industry is no longer run by publishers, but by people fresh out of business school who are expected to rationalise creativity and study markets. They are not readers; not bookish. So creatives like myself who love publishing have difficulties communicating with them.
The other big change is the feminisation of publishing, since more women are now running publishing houses. Though this is a good thing, the revolution has not happened. These women are too submissive and are playing the moneymen’s game, perhaps ‘cause now they have power, they don’t want to rock the boat. They have not yet brought to the publishing game all that women could, and are like foot soldiers of commerce, but I am optimistic.
I went bankrupt in 2012 and joined Les Arènes with a brief to publish 5-10 titles a year. I’m also responsible for the list “Aventures Secrètes” at J’ai Lu with a focus on spirituality. It’s a subject set to become big in France. We are at least ten years behind the US and UK. For now I’m happy to work like this, and not relaunch my own publishing company. Though it’s frustrating too, as I cannot publish everything I’d like, and much time is spent having to convince people of the reasons why a certain book has to be published.
I read like a reader, for pleasure, not like a publisher who assesses a book for whether there is a market for it or not, in relation to current trends, or from a technical/structural point of view. My initial reading is an act of projection, into the book and under the skin of the person who has bought it to read and enjoy. Then if I like it, I see the author and figure out how we might work together. Of course there are books which I sense will sell very well. But the important thing in terms of getting a book published is that it is not obligatory that I do it. The point is that it is published. What drives me crazy is when I find something fantastic and it does not happen. There are times when ten publishers want a book: all well and good, may the best one win. In the case of Valérie Trierweiler, at Les Arènes when we read the first 30 pages, we knew we were the right people for it, for myriad reasons. Her choice of publisher was not for commercial reasons, or to do with the size of the company. To date it has sold 800,000 copies.
How do you feel about being called a visionary?
I’m not a visionary, I just see what’s going on in the English-speaking world and am nuts about that culture, perhaps more than my publishing contemporaries. For example, graffiti was huge in New York, friends who were there told me all about it, and five years later it came to France. Same for le roman noir and Despentes, then chicklit. Right now it is spirituality and the esoteric. Quantum physics and the paranormal are not considered worthwhile subjects in this country yet are huge in the US. Of course it all needs to be adapted. France is a crossroads. It’s up to us to see what’s going on here too. There’s a whole new generation here, New Age is old school. We can do it our way. I may be French, but I’m open-minded.
France is being killed by its conservatism. The US is adaptable and flexible; its capacity for reinvention interests me.
Which writers have made the greatest impact on you?
All I knew was Zola and Balzac, then I read Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and it showed me you can be delirious, that surreality in prose is possible. Hermann Hesse and psychedelic writing that go beyond the tangible were eye-openers too. They freed me. I also love Kessel, Hemingway, all those literary adventurers. Books are nourishment, leaving behind a mosaic of impressions, colours and emotions. I devour them, they permeate me, I digest and move on.
What about music?
My musical taste evolved in parallel with blaxploitation, motown, hip-hop, rap. Le roman noir. Also electronic music, Kraftwerk, Detroit sounds. I love Cuban, Indian, world music. Mantras soothe me.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a publisher. One who has found his place in this world; is rooted in his time and in his generation. I live intensely, in the present. To find my path, my place in life, so young, was lucky.
What is your present state of mind?
Gaston Gallimard once said when asked about writing his autobiography, “Look at the books I publish and that is a good way of understanding who I am.”
The books I published in the 1990s were dark, it was a tricky time for me. Now I feel lighter, freer, more relaxed. I meditate, do yoga, eat well. I am healthier in many ways and more coherent. And I still like to experiment.
How would you like to be remembered?
I think less and less about making my mark here on earth, as I am part of something bigger, a continuous flow.
It would be “Bonne route et à bientot!”
Interview recorded in French, 3pm Fri 24 April, translation © Georgia de Chamberet 2015. All rights reserved.