Le Figaro Stings French Vanity Publishers

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Via Anne Weale’s Bookworm on the Net, I read this Times UK article about a French variant on the Travis Tea Atlanta Nights sting perpetrated by SFWA upon vanity “publisher” PublishAmerica.

French newspaper Le Figaro submitted a copy of Gustave Flaubert’s exceedingly well-known and much beloved nineteenth century novel, Madame Bovary to the five largest French vanity presses, or in French l’édition à compte d’auteur. Le Figaro changed the names of all the characters, the title, and the author, attributing their plagiarized masterpiece to one Charles-Denis-Bartholomé, the father-in-law of heroine Emma Bovary. Flaubert’s novel is so well known, and Flaubert’s style so marked, that these cosmetic changes shouldn’t have made any difference, if the presses had bothered to read the ms. before accepting it. Of course, since they’re vanity presses, they merely calculated the amount of pages the print would require, plugged the numbers in their spreadsheets, added their inflated mark up, and sent their acceptance letters.

Naturally, the offers to publish the ms. came in from all five—for a price. A rather hefty price, considering that they’re essentially offering printing and binding services. None of them recognized the novel, though one implied in their very quick response (all responded in a matter of weeks) that their “editorial board” (reading committee?—comités de lecture) had read the ms..

As Le Figaro editor Mohammed Aïssaoui puts it:

. . . mais, tout de même, ces «comités de lecture» auraient au moins pu s’étonner de la qualité littéraire, du style de ce texte et de l’absence de fautes, qui tranchent nettement avec ce qu’ils reçoivent à l’ordinaire; et que l’on reçoit aussi dans l’édition normale.

Mais, justement, la différence est là: d’un côté, une maison d’édition classique prend le risque d’investir son argent, et rémunère—si modestement que ce soit—un auteur en qui elle croit; de l’autre, un commerçant, qui n’a d’éditeur que l’étiquette, exige d’être payé avant de publier (en fait, il conçoit et propose une maquette et se borne à faire imprimer). «Dès lors qu’il y a une participation financière, même partielle, de la part de l’auteur, cela ne peut pas constituer un contrat d’édition; ce n’est ni plus ni moins qu’une prestation commerciale», affirme Guillaume Marsal, responsable juridique de la Société des gens de lettres (SGDL).

And (using my admittedly lack-witted French) a translation:

. . . but, all the same, these “reading committees” should at least have been astonished by the literary quality, the style of this text and the absence of errors, a clear departure from what they usually receive; and from what one usually receives at a normal publisher.

But, that is precisely the difference: a traditional publisher takes the risk to invest its money, and remunerates—as modestly as possible—an author in whom it believes; the other, is a tradesman, a publisher in name only, and requires payment before publishing (in fact [the vanity publisher] designs and proposes a restricted printing plan). “From the moment that there is financial participation, even partial, on behalf of the author, that cannot constitute a contract of publication; it is neither more nor less than a commercial service,” asserts Guillaume Marsal, legal counsel for de la Société des gens de lettres (SGDL).

Monsieur Aïssaoui points out, very clearly, that these companies are essentially running a literary scam; they are overpriced printers, pretending to be publishers. One poor author even describes her book being littered with basic grammar errors, errors introduced by the publisher; just like PublishAmerica. It really is a small world. *.

*Many thanks for TexAnne’s help with the translation; all remaining errors are still completely mine, and I refuse to share credit with anyone ;)

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