Antoine Gallimard is President of Éditions Gallimard and the Madrigall Group, which is the third largest French publishing group.
Your grandfather Gaston Gallimard was one of the founders of La Nouvelle Revue Française, in order to please some of his friends, among them André Gide. You Antoine wanted to study philosophy, but your father Claude Gallimard encouraged you to study law. Did you become President of Éditions Gallimard by chance, or was it with regard to a sense of responsibility to your family?
My grandfather forged the family’s destiny. I don’t think I could have been a writer, but I would have liked to become a journalist. I think that I became a publisher because I was obsessed with series of books of a similar format, for example the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade. I was obsessed with these complete edition series, and I loved the way books fill space, and I liked to arrange them in their proper order. I tried to have as many Le Livre de Poche paperbacks as I could. The presence of books is essential in my life, and I think that if there are no books in an apartment it’s like an apartment without windows. One book takes you to another, like in a chain. You know Gallimard has a formidable catalogue, and an heir is obliged to exist at the level of his heritage. I wanted to keep this building where we are now. I wanted to keep the garden. I wanted to keep the books.
Was it easy to take over control of the publishing house?
I became a publisher because I was faithful to my grandfather and to my father. I was helped by the fact that I had very good relationships with the people who worked in the publishing house and they were confident in me, and I also had good relationships with the writers. This is a writers’ publishing house. Don’t forget that André Gide, André Malraux, Albert Camus worked here. Writers feel at home here in Gallimard.
Your grandfather Gaston always said that he became a publisher by chance and that he much preferred vacations, playing tennis or driving cars?
He always appeared to be very easy going, but in reality he was very concerned about the future of the publishing house. He was very grateful to my father because my father decided to follow him. There are not many family publishers left nowadays in the world.
One of your daughters is following you and runs the publishing house Casterman, part of your group?
Yes, and I also have another daughter who is interested in publishing, and they are both very motivated and attentive.
What kind of publisher is Gallimard?
What was specific to our publishing house’s very good reputation was to give as much importance to the literary aspect as to commercial success. My grandfather Gaston defined a publisher as “A trader who has made a pact with the spirit,” but what happens is that when we are very successful, like at the moment with some of the books that we publish, people say that Gallimard has lost its soul. But if we don’t have success for a while people say that Gallimard doesn’t work anymore! So this is what I have to face all the time.
Is Gallimard also so well-known because of the quality of its books?
Yes, we give enormous importance to the editing, to the typography, to the paper, to the jackets and to the mise en page. We try to eliminate any errors as much as possible and certainly for us the quality is very important indeed.
Have you had many Nobel Prize winners amongst your authors?
Yes, more or less 15. And also many other award winners.
Can we say that writers are at the heart of Gallimard?
It’s very atypical, because we believe in literature. We believe that we can only exist if we support writers. Our objective is to consider literature above all.
Do you publish writers of very different political and stylistic genres?
Yes, we published Louis-Ferdinand Céline and Paul Claudel, and we published J. M. G. Le Clézio and Philippe Sollers, people who are very different. We don’t have any prejudices in our judgement.
Is reading doing well in France?
There are less strong readers. By strong readers I mean people who read 3 to 4 books per month. People nowadays tend to read bestsellers, and children’s books and books for young people are also very successful.
Do people read more digital or printed paper books?
In France the digital book format doesn’t do very well. It represents only 2% of the market.
What about paperbacks?
They always work very well and there is a large production.
Do you sell more novels or essays?
Many novels, biographies and correspondences. For instance Lettres à Anne, the love letters of François Mitterrand to his mistress Anne Pingeot, sold more than 60,000 copies.
Do you sell more in bookstores or on Amazon?
Amazon is of course a very important phenomenon, but bookstores do well if they are staffed by people who really love books.
How many Gallimard bookstores are there?
We have four in Paris, three in Strasbourg, and a very big one in Nancy. Altogether we have ten bookstores, including one in Montreal.
How is the state of health of the French language?
Of course French has lost its importance outside of France, especially in countries like Argentina, or in the Arab countries where the previous generations spoke French. Nowadays they only speak English. But of course in France people read in French. Very few read in English.
Is there a concern about the political situation? If Marine Le Pen wins the elections could it impede the freedom of publishing?
Yes, if the Front National wins the election, we have seen it in the regional elections that when they get into power they reduce the cultural budget. France is strong because there is a network of bookstores and there is no discounting, and in France the budget for culture is 1%. But, as I said, we are afraid that if the Front National comes to power they will damage our cultural tradition – and we are also afraid that they would close the borders.
Are there new writers that you consider interesting?
Yes, we publish Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, his book is called Règne animal, and also Catherine Cusset.
Which classic books are bestsellers?
Journey to the End of the Night by Louis-Ferdinand Céline sells around 50,000 copies a year, The Stranger by Albert Camus sells 100,000 copies a year, and The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is still another big bestseller.
And of the classic foreign writers?
Ernest Hemingway always sells well, as do William Faulkner, Philip Roth and Milan Kundera. We recently bought the rights and are republishing all the works of Italo Calvino, and it is going quite well.
Why did you buy the Flammarion publishing house?
Every enterprise has to think of its development. Gallimard is an authors’ publishing house. Flammarion is a publishing house for readers, and Flammarion is very important in human sciences, in astronomy, in well-being and in art books, and also has a very popular collection of paperbacks called “J’ai Lu”. We also bought Casterman, who publish The Adventures of Tintin.
Do you still publish some books with very small print runs?
Yes, for example we published the correspondence of Gide, and that of Jean Cocteau; we published the correspondence between Céline and Gaston Gallimard, and the correspondence between Marcel Proust and Gaston Gallimard.
What is your main job?
I take care of Gallimard and of the holding company Madrigall.
What kind of publishing group is Madrigall?
It is small compared to Hachette, because Hachette is very important in other countries as well, like America and England. We are the third largest group in France, after Hachette and Editis.
Are you the sole proprietor of Madrigall?
My family owns 90% and 10% is owned by Bernard Arnault. He was interested in the family aspect of the company and our catalogue, and he became a shareholder four years ago. This shows great confidence in our work.
Are there a lot of risks in your business?
Yes, there are industry risks, and generational changes, and if people in France have less spending power they will not spend money in bookstores. We had a very bad month in January because it was too cold. A mild climate is best for book sales, with some rain but not too much. People don’t buy many books when they are on vacation.
Are there fashions in book publishing?
Yes, for a while ‘autofiction’ was very popular. Nowadays ‘docufiction’, which fictionalises real events, is fashionable. Mystery books still work very well, and we have also had immense success with the Harry Potter books. The last one sold more than a million copies.
How many people work in your group?
There are 1,800 people in the whole group, working in publishing, in bookstores and in distribution. We publish around 900 titles per year as Gallimard, and more or less the same as Flammarion.
Are you satisfied?
At the beginning I really wanted to be the publisher of a very small publishing house, but of course I am proud and happy that we bought Flammarion although sometimes it is frustrating because they are too big. In Gallimard I can take some decisions. What I would say is that if a publisher is too much of an entrepreneur then you are not a good publisher, but if you are too much of a publisher this can become dangerous.
Do you have some leisure in your free time?
Not much. I see some writers, but it is not always very easy to be a friend with your authors. A publisher needs to practice the art of diplomacy.
Do you read many books?
Mostly I read readers’ reports.
But you still have a passion for collected editions?
Yes, and I have my private library.
Is it hard to be an heir?
There are lots of jealousies around.
What did your father teach you?
He taught me that it is very important to be patient, and to have endurance; and to be close to the writers. He was very close to Kundera, to Jean Giono and Le Clézio.
Which writer impressed you the most?
I would say Louis Aragon. I was impressed when he spoke. He could talk about everything, from politics – talking about Lenin and Stalin – to literature, talking about Malraux and Breton. He was very impressive.
What about foreign writers, who impressed you the most?
I would certainly say Jorge Luis Borges for his delicacy, and because he was funny and had a wonderful smile. I was also very impressed by Octavio Paz, and I should say that I am very close to Milan Kundera.
Were you very close to your grandfather?
Yes, I was. We had a typical relationship of a grandfather and a grandchild, which is a much easier relationship than with your parents. Gaston used to take me to good restaurants so that I could learn about gastronomy, and he used to talk to me about his women.
Was it less easy with your father?
Yes, my father was more severe.
Are you sometime frightened by the risks of your profession?
Yes, sometimes I worry about bankruptcy, but I am not afraid of the risks. I just have to be very careful.
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Images courtesy of Gallimard.