Interview with a Gatekeeper : Jacques Testard ‹ Literary Hub
Yep, comme éditeur, je me sens très proche de ce que dit Jacques Testard, le fondateur de Fitzcarraldo editions au Royaume Uni.
I suppose my original interest in editorial work specifically came from a misguided notion of the glamour involved in the job, the mythology around great publishers of yesteryear, and the intellectual nature of the job. I wouldn’t say I had an easy time becoming an editor—in the early days I never managed to get the jobs I was applying for and so I ended up doing it in this long, unusual and convoluted way, working my way in from the margins by starting up my own project with a friend in order to eventually get to do it for a living.
KA: You mean editing isn’t glamorous?
JT: Publishing is a fairly low-adrenaline job, particularly when you work for a small independent press. I spend a lot of time on my own, editing, but also doing everything else you need to do to keep a small press ticking. I’ve had a few glamorous moments—the pinnacle was the Nobel Prize dinner for Svetlana Alexievich in Stockholm—but I spend a lot more time carrying big bags of books to the post office than drinking martinis with famous authors. In fact, carrying books around is quite a big part of the job.
KA: I see Second-hand Time was longlisted for the Baillie Gifford Prize, the UK’s most prestigious award for nonfiction. What has publishing Alexievich meant for Fitzcarraldo?
JT: A lot. It gave the company financial stability in our second year of operations—thanks to the rights sales we were able to slowly grow the company, going up initially to eight books a year, and now ten. It also gave Fitzcarraldo Editions a platform, a visibility which it might have taken a bit more time to achieve—that book was reviewed absolutely everywhere and critics and literary editors pay attention to what we publish as a result. It also gave us our first significant publishing success, from having to manage successive reprints to making contingency plans in the event of a prize-win, to organizing a ten-day tour for a Nobel Prize laureate. In that respect it’s given me the opportunity to learn more about my job as a publisher.
KA: What’s behind the name Fitzcarraldo?
JT: The name of the press, which comes from the Werner Herzog film about the man who wants to build an opera house in the jungle, is a not very subtle metaphor on the stupidity of setting up a publishing house—it’s like dragging a 320-ton steamboat over a muddy hill in the Amazon jungle.
KA: Are you saying publishing is a madman’s dream?
JT: Kind of. I guess the suggestion is that publishing is so difficult and financially precarious that to set out to publish the kinds of books that we do is akin to dragging a 320-tonne steamboat up a hill. It’s possible, but it’s going to be extremely difficult.
KA: How can publishing be more sustainable than a madman’s dream?
JT: I have a somewhat naïve and idealistic conception of the role of a publishing house. I want Fitzcarraldo Editions to be the kind of publishing house that publishes authors, rather than books. For example, if I publish your debut book and it sells 500 copies, I will publish the second one anyway, and so on and so forth. The hope is that author and publishing house can grow—and prosper—together. I suppose here it’s important to point out that Fitzcarraldo Editions is a limited company, a profit-making company—perhaps a profit-desiring company is more accurate at this stage.
The idea is to build a publishing house that is sustainable over a long time and to make it work in the old tradition of publishing. The traditional publishing model is, put in very simple terms, that you publish X number of books a year and that you have one book that sells more than everything else and props the rest of the list up.
KA: What do you feel your role is as an editor?
JT: The main thing is to bring texts from manuscript stage to publication. Sometimes that involves very little work, and just going through the motions of production—when you’re publishing a book you’ve acquired from an American publishing house, for example. But most of the time I do actually have to edit things, for structure or style or both.
I am both editor and publisher, so my role goes a bit beyond that of the editor at a bigger publishing house. As all editors I have a responsibility to the authors I’m publishing, to publish their books as well as I can, and to do the best by them and their work. That means producing a nice book, with a flawless text, that we’re both happy with, and making sure it gets out to as many people as possible and try to sell as many copies as possible. Then, I also feel very strongly that unlike many publishers—particularly corporate publishers—I have a responsibility to stick by authors. Whenever I take on a new author I say to them that if the first book doesn’t work I will still want to do the next one. The idea is that we grow as publisher and author side by side. If it’s a young writer and they sell 500 copies that’s fine, we’ll just plan the next book and carry on publishing together and build their career little by little. I think that’s really important, to build a relationship of trust with authors and to make them feel like we’re in it together for the long haul. In French publishing there is a term for this —‘une politique d’auteur,’ which translates roughly (and badly) as an author-focused policy.