Foreign Rights Directors in France: The Advantages of Being Foreign

In Europe by Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije

Foreign rights directors need to have a special set of skills. Besides having a broad literary bent, they must deftly navigate in foreign business waters. But above all they need to know how to put themselves in the shoes of publishers abroad and know which of their books will appeal to editors.

Anne-Solange Noble of Gallimard

It’s no coincidence that, in France, five major publishing companies plus the smaller literary Editions P.O.L, have foreign-born rights directors. Not only were they chosen for their language skills — three languages seems to be the average — and international experience, but they also enjoy a position that offers them certain advantages unique to France. Here, they discuss the particularities of their job and what it’s like working in the Parisian world of publishing:

“I don’t know another country in the world where the job is so interesting,” said Anne-Solange Noble, rights director at Gallimard. Noble is from Montreal, her mother is French and her father an Anglophone Canadian. She came to France when she was 23, having completed a degree in Hispanic studies followed by two years in Mexico studying Latin American literature. Another degree in international relations and a 4-month overland trip to Africa was what made Alain Flammarion decide to hire Noble as rights director with no prior experience in publishing, she said. Nineteen years ago, Gallimard hired her away from Flammarion.

What makes her job so fascinating, said Noble, is the fact that very few authors in France have agents. Although many Gallimard authors retain the agent François Samuelsson to handle film contracts, their books’ foreign rights remain with Noble.

Benita Edzard of Robert Laffont

German-born Benita Edzard, foreign rights director at Robert Laffont since 2001, concurs. “Compared to any other publishing house in the world, the foreign rights department [in France] is rated much, much higher.”

Because of the lack of agents, “foreign rights fall under the category of service to the author and it’s close to the heart of the publisher because they want to be of service. Most of us report directly to our CEO. I can speak to mine once, or 15 times a day. We have lunch with foreign editors. The status is more important, it’s very stimulating, and there’s more responsibility.”

Edzard, who was poached from the Wylie agency in London in order to make the Laffont rights department more international, had worked in London for fifteen years, and prior to that in Germany for Carl Hanser Verlag, where she gained a degree in publishing in an apprenticeship program. Her education, said Edzard, came from going from “job to job around the world. Coming from a Hanseatic city and family, this corresponds to the tradition of acquiring knowledge by moving out into the world.”

Broadening the department’s scope was a strategy that began when the British Susanna Lea (now an agent) worked at Laffont. “[Then publisher] Bernard Fixot wanted to compete with English and American agents and do well in foreign rights…he felt that the world was looking at English and American books and that there was no tradition of continental authors. He wanted to put French books on the map,” said Edzard.

But what is it like to sell French authors abroad?

Rebecca Byers of Plon-Perrin

“One of the aspects that makes the job interesting is that I’m a non French person selling French books. It gives a kind of distance that is quite useful. We can have a language in talking about the books that might be closer to what a foreign publisher can relate to,” said US-born Rebecca Byers, director at Plon-Perrin for the past six years.

Often, “there’s an attraction to French culture to begin with, people have chosen to live here; so it’s a very satisfying thing to be so involved in the export of the culture.”

Noble recalled: “When Jean-Marie Le Clézio got the Nobel prize it was so exciting…Can you imagine how fascinating it is for a rights director to deal with all this?”

Byers grew up in the US but learned French as a child after living for several years in Switzerland and Lebanon. She went on to study French literature and international relations and learned to speak Arabic in Cairo. She feels France is in a good position as one of the most translated languages into English. “I think it would be harder to sell rights from German or Italian [language books]. Of course if you’re working for an American publisher and selling English, then that’s easier.”

Eva Bredin by JC Lattès

Like Byers, JC Lattès foreign rights director Eva Bredin studied French literature after completing a degree in comparative literature in her native Sweden. Bredin arrived in France ten years ago speaking French fluently. At Lattès, besides handling foreign rights, she edits four to six books a year in the company’s Nordic Literature collection.

“Foreign rights for me was more a way of getting into publishing since at first I couldn’t be an editor as a foreigner,” she said. But in foreign rights she discovered an aspect to herself that she hadn’t known before — she enjoyed the “game that you have in international business. You can’t be scared about money or auctions in this job. I say to people ‘ok so you like it, great, how much?’”

This straightforward approach, said Bredin, is because she wants things to happen, but it “is a bit direct for French people.”

Which leads to the question, what it’s like to work in France as a foreigner?

Edzard said she has adapted to it but finds “the rhythm of Paris is contrary to my personal rhythm. I like thinking about what I have to do and trying to work within a deadline. French people love to do everything at the last minute. It’s a cultural thing. They have a talent for doing things at the last minute. But it’s a price that I find quite high and causes unnecessary stress.”

For Bredin, who was an editor at Stockholm-based Norstedts before moving to France, the working environment in Sweden was much less formal. She also found the idea of organization to be very different. “I had difficulties with the fact that, in Sweden, we were used to working a year in advance, and here, two weeks before a sales conference people didn’t have presentations ready, and this wasn’t abnormal. I slowly began to realize this was an advantage because you can change things and slip something in at the last minute. You have to be able to change the direction you’re working in.”

Byers, who worked for Harcourt in the US for three years, has spent the bulk of her professional life working in France. “There’s much more hierarchy here, more than in a British or American corporation. I get the feeling that, in the US, all departments get behind a book whereas here it’s more sectioned off. In the US the marketing people carry more weight. Here the decision is more autocratic. We’re given books to sell but haven’t always been involved in the process. The flip side of the coin is that in some ways it’s less structured, less corporate, and there can be more informal decisions, one can buy something on shorter term, it’s more flexible and less managed. In a strange kind of way there’s more reactivity.”

Gallimard’s Noble feels that “When you’re a foreigner in France you want to stay in contact with the rest of the world and you feel lucky when you find a job that will keep you in touch with foreign lands…I have the best of France, I love living in Paris, but in my working life I’m actually not working with France. I work with Holland, or with Korea. In that sense I’m not confronted with all the annoying things in France.”

Selling French books abroad has not always been easy, but generally the foreign rights directors are upbeat about interest from abroad.

“The French are constantly accused of having inward looking types of titles, we have to fight against this all the time in terms of fictional titles. I think it’s unfair. There are also genre areas that the French are particularly good at here such as BDs [graphic novels], or illustrated children’s books, these should be put forward more in the US and the UK, there’s a lot of creative stuff going on,” said Byers.

Moreover “In the last two years with certain successes with Muriel Barbery or even Stieg Larsson, US editors are sitting up and looking more carefully at things coming from Europe.”

Edzard said that although French authors often have a style that “doesn’t always lend itself easily to foreign countries,” sales progress with an increasing interest from less traditional countries.

“Asia is huge and Turkey is becoming important. Whereas they used to give us 200 euros now it can go up to 5,000.”

At Lattès Bredin mainly sells rights to fiction, since her non-fiction books are often about French politics. This is a particularly good autumn for Bredin as she was able to sell rights to Italy, Germany, Norway, Poland, Spain and the UK for a work of fiction by Grégoire Delacourt that she pitched at Frankfurt even before publication in France.

Noble says she is “selling just as much as before. I hope it’s because I love my job. It’s also because I have enough good books that I can really take care of. There are masterpieces that don’t travel and others that do…my job is to read the books and evaluate whether they have a travelling potential and where. My job is not to sell but to get people to read.”

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About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East, and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post, and The New York Times.