By Olivia Snaije
In both its location and its raison d’être, the 14-year-old French publisher Bragelonne, is a good way from Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the traditional left bank home to Parisian publishing houses. Ensconced in modern offices on the right bank in a neighborhood on a fast track to gentrification, young and tattooed employees walk the hallways, and a Dalek alien model from Dr. Who stands in the publishing director, Stéphane Marsan’s office.
Marsan, a seasoned reader of science fiction and fantasy co-founded Bragelonne with Alain Névant, (the company’s manager) with the intention of doing things differently, of being winningly provocative.
Genre fiction is the name of Bragelonne’s game. During its relatively short existence, it has become the French publisher of science fiction and fantasy; publishing 40-50 trade titles in fantasy each year and the same figure in paperback editions. It also publishes vampire books and recently branched out into romance and erotic romance.
Bragelonne can take credit for having launched a generation of French fantasy writers (some, like Pierre Pevel, are now translated into 10 or 12 languages), a corner heretofore occupied by Anglo-Saxon writers. Moreover, in a country where e-books are still slow in coming, Bragelonne has sold 1 million in all genres since 2010.
Marsan studied philosophy and worked briefly as a professor before getting involved with a role-playing games company in the early 1990s. He came into contact with a generation of 20-somethings who loved science fiction and fantasy including the aspiring author (and now well-known) Mathieu Gaborit. Marsan published Gaborit’s first fantasy novels with éditions Mnémos, which he founded in 1995 within the company he was working for. In 2000 Marsan struck out on his own and created Bragelonne with Névant, naming it after one of Alexandre Dumas’ characters and a novel, partly because many American fantasy writers have cited Dumas as having an influence on their work.
Creating a Market for Fantasy
“When we created the publishing house it was before the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films came out,” said Marsan. “But something was happening in literature, film and the French video industry, and I reflected that something. I could open the door because I loved the genre myself. There’s so much intuition involved in publishing, of course this works with science fiction and fantasy as well. We created a market for people in fantasy and were able to help bricks and mortar bookshops as well as online venues. And we were accompanied by fantasy films, video games and comics.”
Before éditions Mnémos and Bragelonne came along, the vast majority of the fantasy books sold in France were translations from the Anglo-Saxon world.
“It made sense since the production came from there,” said Marsan. “Hardly any French publishers were interested in French manuscripts. They had every reason to think French culture didn’t fit with fantasy tropes.”
A new generation of writers, however, proved them wrong and now, says Marsan; fantasy ‘Made in France’ can rival Anglo-Saxon writers.
Bragelonne’s foray into romance happened somewhat by chance after they created an imprint for vampire romance which they called bit lit, under the label Milady, another Dumas character.
“We originally wanted to create a competitor to Bragelonne, to make the market grow,” explained Marsan. “Milady is a mass market paperback company with a trade line in order to compete with Bragelonne. This kind of literature was booming in the US and we thought the mass-market paperback format would be adaptable. Milady became the home for this trend and the feminine-sounding name was fortuitous when we added romance.”
Marsan believes that there are bridges between literatures. He and his team realized that a major element in vampire novels was paranormal romance, which meant that readers also liked romance. In 2010 he traveled to New York and met with speculative fiction publishers, including the celebrated editor and writer Ginjer Buchanan.
“She described the genesis of the genre. I realized that while I thought I was selling dark fantasy I was actually selling romance with paranormal elements. I never thought I would sell Harlequin-type books but why not?” smiled Marsan.
“Harlequin and J’ai Lu were the primary publishers here and Harlequin dominated roughly 80% of the market. We thought there must be room for a third player. But in order to publish romance you have to understand what it is.”
Off Marsan went to a conference organized by the Romance writers of America, (RWA) in 2012. “It was a revelation. I was one of the only men there.”
Marsan believes that what works in the US eventually works in France, with the exception of inspirational literature, “a politically correct way for saying Christian romance.”
Marsan has yet to cultivate a generation of French romance writers; for the moment the bulk of their romance books are in translation; Milady publishes six titles a month for this “hungry” market. (Milady also publishes eight erotic romance novels a year, which Marsan dubbed “Romantica”.)
But this may change—Marsan has “started with translators. They know the genre. Some are ambitious and want to tell stories themselves. I opened the door with a message saying that there’s no shame in writing romance.”
On French Literary Snobbery
Marsan has often said in interviews that his biggest challenge remains the French cultural resistance to the kind of literature he publishes:
“In France at the beginning of the 20th century there was a shift and genre literature was discarded. Since then it has never been well represented nor well recognized…but we forgot our own history. We forgot Rabelais, we forgot Jules Verne, who is recognized as one of the founders of science fiction everywhere but in France. There is a massive misunderstanding about what genre fiction is or the place it has in culture. The most spectacular example is the Prix Goncourt, the definition of which was for the best work of imagination with originality in form and content. The very first prix Goncourt in 1903 was awarded to a science fiction author [John-Antoine Nau’s Force Ennemie]. It’s completely different nowadays and genre could never even be considered [for the prize]. When you are a genre publisher you have to face this and fight. Genre publishers naturally turn into activists and have to be louder about what they do and they become very fierce.”
By Bragelonne’s 10th anniversary in 2010, 600 bookshops were selling their books. A year later Marsan and Névant were given a special professional prize at the World Fantasy Awards, the first time a non Anglo-Saxon publisher won.
But Marsan hastens to add that the 600 bookshops represent just ten percent of bookshops in France. “We are still niche publishers and I’m the king of a small kingdom. It is still far from recognized, although I’m not sure I want to be part of the establishment.”
Take fantasy, for example, says Marsan. “It remains subversive fiction, even if 70% or so of the speculative fiction market is fantasy… Look at what happens in school: You will read horror and most probably science fiction. You will come across Maupassant, Mary Shelley, Ray Bradbury or Orwell’s 1984. But not fantasy. So when you leave school you want to read what you didn’t read in school. Fantasy is still the book the student reads under his desk.”
Industry people talk about Bragelonne’s success in sales and market shares, says Marsan, “they talk about our sales but not our writers. There is an omertà about speculative fiction in this country.”
Marsan recently became a member of the very established Centre National du Livre (CNL). “When I introduced myself, people said ah yes Bragelonne but didn’t know anything about what we published. In conclusion, we are not known as the best speculative publisher but as the ONLY speculative publisher. It’s a somewhat bitter victory.”
Today 80% of Bragelonne’s books are translated fiction and 20% are by French authors, which is “respectable” says Marsan. “I’ve become more selective. We publish bestselling authors from the US and the UK and this raised the bar for the French, which is not a bad thing. The economy today is not about filling shelves, it’s about being selective.”