Simon de Jocas on Publishers Without Borders: A Way To Smile

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Publishing ‘with audacity’ for children, chairing Québec Édition, and co-creating the Publishers Without Borders Facebook group, says Simon de Jocas, are all about ‘making sure people feel they belong.’

Simon de Jocas. Image: Les 400 Coups, François Couture

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘It’s All About Human Relationships’
The Publishers Without Borders Facebook group has become a popular online forum for members of the world publishing community, a 24/7 conversation among people whose livelihoods and chief vocation are threatened, as in so many industries, by the economic and lifestyle damage of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic.

The group was co-founded by Montreal-based publisher Simon de Jocas and UK-based publishing consultant Emma House, and the busy online exchange with participants located around the world has answered a need for communication, sharing, and fellowship during the strain of the contagion.

“We’re now close to 2,800 members,” de Jocas says in an interview from his home in Montreal, confessing that he’s become both a man of mystery and a go-to resource at once.

“People have started writing me,” he says with a laugh, “but you know that some of them are saying, ‘Who is this guy?'”

Publishing Perspectives readers know that de Jocas is part of the energetic team at Québec Édition, the export arm for French-Canadian literature of the Association nationale des éditeurs de livres (ANEL), the National Association of Book Publishers.

De Jocas is also president and owner of the 25-year-old Les 400 Coups, a publishing house for young readers established in 1995 with a nod to François Truffaut’s 1959 film, Les Quatre Cents Coups (The 400 Blows). That’s the company that earlier this month was named the 2020 Children’s Publisher of the Year award for North America from the Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

“The prize is really deserved by all,” de Jocas says, “from not just the team we have here in Montreal but also by our creators, the booksellers, the librarians, the teachers, the parents, the subsidy programs—without them, I wouldn’t have been where I am.” In that, he says, he includes Canada’s subsidy programs from the federal government, of which the French-language side of the market gets some 50 percent.

“I believe that the challenge, though, is not winning the prize,” he says. “The challenge is proving that winning the prize was truly worth it. The work is now ahead of us, not behind us.”

The same could be said for Publishers Without Borders, he concedes, in that any online forum is only as effective as the commitment of its participants. And teamwork is something de Jocas says is behind all the successes he now sees coming together.

Today’s Event at Publishers Without Borders

Today (May 18), Bodour Al Qasimi is to speak in the latest in a series of live discussions here, at the Facebook group Publishers Without Borders. The session is set for 1 p.m. Eastern (New York); 1700 GMT; 6 p.m. BST (London); 7 p.m. CEST (Rome); and 9 p.m. GMT (Sharjah).

Bodour Al Qasimi at the Nairobi PublisHer dinner. Image: Nabs Ahmedi

Bodour, the vice-president of the International Publishers Association‘s (IPA), is to be joined by Ben Steward, her chief of staff at Kalimat Group, the Sharjah-based publishing house she founded 12 years ago in the United Arab Emirates. Also expected are the Emirates Publishers Association‘s Rawan Rami Dabbas; literary agent Fatimah Abbas; the group’s administrator Prashant Pathak; and Publishers Without Borders’ co-founders Emma House and Simon de Jocas.

Bodour heads the Kalimat Foundation’s work in literature for refugee children in a dozen or more countries and is the founder of the PublisHer international network for women in book publishing. At the IPA, she’s been the driving force behind new regional-conference initiatives in publishing for Africa and the Middle East.

‘We’re All Going Through the Same Problems’

Simon de Jocas and the team at Montreal’s Les 400 Coups. Image: François Couture

At Les 400 Coups, de Jocas talks about how many parts of the business work in concert to get things right. “The prize belongs to everybody because everybody did something well. All parts of the business responded correctly, did what they should do, pushed the right material. And when you see it happen, it’s great.”

“Next season will be new books. But these people are still going to be around and I want to be able to call them my friends.”Simon de Jocas on Publishers Without Borders

“I think the essence of all the decisions that are made in my life—in terms of sitting as the chair of Québec Édition or starting Publishers Without Borders or the way we run 400 Coups—it’s all about human relationships. It’s just about making sure that people feel that they belong. In the end, books are going to change. Next season will be new books. But these people are still going to be around and I want to be able to call them my friends.”

In discussion sessions about the Mexican, Icelandic, and other markets, de Jocas says, he’s seeing how similar a set of issues world publishing’s people are facing.

“We’re all going through the same problems” of collapsing revenue streams, a dash to ramp up digital capacity and outreach quickly, the disruption of normal work formats, the fearful plight of bookstores, questions of whether to delay a book’s launch or try to get it out on time, quandaries about marketing’s role in the upheaval, and sometimes hard decisions about staffing levels and necessary cost cuts.

And this again parallels his work as something of a contrarian publisher in the children’s books space. In control of Les 400 Coup for seven years now, de Jocas points to this anniversary year’s slogan, “25 years of audacity.” The house specializes in issue-driven literature of the kind that some children’s publishers might not want to risk.

“We like to be audacious,” he says, “either in the topics we address or how we address them. We’ve just published a book, for example, called The Big Bad Wolf Lives at My House. It’s about wife abuse.”

‘The Big Bad Wolf Lives at My House’

Le grand méchant loup dans ma maison is written by Valérie Fontaine and illustrated by Nathalie Dion, and is recommended for age 7 and older. In it, according to the promotional material, “A young girl lives alone with her mother. But now the latter falls in love and she brings, without knowing it, the big bad wolf into their house.

“From then on, the smiles fall. And the screams begin. The little girl now wears long sleeves and builds a rampart of bricks around her heart. Will she and her mother be able to cope as the wolf becomes increasingly fierce?”

The sales material from the catalogue is honest, calling this work about domestic violence “a disturbing text” but one that “ends on a note of hope.”

And de Jocas clearly enjoys the role of the bringer of such socially relevant, challenging material to parents and children who are open to it. “You have to be pretty bold, talking about subjects that you don’t really want to be seeing in the home,” he says. “I can’t imagine that Grandpa will be picking up this book and reading it to a granddaughter.

“But we’ve published books about child soldiers, Alzheimer’s, divorce, suicide, homosexuality, adoption. So we talk about subjects that some people cringe to mention.”

Children need to hear about these things, de Jocas says, and the Québecois and broader Canadian school systems and libraries have been supportive, “asking us to develop collections like this because they want to be able to reach out to kids who are in distress. They want to have books that will define and explain these things—not making them into moral lessons, but just talking about them.”

The parallels between this idiom of children’s literature and the dynamics of Publishers Without Borders aren’t lost on Simon de Jocas.

“One of the group’s members lives in Scotland,” he says. And the UK’s death toll, of course, now has become second only to the United States’, soaring past 34,700 over the weekend.  “And he was asking for us in the group to just say things or propose books that would cheer him up.

“And I was thinking it’s wonderful that he was comfortable enough to ask a group of 2,800 people to help him find a way to smile.”

More from Publishing Perspectives on the Canadian market is here, more from us on publishing and the French language is here, more on Québec is here, and more on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on international book publishing is here and at the CORONAVIRUS tab at the top of each page of our site.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.