By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije
‘A Gadfly Who Has Kept Everyone on Their Toes’After 30 years with the French publisher , rights director Anne-Solange Noble, is retiring in style. Annie Ernaux—a Gallimard author since 1974—won the on October 6, becoming the publisher’s third French author to win the honor in the past 15 years.
As Andrew Franklin, founding managing director of Profile Books puts it, “There can’t be an agent or rights director in the world who has had the privilege of selling three Nobel laureates. Gallimard has the most exacting literary standards and Anne-Solange has been the person who has upheld them internationally, ensuring the writers are known globally in multiple different languages.”
“It has been fantastic,” Noble says. “Before the Nobel, Annie Ernaux was already translated into 42 languages. Abroad, everybody is reprinting their backlist titles. The Nobel will bring other languages, like South Asian ones, so translations could go up to 50 languages.”
“I became adamant that I would convince them that there’s a richness in opening up to another culture.”Anne-Solange Noble
Gallimard is a good example of what many call the “French exception.” In an industry in which literary agents usually sell foreign rights, in France—except for very small independent publishers—most companies have an in-house rights team or person who does the job. Gallimard’s rights group is made up of seven people including a director and four rights managers divided by linguistic territories. Noble says she considers herself to be, in fact, an international agent.
She grew up bilingual in Montréal, and after getting a degree in Hispanic studies, spent two years in Mexico studying Latin American literature before she moved to France to study international relations. She then traveled across the African continent for four months and was hired by Flammarion as a rights director.
“Knowing nothing about rights,” she says, she learned on the job, fast.
Reading her books and evaluating where they best can travel and to which publisher, big or small, has worked well for Noble as a business model.
“Money has never been her motivation,” Franklin says. “Publishing is a business, and we have to make a success of it. Anne-Solange knows that, but she has always been much more committed to finding the best possible publisher globally for each book and author than for selling for the largest advances.
“She has never deviated from this principle throughout her entire career. It makes arguments with her ferocious and refreshing. It also makes her a complete original.”
Annie Ernaux, for example, prefers small independent literary publishers, Noble says: Dan Simon at Seven Stories Press “has been faithfully publishing Ernaux for more than 30 years.”
More recently Fitzcarraldo Editions became Ernaux’s publisher in the United Kingdom, and the two publishers are perfectly complementary, she says. Antoine Gallimard has invited all of Ernaux’s publishers present in Frankfurt this year to a private celebration.
Noble’s devotion to Gallimard’s authors rightly earned her a place at two previous Nobel ceremonies—the first in 2008 for Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio, and the second in 2014 for Patrick Modiano.
Noble says she doesn’t yet know if she’ll be present at the ceremony for Ernaux in December. She traveled to London with the author in 2019 when Ernaux and translator Alison L. Strayer were shortlisted for the International Booker Prize, and a few months later traveled to Spain when Ernaux received the Premio Formentor. There would be yet another journey with the author, a trip to Naples, in 2021.
But Noble wasn’t the only member of her team to travel, as Judith Oriol, currently head of the book office at the French Institute in China recalls.
Oriol was hired by Noble and worked with her for eight years. “Anne-Solange was invited in January 2018 by the book attaché to travel to India,” where Oriol had worked previously.
“She skillfully replied that there was someone on her team who would clearly be more appropriate. She sent me instead. That says something about her generosity with her team and the fact that she had no problem putting her trusted colleagues center stage.”
‘An Enormous Amount and Nothing Has Changed’
In her years as a rights director, Noble says, “On the one hand an enormous amount has changed, and on the other, nothing. When I arrived, computers did not exist. You had to send a book by the post. You received offers by letter. Email changed everything. The immediacy of messages accelerated exchanges; we could send a PDF of a book.”
Then in 1989, four years after she’d started her publishing career, the Berlin wall came down. “The whole Soviet bloc exploded and all of a sudden we could sell books to all these countries.”
Three years later, Beijing joined the Universal Copyright Convention, which meant that rights could be sold into China, as well. Today, France’s biggest market for book sales is China.
In January 2020, Noble asked to step down from her full-time job in order to take care of a single language territory that she says she considers the most difficult: English. Judith Rosenzweig, formerly at Editions Denoël, became Gallimard’s rights director.
Noble says that the greatest challenge for her over the years has been exactly this English-language territory. “When I arrived [in publishing] little did I know that the English-language publishing world was not interested in translation. I discovered this and I became adamant that I would convince them that there’s a richness in opening up to another culture. It was a lifelong battle to persuade them.”
Yet one of her greatest joys on the job has also been “managing to sell rights to a certain number of publishers in English.
“Of course, this was with the help of the entire team,” she says.
“One of our breakthroughs was Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, translated by Alison Anderson. Fifteen publishers in the United States refused it. When I finally sold it to Europa Editions in 2006—it had just launched in 2005—they had an enormous success with it. They sold 900,000 copies and it was on The New York Times’ bestseller list for nearly a year.”
Rebecca Byers, the former rights director for Éditions Perrin, says, “If there’s one person who embodies French publishing abroad it’s Anne-Solange Noble—and so it has been for many years.
“She has tirelessly defended, promoted, and brought recognition to French authors and their books throughout the world.
“During my time as president of the international affairs committee with the Syndicat national de l’édition (SNE), there was never a dull moment when Anne-Solange took the floor and gave her irrefutable advice on the question at hand.
“She’ll be sorely missed in the profession,” Byers says, “a gadfly who has kept everyone on their toes but who was always ready to give a helping hand to the profession’s newcomers.”
“Anne-Solange is extraordinary,” Andrew Franklin says.
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