Joie de livres—Masterclass by Laure Leroy

For years, the death of the print medium has been prophesied over and over again. With the arrival of the e-book, this prophecy seems to be looming large, more than ever, over our heads. Then you meet someone like Laure Leroy, still so genuinely invested in the tactility and the ergonomics of the physical book, still so enamoured by the power of transformation of good literature, and all your worst nightmares are put to rest.

What comes across, above all else, is her fervent and almost hopeless love for ‘good literature’. She says, ‘It’s like this huge crush or like falling in love, over and over again.’ And it is these visceral and all-too-real feelings that she harbours for the books that fuel her seemingly never-ending source of energy when she runs a publishing house like Zulma—in existence since 1991, in France.

Laure is quick to talk about her mistakes, forthcoming about her failures and extremely humble narrating her innumerable success stories. To us, she came across as an unassuming, warm French lady whose eyes would light up through her sea-green rimmed glasses each time she spoke of a manuscript she had discovered, almost lost in the many that find their way to Zulma.

She went on to talk about how she receives hundreds of manuscripts on her desk these days—but the small team at the publishing house doesn’t publish more than twelve books a year. It is something they learned after trying to publish every book that excited them, which meant some years they were publishing more than 50 books, a Herculean task for a team of six people. They are also keenly aware of what kind of books they want to publish—French translations of exciting world literature as well as original French literature.

Over the course of two days, the conversation with Laure Leroy swept fluidly across various subjects—entrepreneurship, willingness to take risks, aesthetics, the many joys of reading, book cover design, list building and more. Two of them particularly appealed to the editor in me, and I’ll just summarize what must have been two hours of discussion.

Editorial responsibilities
As newbie editors, I think it’s quite easy to feel high and mighty when you’re wielding the red pen, ready to slash open someone else’s work, leaving a slash here, a poke there. Laure constantly reminded us that the job of an editor—first and foremost—is to preserve the voice of the author. The author is the artist. ‘Ask the author what his/her book is about. Keep the conversation going at all times,’ she said. As editors, we urged to understand the logic of the flow of the book. Everything in the book is useful to the telling of the story; how it is arranged and presented is what ultimately makes or breaks a book—and that’s where the editor steps in. ‘All the reading you’ll ever do is preparing you to become an editor—read more, ever more.’

Pattern-based covers
The French love their minimalist and repetitive book covers. And while Zulma sticks to a strict code of design, compare it to their competitors and colleagues in the French publishing world, and you’ll find that their books are a riot of dazzling colours and patterns (thanks to their go-to designer David Pearson), and will stand out on any bookshelf, France or anywhere else. Zulma covers do a little more than just managing to tease you with very little information about the book, in effect letting the book and its blurb do the actual talking, while gently drawing the reader in; the covers must at the same time scream ‘Zulma’, and stand out as individual entities. French and world authors get similar covers, thereby indicating that literature is one, no matter where it comes from.
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Having Laure over at the Seagull School of Publishing was nothing short of a morale boost that most of us probably needed, just when we were beginning to dread the uphill ride that’s in store for us as we begin our editing careers. ‘Nothing comes to you if you don’t give it a good fight,’ she said. And fight, we will.

Shyama Krishna Kumar

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