Les Misérables was born of one of the riskiest—and shrewdest—deals in publishing history.
Earlier this month, Penguin Random House bid more than sixty-five million dollars for the global rights to books by Barack and Michelle Obama, breaking the record for U.S. presidential memoirs. Despite the stratospheric price tag and the international headlines, the transaction lacked a certain excitement—it was a fantastic deal, but without frisson. After all, a behemoth publisher signing an iconic political couple, brokered by a top litigation firm … it’s merely another example of the establishment in lockstep.
Compare this cozy corporate pact—one that epitomizes big publishing today—with the romance and risk associated with another record-shattering deal widely regarded as the publishing coup of all time. Signed in 1861 on a sunny Atlantic island, it tied an exiled French genius to an upstart Belgian house, resulting in the printing of that perennial masterwork, Les Misérables. In a new book, The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of ‘Les Misérables’, the professor and translator David Bellos condenses tranches of research into a gripping tale about Victor Hugo’s masterpiece.
The deal, Bellos points out, was pathbreaking on several levels. First, Hugo earned an unprecedented sum: 300,000 francs (roughly $3.8 million in today’s money) for an eight-year license. “It was a tremendous amount of money, and since it entitled the publisher to own the work for only eight years, it remains the highest figure ever paid for a work of literature,” Bellos writes: “In terms of gold it would have weighed around ninety-seven kilos [213 pounds]. It was enough money to build a small railway or endow a chair at the Sorbonne.”
Second, the neophyte Belgian publisher Albert Lacroix was the antithesis of a Penguin Random House. At the time, the twenty-eight-year-old Lacroix had cut his teeth at his uncle’s printing press, and he didn’t have so much as a sou to his name. Determined to sign Hugo on, he set up his own firm—Lacroix, Verboeckhoven & Co—and borrowed the entire amount for Hugo’s advance from the Oppenheim bank in Brussels, where he had contacts. Bellos marks it as “probably the first loan ever made by a bank to finance a book,” which means “Les Misérables stands at the vanguard of the use of venture capital to fund the arts.”
Third, Lacroix signed on knowing full well that his client was a political outcast: in 1851, his trenchant criticism of the dictatorial Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte met with such opprobrium that he fled France in a top hat and false beard, settling on Guernsey—a tiny British outpost off the Normandy coast. Louis-Napoléon, could have, if he so chose, impounded the book in France, thus ruining Lacroix for life. And yet, infected by what we might call the audacity of hope, the “carrot-haired” publisher swaggered on.
Les Misérables was published in 1862, but Hugo had started writing his fifteen-hundred-page “monster” seventeen years earlier, in 1845. Forced to abandon it by his political misfortune, he left the fledgling manuscript, which was almost destroyed by rioters, with his devoted mistress, who ushered it to safety. From there, Hugo wrote the bulk of the novel on Guernsey, only traveling to Belgium for the last pages, which he wrote in a hotel room overlooking the battlefield of Waterloo.
By 1861, the publishing grapevine had begun to drip with the news that the exiled French poet had a big novel to sell. Naturally, there was plenty of interest. Hugo had inherited Goethe’s mantle of Europe’s preeminent literary seer, and he was a proven crowd-pleaser, with the blockbuster Notre Dame de Paris under his belt. But there was also unease at the dangling guillotine of censorship. Nevertheless, when Hugo was offered a handsome 150,000 francs by an established publisher-friend, he declined. How much did he want? It was quite simple, writes Bellos: “He wanted more than had ever been paid for a book.”
Enter the “small, slim, agitated” Lacroix, a zealous Hugophile and hard-nosed businessman with a seemingly bottomless appetite for risk. After securing the Oppenheim bank loan, he bypassed Hugo’s agent and wrote directly and sycophantically to his hero, making it clear that if the Master accepted his price, he would pay in cash, up front. When Hugo indicated interest, Lacroix sailed to Guernsey, where he got immediately down to brass tacks. “His conversational style,” quips Bellos, “seemed modeled on the charge of the Light Brigade.” Negotiations were wrapped up in a day. On October 4, 1861, the two men signed their historic deal.
The in toto amount of 300,000 francs that Lacroix agreed to pay in cash included 50,000 francs for translation rights—a new concept in publishing at the time. Lacroix had bought the novel sight unseen, itself something of a rarity; more nail-bitingly still, Hugo had refused to reveal its length. He did, however, assuage Lacroix’s fears by emphasizing that the novel was “a social drama,” not a political work.
Hugo insisted on a cheap edition (apart from the usual fancy one) for the ordinary public. The recent arrival of the steam-powered steel press, coupled with increasingly inexpensive paper, made this possible when it may not have been in previous years. Even more crucially, as Bellos explains, the problem of rampant piracy was addressed by the first international copyright treaty: Signed in 1852 by France and Belgium, it put an end to the trade in pirated editions of French books, extending French copyright to Belgium and Belgium copyright to France. It also protected Belgian publishers from French censorship. Brussels, therefore, was the safest place to publish a Hugo novel. But knowing that France was the primary market, Lacroix cannily sublet to a French publisher, thus cutting himself off from any potential censorship losses.
Lacroix returned to Brussels with the contract in his pocket and a strut in his step. But the next six months turned out to be sheer hell. The harried publisher had to juggle typesetters, bankers, translators, lawyers, and, back in Guernsey, a querulous divo who railed against every incorrect comma change. Every proof had to be dispatched to Hugo and sent back through squalls and rainstorms, leading to anxiety and delay. Lacroix begged Hugo to move temporarily to Brussels; he refused. Through the logistical nightmare, however, both men worked with Javertian fervor to meet the April deadline—Hugo scratching furiously at the proofs with his goose quill, and Lacroix cracking the whip to keep the press clacking. “It was the greatest rush job his profession would ever know,” writes Bellos.
Next came the gargantuan publicity campaign—designed to unleash such excitement that even an emperor with an axe to grind would think twice about depriving the masses of the sensational treat promised them. Press releases were distributed six months in advance, and the walls of Paris plastered with illustrations of Jean Valjean, Fantine, Cossette, Marius, and other characters from the novel. In a break with tradition, no advance review copies were sent out. The text was as fiercely embargoed as a Harry Potter novel—probably, Bellos says, “the first work ever launched under embargo.”
On the morning of April 4, 1862, part 1 of Les Misérables, called “Fantine,” was released simultaneously in Brussels, Paris, Saint Petersburg, London, Leipzig, and several other European cities. No book had ever had an international launch on this scale. Within a day, the first Paris printing of six thousand copies sold out to the avid queues that snaked around the bookstores. The critics and literati panned it brutally: Alexandre Dumas, inspired no doubt by Jean Valjean’s sojourn through the sewers, sneered that reading the novel was akin to “wading through mud.” Gustave Flaubert privately mocked it as a “book written for catholico-socialist shitheads and for the philosophico-evangelical ratpack.”
But the people absolutely loved it. When forty-eight thousand copies of the “Cossette” and “Marius” volumes went on sale a month later, “Hugonic fandom” had reached such a fever pitch that shoppers in Paris arrived with handcarts and wheelbarrows to whisk away as many copies as possible. A peeved Flaubert delayed publishing Salammbô by six months: the catholico-socialist shithead novel was monopolizing sales.
Within a matter of months, a triumphant Lacroix had paid off his loan. His tenuous bond with Hugo had produced a moral and commercial juggernaut, a piece of intellectual property that would launch both social reform as well as a plethora of movies, musicals and video games. But perhaps inevitably, Lacroix tired of worshipping at “dear Master’s” feet, and the two men fell out.
“It was a hugely daring deal,” Bellos told me on the phone. “Lacroix has to be congratulated on pulling it off single-handedly, outside the usual routines of publishing conglomerates. The Obama deal for two books is impressive, but it runs for the length of copyright, which could easily exceed a hundred years—it runs for the authors’ lifetimes plus seventy years. And there’s no risk either book will be banned. Even if the Obamas decide to live on an island in the middle of the ocean, they won’t have to have their text copied out by hand and physically transported by two boats, three trains, and a horse-drawn carriage to get it to their publisher.”
Nina Martyris is a freelance journalist who writes on books.