Image: John Watson

Fitzcarraldo founder: Luck and good timing brought Nobel success

Jacques Testard on Annie Ernaux and publishing in translation
November 3, 2022

The office of Fitzcarraldo Editions, in south London, is quiet and studious. A few select pieces of art hang on the walls; the shelves are lined with the distinct, pared-back blue and white books with which the publisher has become synonymous. From the calmness you wouldn’t have known that, just over a week beforehand, a third Fitzcarraldo writer had landed a Nobel prize: French memoirist Annie Ernaux.

They’ve taken my visit—and the media attention Ernaux’s victory has generated—in their stride. “I guess this is sort of a typical day,” says Jacques Testard, publisher at Fitzcarraldo. The real change is out of sight. Over the past week, Testard has ordered a massive reprint of all of Ernaux’s titles—nearly 80,000, or over half the press’s entire book sales for 2021.

Born in Paris but raised between France and the UK, Testard decided early on to pursue a career in publishing. After graduating from university, a string of jobs in presses across Paris, London and New York followed, before he founded the literary magazine the White Review with journalist Ben Eastham in 2011. In 2014, after being let go from his job at Notting Hill Editions the year before, he decided to strike out on his own.

I ask Testard if he had identified a gap in the market. He laughs. “I don’t think I had the wherewithal to think about gaps in the market,” he says. “I had real doubts about whether it was a good idea because, apart from editing and producing a book, I didn’t know anything about the business. It was partly out of a lack of other options.”

Business aside, Testard’s vision for Fitzcarraldo was clear from the start. He wanted the press to publish “ambitious, contemporary writing”; to be evenly balanced between fiction and nonfiction; to have a clear and uniform visual identity. Translation was also to play a big role. “I’d always read widely in French and English and in translation to both of those languages,” Testard says, and from the beginning he had a list of non-Anglophone authors in mind. Many of them had not been published in the UK in a long time, or ever.

The Anglophone world is “famously conservative” when it comes to translation, Testard says. “Because English has been the dominant cultural, imperial language since, I don’t know, the Second World War, there’s maybe a sense that we don’t need to translate other writers… To be less facetious, there’s also an element of Commonwealth publishing having been so important, with things like the Booker prize, that you do get this kind of diversity of global voices writing in English.”

All of the Nobel laureates that Fitzcarraldo publishes—Ernaux, Olga Tokarczuk, Svetlana Alexievich and Elfriede Jelinek—are translated. But Testard is modest about what that says about Fitzcarraldo itself; it isn’t down to a special nose for prize-winning authors on their part. “There’s luck, there’s circumstance and I guess just good timing.”

And Ernaux is a prime example of that good timing. Testard first read Ernaux’s The Years in its original French back in 2017—“I was completely blown away”—but she had been an established name in France for decades before that. He did not know whether the UK rights for her work were available but, after three years of running Fitzcarraldo, “it was not surprising to discover that a great author didn’t have a UK publisher,” he says.

When Testard started the press, he was its only employee. Now they are six, and have gone from publishing six books in their first year to a slated 24 in 2023. The idea of staying small is important. “I would like Fitzcarraldo to remain independent forever,” Testard says. “I’m 37, and I like to think I could be doing this forever.” He cites a longstanding rumour about the late James Laughlin, founder of New Directions in the US, who in his will was said to have stipulated that the press should never, ever employ a 13th person; if it did, it would have to start publishing cookbooks to stay financially viable. The rumour wasn’t true, “but it was a running joke that was also a semi-serious thing,” says Testard, which perhaps goes some way to explain his own philosophy for Fitzcarraldo: “Stay small, stay contained and keep that freedom.”