The Greatest Book Deal Ever.

OK, that’s a little hyperbolic maybe, but the subject lends itself to hyperbole. Nina Martyris at the Paris Review writes about “of one of the riskiest—and shrewdest—deals in publishing history,” the one that brought us 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.”

There’s much, much more, including such piquant details as “The text was as fiercely embargoed as a Harry Potter novel” and “Gustave Flaubert privately mocked it as a ‘book written for catholico-socialist shitheads and for the philosophico-evangelical ratpack'” (and then had to delay publishing his own Salammbô by six months: “the catholico-socialist shithead novel was monopolizing sales”). Highly recommended for anyone who enjoys tales of literary dealmaking.


  1. Wow, M. Flaubert didn’t mince the words. In French his diatribe went like this
    Ce livre est fait pour la crapule catholico-socialiste, pour toute la vermine philosophique-évangélique. Shitheads is a bit strong for crapule, but whatever. In my search through internet to find the exact quote, I found that Flaubert planned to postpone the publication of Salammbô before he even read Hugo’s work, initially out of respect.

  2. There’s a tendency in English to associate crapula ‘sickness from overdrinking or overeating’ with crap, but etymologically they are independent: the latter is ultimately from Latin crapinum ‘chaff’. “Catholic-Socialistic bloat” might be a better rendering (“hangover”, although the more common implication, isn’t punchy enough in English).

  3. Trond Engen says

    Norw. krapyl means something like “hooligan” in my use. My Norw.-English dictionary suggests “rabble”.

  4. January First-of-May says

    The worst book deal ever (or pretty close) must have been Dostoyevsky’s Gambler. As far as I understand it, unless Dostoyevsky managed to produce a large novel manuscript by a particular day, the publisher would hold all the rights to all of Dostoyevsky’s works for the next several years.

    As the contracted time neared and no novel was being written, Dostoyevsky ended up having to hire a stenographer (whom he eventually married); and he did manage to finish the book the day before the deadline, only to find that the publisher ran away to be sure that the contract would not be fulfilled in time (but it was – Dostoyevsky gave chase, asked the police to help, and managed to reach the publisher with about two hours left).

  5. A publishing company named Farrah Gray (bezek unto their khothar!) apparently makes a practice of suing their own authors: in this case for failure to sufficiently promote the author’s own book — while they still owe her royalties on sold copies. Vanity presses apart, money is supposed to flow from the publisher to the author, not the other way about.

  6. And what is even more interesting is that Dost’s Gambler is a good book. Not Crime and Punishment level good, but pretty good.

  7. Danish krapyl is closer to ‘vermin’ — human, rodent or insectile — at least as I learned it. But that may be a conflation with kryb which is also ~ ‘lowlife’ when used of people.

  8. Trond Engen says

    I’ve never heard it used for anything but humans. ‘Vermin’ could work, or ‘lowlife’, but I chose ‘hooligan’ because it can be used with tired affection, like a teacher talking about a creative but unruly class.

  9. This reminded me of the supposed telegram conversation between Hugo and his publisher, where Hugo after returning to Guernsey is supposed to have sent a single question mark to inquire about the success. According to legend, the reply was a single exclamation mark.

    Unfortunately the story is probably apocryphal:

  10. Too bad, I always liked that story!

  11. It’s still a good story!

  12. Thanks for the story of Dostoyevsky chasing down his publisher with minutes left…!
    I read Salammbô and remember only the sumptuous set dressing and the use of insect legs as cosmetics. I prefer the melancholic scenery chewing of Hugo.

  13. Yeah, I too remember almost nothing from Salammbô.

  14. kryb which is also ~ ‘lowlife’ when used of people

    German has Kroppzeug for that. (It’s a bit old-fashioned now). Duden gives this etymology, which boils down to “[small] creeping creatures”:

    [niederd. kroptü;g, zu: krop = (Klein)vieh, zu mniederd. krupen = kriechen u. eigtl. = kriechendes Wesen]

  15. I remember the “ô” at the end.

  16. Took me a minute to realize that the odd-looking “mniederd.” meant mittelniederdeutsch.

  17. David Marjanović says

    It’s a bit old-fashioned now

    And regional – I don’t think I’ve ever encountered it. No surprise given its origin.

  18. Stu Clayton says

    “Creeps”, “Kroppzeug” and “low-life” are at least semantically related. There seems to be animus against animals that go upon their belly.

    “Stand up, sir, and look me in the eye when i speak to you”

  19. It’s in the Bible! Though it is not clear what was first, Bible or prejudice.

  20. You’re skirtiing the dangerous subject of unde praeiudicium malumque.

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