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7 November 2022

How Jacques Testard made Fitzcarraldo a prize-winning literary powerhouse

The publisher on the “arrogance” of the UK books industry and the transformative effect of three Nobel Prizes in the imprint’s eight years.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

On a wet November morning Jacques Testard sat at a circular table in the corner of an office in Deptford, south-east London. He had just returned from New York, where he had attended the Pulitzer Prize ceremony with the author Joshua Cohen, who won this year’s fiction award for The Netanyahus. Testard, the founder of Fitzcarraldo Editions, published the book in the UK.

The Pulitzer ceremony was a little different to the Booker Prize dinner, which Testard had attended in London a couple of weeks earlier. “There was less of an attempt at making it super glamorous,” he said, wearing a grey sweatshirt and Reebok trainers. “They didn’t have Dua Lipa, but they did have gold-plated cutlery. I was probably the only person to notice. But: only in America, right?”

Testard is growing accustomed to attending such events with his authors. In December he will go to the Nobel Lecture in Literature in Stockholm. It will be delivered by this year’s laureate, Annie Ernaux, a French essayist whose books Fitzcarraldo publishes in English.

Ernaux, 82, is the third Fitzcarraldo author to receive the prize since the publishing house was founded in 2014, following Svetlana Alexievich, a Belarusian journalist and essayist, who won in 2015, and Olga Tokarczuk, a Polish novelist, who won in 2019. (In 2021 Fitzcarraldo also published a book by the Austrian playwright Elfriede Jelinek, who won the Nobel in 2004.) Fitzcarraldo books have made a significant impact on other prize lists too: since 2017 the publisher has had twelve books nominated for the International Booker Prize. In 2018 Flights, by Tokarczuk and translated by Jennifer Croft, won it. Diego Garcia, a tragicomedy by Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams that Fitzcarraldo published in May, is shortlisted for the 2022 Goldsmiths Prize.

It is a remarkable number of accolades for Fitzcarraldo Editions, which is just eight years old and has six staff members. When Testard founded the publisher he set out to publish writing that was “ambitious, innovative, pushing the boundaries of form, genre and style”. He did not anticipate the immense success that lay ahead.

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Testard, who lives with his partner in Peckham, not far from the Deptford office, was born to French parents in Paris in 1984. His father was a management consultant, his mother a jewellery designer. The family moved to London when Testard was five, and he and his brother, the author Pierre Testard, attended English schools. He went to Westminster School and then read history at Trinity College Dublin.

Growing up, “there was no literary pretence or disposition”, he said. But there is a distant literary family heritage: Testard’s great-great-grandfather, Emile Testard, was a publisher of illustrated hardback editions of classics in Paris in the late 19th century. His grandfather on his mother’s side is a rare book collector, who has amassed an impressive collection over the last 70 years. “I grew up around those books,” Testard said, “not that I ever was allowed to touch them.”

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As a child he read widely, in English and in French. He particularly loved comic books – Asterix and Lucky Luke – then as a young teenager was enamoured of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. He “wasn’t really into English lit” in an academic sense and gave up the subject after his GCSEs, but at university he “got into serious books”. He couldn’t really explain what he meant by “serious” – “it’s a silly thing to say” – but said that he began reading Proust, Joyce and Woolf. In his twenties he grew interested in more contemporary writers: the Chilean novelist Roberto Bolaño, WG Sebald, David Foster Wallace.

After a brief stint in the media – six months on the Sunday Times New Review “turned me off journalism forever”, he said – Testard set up the White Review, a literary magazine, with his friend Ben Eastham in 2011. During that time Testard applied for editorial assistant jobs at publishing houses including Penguin and Granta, but didn’t get anywhere. “I got the feedback that I was too qualified for the job and that I’d get bored, which was disappointing because I’d never had a job at that point.” In 2012 he secured a role at the independent Notting Hill Editions, where he worked for two years.

“Fitzcarraldo is a continuation of the White Review,” Testard explained: he still publishes the kind of writing he was interested in at the magazine. From the beginning he wanted to publish fiction and non-fiction, books in translation and books in English. While Fitzcarraldo takes its name from an epic film by Werner Herzog, for the book designs Testard chose simplicity. Ray O’Meara drew the font and designed Fitzcarraldo’s blue (fiction) and white (non-fiction) covers, inspired by the uniform look of European publishers such as Éditions Gallimard in France.

These covers are now instantly recognisable, a signifier of chic intellectualism. Introducing himself and Fitzcarraldo to another guest of the Booker Prize dinner in October, Testard said simply: “We publish white books and blue books.” In the one-room Deptford office hundreds of these elegant titles lined the shelves.

At first Testard was Fitzcarraldo’s only member of staff. He borrowed £70,000 from a family member, which was enough to publish ten books and pay his rent for two years. The first Fitzcarraldo book, published in August 2014, was Zone by the French novelist Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell.

[See also: Natasha Soobramanien and Luke Williams: “Writers are subject to a sustained assault from the political class”]

The ninth was Second-hand Time by Svetlana Alexievich. “She won the Nobel a year into the life of the press,” Testard said. “That first Nobel Prize was transformative. Svetlana Alexievich was completely unknown in the English-speaking world at the time.” He sold the US rights to Random House for “a good six-figure sum, which was a subsidy, a validation, of our editorial policy: to take risks on ambitious books. And bear in mind this was a 700-page book translated from Russian, by a then obscure Belarusian author. No one else in the English language was prepared to publish that book.”

Soon Testard hired two staff members to work alongside him. Quickly they moved up to ten and then 12 books a year. Olga Tokarczuk’s International Booker win in May 2018 – and then her Nobel in the autumn of the following year – enabled even more growth. “It was the first time we’d really sold a lot of books,” Testard said. Tokarczuk remains the publisher’s bestselling author. Her books Flights and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead are the only Fitzcarraldo titles to have sold over 100,000 copies.

Now a Fitzcarraldo book’s initial print run is typically 4,000, double what it was just three years ago. The first runs tend to sell out. When Ernaux was announced as this year’s Nobel winner in October, Fitzcarraldo had around 12,000 copies of eight of her books. They sold out within two hours of the news and the publisher printed 79,000 more the next day, more than half of which have since sold. “She’s going to sell extremely well for us,” Testard said.

The company now turns over £1.5 million a year and has made a “minimal” profit for the last two years. Testard described his model as “sustainable and financially sound”. “We exist on the margins of mainstream publishing, which is a position that I like.” Fitzcarraldo does not have the finances to participate in “big auctions for the so-called hot books”, which frees it up “to publish the books that we want to publish”.

“I’m keen to remain an independent publisher,” Testard said. “I’m keen for us to stick by authors over time. I never want to publish a book for commercial reasons. I think of publishing as an intellectual project: if we grew so big that I couldn’t read all the books, I would find that depressing. Then it becomes strictly a business and I don’t really see the point in that.” He wants Fitzcarraldo to remain small enough that it can publish books just – he paused, suggesting it was so simple he was almost embarrassed to say it – “because we like them”.

“Fitzcarraldo is one of the most exciting things to happen in British publishing in the last 50 years,” said the British writer Claire-Louise Bennett, whose 2015 short story collection Pond is one of the publisher’s bestselling titles. “There was an enormous hole in the literary landscape and Jacques had the vision and determination to address that.

“What marks him out is that he isn’t interested in following trends and he isn’t afraid of intellectualism. In a world of hyperbole and soundbites, Jacques stays true to the book. He’s not concerned with making it sound accessible or relatable, and there isn’t a lot of fanfare either. The work is given space to speak for itself and thereby gradually gathers an engaged readership who come to it without too many preconceived ideas or heightened expectations. They meet it on its own terms, and as a writer that is extremely valuable.”

“Jacques is an individualist and has the courage of an explorer,” said Tokarczuk. “He looks where others don’t have time to look, he listens to unpopular voices. For me, a publisher is someone who is able to pull together, out of the great dispersion and chaos of written texts, something internally coherent and responsive to the questions posed by our time. It is not always easy to work with someone like that. But it would be too suspicious if it were easy.”

That Testard is bilingual helps with his acquisitions. He reads in French and (“slowly”) in Spanish. He said he could count the editors in London who speak more than one language “on one hand”. Testard sees himself as an “outsider”. Though he is “intimately familiar with the culture” of Britain “there’s always going to be a distance”, and though his family is French he has lived in the UK so long that he is “not quite in sync with the culture” there either.

The UK is notoriously poor at publishing books in translation, although recent figures from the Bookseller suggest that things are slowly improving: in 2021 more than 11 per cent of revenue from the sales of books was spent on titles in translation. “The situation is a consequence of imperialism,” Testard said. “There’s a kind of arrogance and a lack of interest in what’s happening outside the English language that is manifest in what gets published and what doesn’t. The simple fact of naively deciding to publish in translation actually turns out to be a faintly radical position in this cultural landscape.”

Some Fitzcarraldo books are overtly political: You Have Not Yet Been Defeated by Alaa Abd el-Fattah, an Egyptian activist who is on hunger strike in prison in Egypt, or the work of Paul B Preciado, a trans philosopher who often writes through the lens of gender. “All publishing is political, really,” Testard said. “Every piece of writing is political. Everything that is written is coming from a subjective place and expressing a view, however open or oblique, about the world. Therefore if you’re in the business of publishing writing, you’re by necessity making political choices.”

While many have celebrated Fitzcarraldo for publishing so much literature in translation, others have criticised its relative lack of authors of colour. Diversity is something Testard thinks about, he said. “Particularly on the translation side, the list has been, or was in the first few years, Euro-centric, because that’s my background. I started off with the languages I knew.” Fitzcarraldo’s list is evolving: it publishes three Arab language authors, and among next year’s 24 titles will be books by a Chinese author, Dorothy Tse, and a Japanese author, Mieko Kanai, for the first time. A classics list will also appear in 2023.

Last week Fitzcarraldo published its 100th book, Aliss at the Fire, by the Norwegian Jon Fosse – another author often tipped for the Nobel – and translated by Damion Searls. Those 100 books are written by 59 authors, a fact of which Testard is proud. The Fitzcarraldo mindset, he said, is in direct opposition to the “constant quest for short-term profits and bestsellers” apparent in the methods of the UK’s major publishing groups. 

“We’d publish a book on any topic by anyone as long as the writing was good enough,” Testard said. “The most important thing for us is the quality of the books.”

[See also: Chelsea Manning and the price of knowledge]

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