Quality control helps fiction from afar punch above its weight, says MacLehose

Quality control helps fiction from afar punch above its weight, says MacLehose

Christopher MacLehose, rehoused in the Hachette empire with his eponymous list, reflects on the pros and cons of big-business publishing and the health of the market for translated fiction.

Ten years ago, I met Christopher MacLehose at Kokeb, an Ethiopian restaurant off Caledonian Road, to talk about his new, Quercus-backed, eponymous imprint. He had recently emerged from an unhappy end to his two-decades-plus stint heading translation specialist Harvill and was enthusing about MacLehose Press’ launch list, which included the first in a trilogy of titles by a late Swedish writer called Stieg Larsson.

A decade on, we meet for lunch again at Kokeb (sitting at the same table), and much has happened in the interim. Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander books, of course, were monstrously successful—the original trilogy has shifted £34.3m through Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market, 28% of Quercus’ all-time TCM takings—and spawned a continuation of the series by David Lagercrantz. Other smash hits along the way have included Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood and Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair. But there were ructions for MacLehose Press’ parent, with the acrimonious departure of Anthony Cheetham in 2009 and then, partially because of overreaching when flush with Larsson cash, Quercus faltered and was sold to Hachette in 2014. And, in a major change, Kokeb’s injera—a traditional flatbread that is the base of Ethiopian cuisine—is now gluten-free.

MacLehose was able to launch his imprint with Quercus because he was a free agent after a bruising couple of years following Random House’s purchase of Harvill, which it merged with Secker & Warberg. MacLehose stayed on, but was made publisher-at-large and “shunted to a small room in the back of the building”.

The corporate life

So how has it been, moving back into a corporate environment with Hachette? MacLehose says: “Amazing. In a sense, nothing has changed in our way of publishing. Hachette and Jamie Hodder-Williams [c.e.o. of the division Quercus is in] have been very generous. They essentially said: ‘You have a certain way of operating, go buy the books you want to buy.’ If we had been told to go back to a Random House-type system of having to go into an acquisitions meeting of 25 people, many of them accountants, and they get to decide on a book, I simply wouldn’t have stayed.”

MacLehose is not the only continuity of his imprint. He particularly praises the “unerring eye” of associate publisher Katharina Bielenberg, with whom he has worked since his 1990s Harvill days, but there’s new editorial power too: former Bloomsbury editor Bill Swainson arrived in 2016 as an editor-at-large to acquire fiction.

Christopher Maclehose, picture at home with his dog, Miska (© Eamonn McCabe)

Of the 25 or so titles MacLehose Press releases a year, around 90% are in translation. The handful of English-language writers have either a long-standing working relationship with the imprint, such as the Indian novelist Anuradha Roy, or have “somehow fallen through the cracks” elsewhere. One such case is Sergio de la Pava, an American of Colombian descent whose début A Naked Singularity was self-published after being turned down by 29 agents. MacLehose Press snapped him up in 2012, and the novel went on to win the US PEN First Novel Prize and was shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize. De la Pava’s latest, Lost Empress, was published in May to rave reviews.

MacLehose is realistic about the commercial prospects of literary fiction in translation. We meet on the day the winner of the Man Booker International Prize is to be announced. In the running is MacLehose Press’ Vernon Subutex One by French author, filmmaker and provocateur Virginie Despentes (probably most famous in the UK for the film adaptation of her rape revenge tale, Baise-moi). MacLehose says Despentes’ picaresque, punk-rock thriller may not win—he’s correct: the prize goes to Olga Tokarczuk’s Flight—adding: “Subutex is certainly not mainstream; it is edgy, it has armfuls of edges.” And he acknowledges it’s not flying off the shelves—it has sold 1,107 units through BookScan since its March publication—and this is a fairly high-profile author, up for a major prize.

“That is why we need our narrative geniuses: to actually keep us alive,” he says, referring to the crime and genre lists. Larsson, Dicker and Lagercrantz have hauled in the lion’s share of sales, but there is a strong second-tier bubbling underneath, including Pierre Lemaitre, three-time winner of the Crime Writers’ Association’s International Dagger, two of which are for his Paris-set Camille Verhoeven trilogy, and Mexican Élmer Mendoza, whose next instalment in his Lefty Mendieta narco-lit series, Name of the Dog, is out in July.

For débutants, MacLehose effuses about Mattias Berg’s The Carrier with much of the same passion he had for Stieg Larsson a decade ago. Berg is a Swedish cultural journalist, who has long been obsessed with nuclear war. His first book, out in October, is a thriller described as “part Tom Clancy, part The Name of the Rose” about what happens when the man who carries “the football”—the briefcase with the US president’s nuclear codes—goes missing.

High five?

There has been talk in the past few years of UK readers being more receptive to books in translation. Does he believe that? MacLehose says he has read that “the three may be five”—that the oft-repeated notion that translation makes up 3% of the market has risen to 5%—but adds: “It is difficult to say for certain. But maybe that’s not the real answer. Boyd Tonkin [former Independent literary editor, see p16] did some research a few years ago to suggest a far greater proportion of the bestsellers than most would imagine were in translation. This corresponds to my general conviction that books published in translation have been through more interesting filters than books which are ‘merely’ published in English. A German title may have been edited by the German publisher’s copy editors, then minutely studied by the English translator, then copyedited by a UK publisher... The books that have been published in translation have been analysed, and through so many layers of people thinking about quality.”

He pauses before going on. “If you are going to translate books, there is no earthly point to translate piffle. I have nothing against Jilly Cooper, who is certainly not piffle and whom I adore. But if you found a Portuguese Jilly Cooper, what would be the point of publishing her here? We already have one. What we are looking for is something different, with a quality or intensity that cannot be matched by an English-language equivalent.”


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