Top Stories from the Business/Finance pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Wednesday, June 11, 1997

Insert Coin For a Quick Crime Story

Small French Presses Try Novel Marketing

By Brad Spurgeon Special to the Herald Tribune
PARIS - The Paris Metro is not known for crime, but these days it is selling crime wholesale. Crime stories, that is, in the form of 64-page books sold from candy-bar vending machines at the palatable price of 10 francs ($1.75) a volume. A quiet marketing revolution is going on among the small presses devoted to the crime novel, of which the ''Metro-Police'' series is an example.

In a genre dominated by British and American writers, the mystery market in France has traditionally been most lucrative for English translation rights. Translations have been the mainstay since 1927 of the publisher Le Masque, a unit of Matra Hachette SA that is the world's leading seller of Agatha Christie titles outside the English market.

Translations from the American hard-boiled school have kept Editions Gallimard's Serie Noire line thriving since 1945. Several other specialist collections, imprints of larger publishers, have existed for decades and owe their success primarily to translations as well.

But in the past couple of years, small presses have sprung up all over the country, specializing in homegrown murder stories. As with the Metro-Police series, their success has been due to original marketing approaches.

The leading seller among these small presses is Editions Baleine. The company was created in 1995 to publish a new series of crime novels featuring a character whose nickname is Le Poulpe, or the octopus.

Each book is written by a different French crime writer, many of whom are well known here. The writers are asked to maintain their own style while keeping to the characteristics of the main character and his world as outlined in the Poulpe ''Bible,'' a six-page guide.

Jean-Bernard Pouy, the editorial director, has become a bestseller with his book, the first of the series.

''The crime novel survives in France at 8,000 copies,'' he said. ''As soon as you pass 8,000 copies, it's considered a victory. If you arrive at 20,000, you're a recognized writer. If you get to 40,000, you're a star. With 'La Petit Ecuyere a Cafte' of the Poulpe I'm at 40,000. So finally, at 50 years old, I can say I'm a star!''

Each Poulpe has been selling more than 10,000 copies, and there are more than 40 titles in print. A Poulpe film is scheduled to start shooting in France this autumn. The hero of the series, whose real name is Gabriel Lecouvreur, is a Raymond Chandler-style character who goes around trying to solve crimes or correct injustices

and taking swipes at the extreme right in France in the process.

Because of Le Poulpe's success, Baleine created another series starring Le Poulpe's girlfriend, Cheryl, and written entirely by women. The publisher now projects a similar series in the science-fiction field for next year.

Another small press with an original packaging idea involving two kinds of crime writers is Editions de la Loupiote. Francois Braud, its director, attended several crime-writing festivals and met many writers, both well known and unpublished.

''I read a lot of good writing by the unpublished writers and thought maybe I could do something to help them get published,'' he said.

So he created his ''Zebra'' collection that packages under one cover a story by a well-known writer and one by a previously unpublished, unknown writer.

''That way,'' he said, ''the customer buys a proven writer and has a discovery to make at the same time.''

The Metro-Police collection features a mix of established and obscure writers. Olivier Breton, director of the small-press Editions de la Voute, conceived of the idea to sell the books as reprints of 1930 French pulp stories.

But after signing a contract with the vending-machine company Selecta, he decided to promote current French crime writers, too.

Since the series began selling in the Metro in early March, he has published stories in alternate weeks by writers reprinted from the 1930s and by current writers.

New titles appear every Tuesday in 139 vending machines and have been selling 3,000 copies a week. The publisher foresees eventual sales of 6,000 as more vending machines carry the novellas. Because the new releases replace the old ones, the publisher has been receiving calls from readers who want to buy up all the volumes they missed before they discovered the collection. Many have been sold out.

Gerard Delteil, the editorial director, said all subjects are permitted in the stories with one exception: ''insecurity and bombings in the Metro.'' These were vetoed in advance by the Metro authority, the RATP.

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