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‘Mona’s eyes’: how an editorial phenomenon is created | Culture

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It is the editorial success of the season in France, one of those miracles that every editor dreams of. “A fairy tale,” summarizes Nicolas de Cointet, from the Albin Michel publishing house, who on a sunny, spring Saturday a year ago began reading the manuscript of Mona’s eyes (Lumen) and couldn’t stop. At that moment the machinery was put into motion that has led to a sales phenomenon in French bookstores.

The manuscript had reached De Cointet through a friend he has in common with the author. Thomas Schlesser is an art historian, director of the Hartung-Bergman Foundation, and had already published a novel and several essays that had a limited impact and were aimed at a limited audience. The editor saw something special in the new novel that mixed a small family history and the great history of Western art, something comparable to what Jostein Gaarder did in the nineties with Sofia’s world and philosophy.

“It was a crush,” describes De Cointet, although he could hardly have guessed what would happen. A year later, the book has become the publishing phenomenon of the year in French, with sales reaching nearly 200,000 copies since its publication on January 31 and with translation rights sold into 36 languages. It has come out in Italy. In Spain, Empúries has published it in Catalan and in Spanish, Lumen, whose editor María Fasce had a determining role in this story. She was the first abroad who, long before it was published in French, sensed the potential of the book, and she obtained the rights without having read a single line, “blindly”, pardon the metaphor.

He told Fasce about the manuscript of Mona’s eyes the person responsible for Albin Michel’s international rights, Solène Chabanais. Both coincided in April 2023 at Quais du Polar, the Lyon crime novel festival. There Chabanais told him that she had just read an extraordinary book, but she could not give it to him, only share with a brief summary, what in English is called the pitch. “There is a principle of equality: all editors must receive the same text at the same time, out of courtesy,” says Chabanais. “María did not want to wait to receive the text at the same time as everyone else, and she acquired the rights to it without having read the book.”

Style and look

“I was fascinated,” the Lumen editor now recalls. In the following days she sought more information about the author and read one of his essays. She was convinced by the style and the look. “And I kept the rights to Lumen, the truth is that I was trembling a little until I received the manuscript… When it arrived, I breathed. “It was exactly what was advertised.”

This is the story of a best seller, of how it was created literary and how it was manufactured as an international publishing phenomenon. Starts in summer 2013.

“If you allow me, I won’t go into details, because it is a somewhat painful personal story,” explains Schlesser, the author. “But after a personal difficulty, I felt the need to invent a girl, and I imagined Mona. This was the emotional spring.”

“I once had the idea,” he continues. “It was like an inspiration, what is commonly called a pitch”. He pitch ―an essential concept in this story― he explains it himself:She is a girl threatened with blindness, and her grandfather takes her to museums to discover the most beautiful things in the world so that she can take them with her in his memory.”

The painting ‘La Monalisa’ by Leonardo Da Vinci in the Louvre museum in Paris. Marc Piasecki (Getty Images)

Then, he limited the story to a place (Paris and the Louvre, Orsay and Beaubourg museums) and a specific time (52 weeks, one per chapter). Without a contract with a publisher, he spent a decade writing Mona’s eyes, a period that coincides with Mona’s age: the book grew like the girl. It ended in 2022. She mentioned it to the Gallimard publishing house, but she was not interested. She passed it on to Albin Michel and that was when she received the call from De Cointet and, a few days later, she went to Paris from the Mediterranean city of Antibes, where she resides, to meet with her future editor. “He told me, ‘I really believe in the book,’” she recalls. “I say, ‘I wouldn’t want to disappoint you, I’m not sure this is going to work.’ He told me: ‘You know? Normally, it is the editors who temper the author’s enthusiasm and the author who tries to excite the editor, and with you it is the opposite.

The key to a literary phenomenon like this is, according to De Cointet, precisely the famous pitch. “I don’t edit a book that I can’t explain in 40 seconds,” she says. Mona’s eyes It met the requirement, to which the editor adds: the originality of the idea, the literary quality and the author’s ability to defend the book. The fact is that this 500-page volume struck a chord. For the story of the girl and the grandfather. For the ability to introduce the reader to art from the Renaissance to today, and for the rigorous yet accessible discourse. For the life lessons that the protagonists draw from these works, and for the careful editing with the images of the 52 works.

In France, the presence of the author in The Great Bookstore, literary program on public television. This is where another decisive factor comes in: Schlesser’s eloquence and his ability to connect with the audience. In parallel with the preparations for best seller In France, its international launch was being prepared. De Cointet talks about the auctions of translation rights for different languages ​​and countries. Eight editors participated in one.

It had all started with the offer from the editor María Fasce. In some chronicles of the French press about the phenomenon, Mona appears cited, as a sign of the exceptional nature of the phenomenon, the “Spanish publisher” who bought the book “blind”, an unusual method. “It gives a lot of money to publish it in your country,” he wrote. The world. How much? Fasce does not reveal the sum. But he says that “it was somewhat reasonable,” less than what he would have paid if he had participated in the auctions like publishers in other countries. Regarding the number of copies sold in Spain, she prefers not to give the figure, but it is in its third edition. “It’s a book that grows every week,” she says.

There have been more than 200,000 copies in total in the first printing outside France, according to De Cointet, who states that this figure will quickly become obsolete. Schlesser is preparing for a “world tour,” says the editor, “worthy of the biggest rock stars.” Has your life changed? “Not at all!” the author responds with a laugh. And he states that he will continue his work at the Hartung-Bergman Foundation, with his art history essays and with other projects.

“I don’t want to compare myself with the incomparable Umberto Eco, who is 100,000 levels above me, but there is something in which I feel in an equal state of mind,” he says. “Umberto Eco continued his work as a semiologist with enormous rigor and commitment while he wrote books dedicated to a broader audience. But he never abandoned the demand for him as a researcher. I don’t want to abandon her either.”

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