A publisher in business as a literary agent


As we approach the Friday opening of the 2022 Paris Book Festival in person, Catherine Nabokov talks about nurturing the work of 14 writers.

Catherine Nabokov. Image: Editorial Perspectives, Olivia Snaije

By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije

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“Being a publisher is in my DNA”

Iat the end of August, four first novels are scheduled during the most important literary season in France. They will have been guided throughout the writing and publishing process by Catherine Nabokov, a unique newcomer to the stable of literary agents now established in France.

The Catherine Nabokov Agency opened in 2020, but Nabokov was born into the industry. His Russian-American father Ivan Nabokov acquired the foreign rights for French publishers such as Robert Laffont, Albin Michel and Plon, introducing French readers to Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, VS Naipaul and Norman Mailer. His father was the first cousin of Vladimir Nabokov.

“If I’m in the business, it’s thanks to him,” says Catherine Nabokov, adding that she grew up reading his manuscripts and the industry magazine Weekly Books.

She began her career as a writer for publishing houses such as Stock and Le Seuil, but then went on her own as a freelance writer and began to seek out and cultivate talent.

After the 2016 success of singer-songwriter Gaël Faye Little country (Little country), Nabokov says she now trusts her intuition. The book won the Prix Goncourt des Lycéens, among others, and was translated into nearly 40 languages ​​before being adapted into a 2020 film directed by Eric Barbier. Nabokov had contacted Faye after listening to his words and working with him for several years before selling his first novel to Grasset based on 15 pages. Faye is currently working on her next novel.

Nabokov says she remembers Faye from journalist Feurat Alani, an author she has worked with for three years on a first novel.

Alani, of Iraqi parents, started tweeting about Iraq in 2016 and a production company created an animated web series based on her tweets. A graphic novel followed from Nova Press in 2018, winning the Albert London Prize in 2019. Nabokov recently submitted 30 pages of Alani’s novel to publishers and five of them bid on the work in progress, a story about a father and his son. It is now planned to publish it with JC Lattès in 2023.

Another of Nabokov’s authors, sociologist and professor Fabien Truong, is working on his first novel following the publication by Rivages of a non-fiction work in February, tree pruning (tree height).

The way Nabokov works closely with his writers is reminiscent of Janklow & Nesbit agent Rebecca Carter’s decision in 2012 to leave Penguin Random House’s Harvill Secker because she wanted to nurture talent and work with writers. on the editorial. But Nabokov doesn’t sell his authors’ foreign rights like a typical agent would. She entrusts this work to her colleague agent Gregory Messina or to the acquiring publishing house, because it is something that she says she does not know how to do.

“Being a publisher is in my DNA,” says Nabokov. “I go around and I find people, I discover them, I prospect. The difference is that when I worked for publishing houses, I received manuscripts, and now I go to see a person.

It was an editor, Sarah Rigaud at Les Escales, who helped her take the leap to become an agent. “One day [when still a freelance editor]. I was talking about the fact that it was complicated to be so close to the authors but then to be paid by their publishers. I felt like it was an ambiguous position. Sarah then said, “But actually, you’re an agent.”

By becoming an agent, Nabokov could “do what I knew how to do”. In addition, she says, “as a publisher, you have to have a certain consistency in your choices depending on a collection or the house, whereas here it’s my taste, which leaves me with a lot of freedom.

Nabokov also looks to music and film to find talent. Musicians “have a connection to songwriting,” she says, “and I have a sample of what they do. My imperative is to be captivated by someone’s artistry.

One such author she represents is Rose-Marie Ayoko Folly, whom she saw in an award-winning 2019 documentary, The time, directed by Matthieu Bareyre. “Seeing Rose and her way of speaking, which is amazing,” says Nabokov, “I immediately saw her potential for writing.”

“Today, Jacques Brel would have written a novel”

Nabokov’s work with writers often takes several years, and so far she has 14 writers and some 20-25 projects in development.

“At the moment, I read 10 pages a week with five or six authors and I work on the texts. “Catherine Nabokov

Many of its authors are young and many come from diverse ethnic backgrounds with dual cultures. These choices are no coincidence, she says, as she has an affinity for multiculturalism. She sometimes thinks of expanding the agency, but for the moment it is important to her to remain available for her authors and to maintain the same editorial quality. She has kept a habit acquired during the days of confinement of having regular videoconferences with authors.

“When I accompany writers, she says, it can be several hours a week working on the text or we can meet every 15 days. At the moment, I read 10 pages a week with five or six authors and I work on the texts. I love doing this. I think I’m one of the few agents who guides people that way.

His hard work pays off, with these first four albums in August from prestigious publishers. “The four texts are very different,” she says. “One is very urban, describing the life of a young woman. Another is nostalgia and emotion. And two more have fairy tale elements.

  • Novel by Dominique Celis So cry our men (This is how our men cry) will be published by Philippe Rey
  • At Diaty Diallo Two seconds of burning air (Two seconds of hot air) was acquired by Le Seuil
  • by Polina Panasenko Hold your tongue (hold your tongue) will be published by Éditions de l’Olivier
  • At Amina Richard’s In a distant kingdom (In a distant kingdom) went to Stock

The rights to the last two are sold by Messina.

Since his father started in the profession, Nabokov says some barriers in publishing have been broken down. “Today, Jacques Brel would have written a novel. And I would have contacted him.

More information about Publishing Perspectives on the French market is here, more about literary agents is here, more about authors is here, and more about the upcoming Paris Book Festival weekend is here.

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About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a Paris-based journalist and editor who writes about translation, literature, graphic novels, the Middle East and multiculturalism. She is the author of three books and has contributed to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, The Global Post and The New York Times.


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