A Literary Tour de France

          Lépagnez cadet was the second most important bookseller in Besançon, and he occupied a secondary place in the STN’s trade, because it favored Jean-Félix Charmet, its long-standing ally and the city’s foremost bookseller [see the essay on him on this website].  Yet Besançon was such a good market for books and its supply lines bound it so closely to Neuchâtel that Lépagnez’s business warrants study on its own.  Its main interest lies in Lépagnez’s skirmishes with the French authorities.  He was an aggressive entrepreneur who played according to the rules of the game but bent them as far as they would go.

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          Lépagnez first appeared in the STN’s correspondence in 1777 at the height of the speculation on the quarto edition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie.  This was the edition diffused most widely in France—diffused on such a scale, in fact, that its backers considered it the greatest enterprise in the history of French publishing  [see “The Encyclopédie Wars of Prerevolutionary France” in the “Publications” section of this website]. They belonged to an international consortium, which included the STN and was directed by Joseph Duplain, a bookseller in Lyon.  The first edition of the Encyclopédie never reached many readers in France.  After being banned in 1759, it was not completed until six years later (the last ten of its seventeen volumes of text were published in 1765; the last of its eleven volumes of plates appeared only in 1772), and it was marketed primarily outside the kingdom.  In 1777, when the state had relaxed its ban, the relatively cheap quarto edition hit the market like a storm.  Booksellers everywhere scrambled to collect subscriptions to it, and Lépagnez outdid them all.  He printed his own subscription forms, circulated prospectuses, beat the bushes throughout the Franche-Comté, and in the end sold 390 subscriptions, a remarkable number for a thinly populated province.  In December, 1779, he wrote with some pride that he had drained the demand down to the last drop: “Ayant farci ma petite province de 390 exemplaires de votre Encyclopédie quarto, sans compter ceux des colporteurs, il n’est plus possible de trouvez place à aucune. » 

          Lépagnez’s success opened the way to extensive trade with the STN.  Not that he replaced Charmet as its preferred bookseller (preferences could mean giving the exclusive distribution for certain works to one retailer or shipping them to him earlier than to his competitors); but by 1777 Charmet was showing signs of age, and he had refused to participate in the chase after Encyclopédie subscriptions, because, he said, he preferred to avoid the difficulties that plagued subscription publishing—problems in collecting money, delays in delivery, complaints of all kinds, many of them justified, from unsatisfied customers.  The quarto Encyclopédie turned out to be one of the most contentious enterprises that any bookseller had ever encountered—and the most profitable.  As the greatest Encyclopédie salesman in the kingdom, Lépagnez looked like the rising star among the thirteen booksellers of Besançon. 

His first letters to the STN concentrate almost entirely on the Encyclopédie, but by 1778 he was helping to expedite the STN’s shipments and reporting on the government’s plans to reorganize the book trade according to a series of edicts issued on August 30, 1777.  As part of a general campaign to clamp down on piracy, the edicts created a new chambre syndicale in Besançon.  Pirated books poured into the city from many Swiss publishers as well as the STN, and they made up a crucial proportion of the stock of booksellers throughout the entire kingdom.  The edicts acknowledged the importance of this illicit stock by creating a grace period during which booksellers could bring their pirated works to the nearest chambre syndicale, have them stamped, and sell them off.  From that point onward, the officers of the chambre syndicale, reinforced by local police authorities, would rigorously inspect every shipment that arrived in their city and confiscate every unstamped, pirated work that they discovered. 

The new regulations of the book trade touched off an enormous controversy and were not applied in most parts of the kingdom until well into 1778.  During a business trip to Paris in the spring of 1778, Lépagnez tried to discover how they would be put into effect in Besançon.  In a letter to the STN of May 11, he reported that Le Camus de Néville, the official in charge of the book trade, had summoned him to discuss the situation: “Depuis cette entrevue, je suis bien avec ce magistrat, et sa porte m’est ouverte en tout temps.  C’est pourquoi je sais tout.”  One should allow for a good deal of self-promotion behind this remark, but it seems that Néville intended to use Lépagnez as his instrument in setting up the new chambre syndicale.  Lépagnez, in turn, used the information from Néville as a way to ingratiate himself with the STN.  According to Lépagnez’s version of their understanding, Néville had granted him, as a personal favor, a delay of 20-30 days in the establishment of the chambre syndicale, so that he would have time to return to Besançon and get his own books stamped.       

He did not send this inside information simply to satisfy the curiosity of the Neuchâtelois.  He urged them to ship him as many of their pirated books as possible so that they could be stamped before the end of the 20-30 day grace period—“et ne perdez point de temps.”  By pretending that he had accumulated those books in his own store rooms, he could absorb a huge infusion of illegal works into his stock under the cover of the law and without running any risk.  This would only be a one-off operation, but it could make him a favored client of a key Swiss supplier; and after the establishment of the chambre syndicale, he could use his influence in it to keep the supplies coming by means of other maneuvers.    

The STN failed to take advantage of this window of opportunity, perhaps because it was too occupied with the Encyclopédie at that moment; but in July 1778 it asked whether it still was possible to send off shipments for stamping in the new chambre syndicale.  Too late, Lépagnez replied.  The new book inspector had recently arrived with orders about setting up the chambre syndicale, and the parlement of Besançon was expected to complete the formalities by registering those orders in the near future.  Lépagnez himself had decided to avoid all risks at this critical juncture, but by the end of 1779 he had begun ordering books regularly from the STN.  He was also being supplied by other Swiss houses, notably the new Société typographique de Genève, which had sold him a large number of its monumental, posthumous edition of Rousseau’s works. 

As his relations with the STN settled into a pattern of mutual trust as well as trade, Lépagnez intervened whenever it needed help in getting its shipments through Besançon.  He and Charmet had begun to serve as officers in the chambre syndicale in January, 1780.  Although they competed, they also cooperated and generally got along quite well, judging from Lépagnez’s letters.  For the most part, the letters dealt with orders and payments.  But occasionally Lépagnez commented on the demand for particular books such as Introduction aux observations sur la physique, sur l’histoire naturelle, et sur les arts by the abbé Rozier: “C’est un bon livre qui aura du cours.”  His remarks took on a tone of increasing pessimism in the last months of 1780.  In July, he complained that the book market had gone into a slump, which he attributed to a general economic downturn produced by the American war.  He sounded even unhappier in August: “Ne croyez pas, je vous prie, que je fais ici une grande consommation de livres.  Je vous jure qu’après L’Histoire universelle [by G.-T.F. Raynal and others], l’Histoire ecclésiastique [by Johann Lorenz von Mosheim], celle de l’église gallicane, la bible de Vance, l’Encyclopédie, et le Rousseau, le reste me laisse dans une vacance depuis deux ans. »

Relief from the slump came with a few best-sellers related to current events.  The most important of them was Necker’s Compte rendu au roi, an 86-page pamphlet with two illuminated maps published in an authorized edition in January 1781 and immediately pirated by the STN along with many other publishers.  The STN offered to provide Lépagnez with 1,000 copies of its quarto edition in March 1781.  He jumped at the chance: “L’in-quarto dont vous me parlez ne peut manquer d’être d’un grand débit, si il était fait promptement, car nous ne pouvons en avoir de Paris, où l’on se l’arrache des mains….Mais nous avons reçu des ordres les plus rigoureux pour les contrefaçons. »  Necker had written the pamphlet as part of a propaganda offensive to whip up support for his measures as director-general of finance.  To promote the official edition, he kept the price down to 3 livres and ordered strict repression of pirated editions.  The STN did its best to disguise its piracy by copying the Paris edition exactly, but it failed to produce an accurate reproduction of the maps, and its shipment arrived late.  Lépagnez complained bitterly both about the delay in delivery and about the inaccuracies, which, he claimed, would expose him to the accusation of fraud: “Nous nous passerons ici pour des charlatans et des trompeurs….Vous êtes cruels.”  Therefore, he refused to accept the shipment.  In the end, he sold a few copies but only on commission as a distributor of the STN edition; and it did not object, because the demand remained strong, and it easily marketed the rest of its edition to other customers. 

The public’s fascination with Necker and the issues he raised did not abate after his dismissal from the government on May 19, 1781.  Accordingly, the STN rushed into print with a pirated edition of Necker’s Mémoire donné au roi par M. N. en 1788 sur l’administration provinciale.  On May 29, it informed Lépagnez that it could make 400 copies of the Mémoire available to him and Charmet together.  When the STN’s letter arrived in Besançon, however, Lépagnez was on a trip to Paris.  The clerk in charge of the shop assumed that the deal for the 200 copies had been settled and sent Lépagnez a letter saying they soon would be shipped.  Lépagnez then arranged to sell them from Paris; but when he returned to Besançon, he learned that the STN had supplied Charmet with all 400 copies.  Assuming that he had been cut out of the market by an arrangement made behind his back by the STN and Charmet, he protested in an angry letter to Neuchâtel.  The STN defended itself by insisting that it had never received confirmation of his intention to order 200 copies; and the recriminations flew back and forth between Besançon and Neuchâtel for several weeks, leaving unhappy feelings on both sides.

But, as the French say, “Le commerce est le commerce.” Trade resumed, and Lépagnez continued to help seeing the STN’s bales through the chambre syndicale.  In November 1781, the STN requested assistance in getting the release of a shipment of a Protestant edition of the Bible, which the inspector of the chambre syndicale had confiscated.  In December, it asked Lépagnez to forward a shipment of Mercier’s Le Philosophe du port-au-bled, and he complied.  But in January 1782 he wrote that he could no longer provide such service, because his term as an officer of the chambre syndicale had expired:

“C’est avec regret que pendant le cours de cette année je me vois privé de vous être utile, n’étant plus rien à la chambre syndicale, mais nous avons continué M. Charmet dans la place de syndic qu’il occupera encore deux ans.  Je suis persuadé qu’il fera pour vous obliger tout ce qu’il pourra, pourvu qu’il ne se compromette pas, car nous avons de nouveaux arrêts qui gênent furieusement les bonnes volontés. »

Evidently Lépagnez and Charmet remained allies, despite their commercial rivalry, in the efforts of Besançon’s booksellers to prevent the new chambre syndicale from constraining their trade.

          A year later, Lépagnez wrote that he had just attended Charmet’s funeral.  Although he put the message diplomatically, he clearly hoped to succeed Charmet as the STN’s most favored retailer in Besançon.  In fact, Charmet’s widow continued the business, and the STN supported her by delaying the payment of some bills.  But it maintained good relations with Lépagnez, and he obliged by offering again to get shipments for other booksellers through the chambre syndicale.  He could make sure they escaped detection by the inspector, and he could have them forwarded to Adolphe Veny, the STN’s shipping agent in Besançon, who operated out of an inn, Aux trois rois.  Veny claimed to have 70 horses at his disposal and to be able to get books to Versailles (the palace and outlying buildings served as a great entrepôt for illegal literature destined for Paris) without passing through Dijon and Troyes, two dangerous outposts of the police [Veny to STN, December 31, 1781 and the contract between Veny and the STN dated February 4, 1782].

          Many of Lépagnez’s letters in 1783 concerned these shipping arrangements.  Once they went into effect, the STN began to funnel a great deal of its trade through Besançon, hoping to use the Lépagnez-Veny combination to unlock markets throughout northern France.  Favarger traveled to Besançon in February and agreed to pay Lépagnez 7 livres 10 sous per bale for his services.   By March 16, Lépagnez had cleared five bales through the chambre syndicale, but Veny had failed to find wagon drivers for them.  Despite his bragging about horses, Veny got on badly with the drivers.  Sometimes he refused to reimburse their costs, because, according to Lépagnez, his own finances were shaky: “C’est un homme à qui déjà l’on ne peut guère se fier.”  Following Lépagnez’s advice, the STN shifted its business from Veny to one of his competitors, a shipping agent named Péchey, who promised to reimburse the drivers for all costs from Neuchâtel and to forward the bales at fixed rates to destinations in northern France [Pechey to STN, March 14, 1783].  After this adjustment, the system worked quite well—until disaster hit in June.

          On June 12, 1783, the comte de Vergennes, France’s foreign minister, issued an order to the General Tax Farm (Ferme Générale), which policed imports at the borders of the kingdom, requiring that all shipments of books be sent for inspection in the chambre syndicale of Paris before they could be delivered to their final destination.  By centralizing all inspections in Paris, where the book inspector and the chambre syndicale were exceptionally rigorous, Vergennes’s order provided a way to stop the spread of political libels.  It also made the transport costs impossibly expensive for foreign publishers and their customers in the provinces.  Even if it contained nothing but legal books, a shipment from Neuchâtel to Besançon would now have to make an enormous detour through Paris.  As soon as he learned of this “triste nouvelle,” Lépagnez fired off a letter to Neuchâtel.  As a special favor to him, he explained, the director of the Tax Farm in the Franche-Comté had granted a short delay in putting the order into effect.  That would give the STN time to get several bales through Pontarlier to Besançon, where he could shepherd them through the chambre syndicale.  As in the case of the book trade edicts of 1777, Lépagnez was using inside information to gain a short-term advantage and ingratiate himself further with the STN.  He was a hustler, who seized every opportunity he could get, and he usually got away with it—but not this time. 

          Seven bales made it to Besançon in mid-June, but another shipment ran into serious difficulties.  A clerk of the STN named Fenouillet accompanied it from Neuchâtel, while Lépagnez rushed to meet him in Pontarlier in order to be sure that everything was in order.  It was not.  In his haste to get the bales to safety, Fenouillet had hired a wagon driver from Pontarlier to haul them to Besançon at night without going through the usual customs formalities.  According to standard procedures, Fenouillet was supposed to submit the bales on the following morning to customs officers, who would have them sealed and furnished with a customs permit (acquit à caution), which would be discharged, with Lépagnez’s help, after inspection at the chambre syndicale in Besançon.  Unfortunately for Lépagnez, the shipment also could be identified by its bill of lading, which the original wagon driver had submitted to the custom officers before returning to Neuchâtel.  The bill of lading showed that the books were being sent to Lépagnez.  Once they discovered that the shipment had been forwarded illegally under the cover of night, the customs officers sent a squadron of men to capture it.  To his horror, Lépagnez then realized that he was in danger of being exposed as a collaborator in a smuggling operation.  As it happened, the bales did not contain any forbidden books, but the fraudulent maneuver was enough, he believed, to ruin him in the eyes of the authorities. 

Seized by panic, he wrote three desperate letters on the same day, one after the other, to the STN.  Word about the illegal nighttime shipment had spread everywhere, he complained.  People were pointing at him in the street.  The head of the customs at Pontarlier had sent a circular letter to six other offices of the General Tax Farm, describing Lépagnez not only as the intended recipient of the shipment but as an accomplice in an egregious fraud.  The STN’s idiotic clerk had destroyed his reputation.  Even worse, he wrote in a letter posted two months later, he had not dared return to Besançon for several weeks, because he feared a lettre de cachet would be issued for his arrest.  At the very least, he had expected the government to forbid him to continue in business as a bookseller.   

Lépagnez may have over-reacted, although when the STN wrote that the situation was not as serious as he claimed, he replied that it had not understood the threat to his commercial existence.  Their exchange of letters made him feel as if “…je ne vous y avait entretenu que du pape et que vous ne m’ayez parlé dans votre réponse que du sérail du grand seigneur.”  Eventually, the bales, which had been seized, were released.  Widow Charmet and one of Lépagnez’s clerks had managed to substitute legal works for two pirated books that they contained.  Lépagnez resumed his trade, but he emphasized in his later letters that he would never again help the STN with its shipments: “Je ne peux ni m’engager ni me compromettre.  J’ai été dans le danger, j’ai effleuré le péril, et ne peux pour aucune raison  m’exposer davantage.  C’est cette même raison qui m’empêche de vous commettre tant que durera l’ordre cruel [of Vergennes]. »  The Vergennes order was never revoked, and Lépagnez never ordered any more books from the STN.   

          If one stands back from episodes such as this one in order to study the general pattern of Lépagnez’s trade, the statistics drawn from his orders can be seen to reflect the main themes of his correspondence.  Necker’s Mémoire donné au roi par M. N. en 1778 sur l’administration provinciale dominates the list of books in greatest demand, because it belonged to Lépagnez’s effort to acquire works related to Necker’s ministry when it was at the peak of the public’s interest.  He also sent two orders for Collection complète de tous les ouvrages pour & contre M. Necker.  His purchase of 99 subscriptions to the quarto Encyclopédie was a similar effort to strike while the iron was hot.  (In fact, those 99 subscriptions, the first of the 390 that Lépagnez collected, were eventually credited to the quarto consortium and therefore do not represent his unilateral commerce with the STN.)  Aside from those two special cases, the statistics indicate the common fare that was available in his shop.  Despite his willingness to help the STN smuggle works through the chambre syndicale, he seems not to have dealt extensively in forbidden books.  He ordered many dictionaries, travel books, and tracts about subjects such as free masonry and black magic, which had great popular appeal at that time.  Although the names of Enlightenment philosophers—Rousseau, Voltaire, and Condillac—figure in his orders, he did not ask for their works in large quantities.  Instead, he favored current fiction and belles-lettres such as the plays of Louis-Sébastien Mercier and the comtesse de Genlis, the poetry of Jacques Delille, and the notorious novel, Les liaisons dangereuses, by Choderlos de Laclos.  But Lépagnez’s orders provide only a glimpse of his trade.  For a full view of the demand for literature in Besançon, his dossier should be supplemented by that of Charmet, which also appears on this website.