A Literary Tour de France

          Loudun can be taken as an ideal site to study the capillary system of the book trade.  Yet it had nothing to recommend itself as a market for books, or indeed for anything else.  Its population remained stagnant at a low level, about 4,000 souls.  Its economy depended on local farming supplemented by some small-scale production of woolens and leather goods.  It had no important educational and administrative institutions—nothing more than the office of an intendant’s subdélégué, a minor court, and a small college.  Its connections with commercial routes amounted to little more than minor roads leading to Tours, 60 kilometers to the northeast, and Poitiers, 40 kilometers to the southeast.  It had no booksellers or printers.  Between 1770 and 1786, however, Loudun became the hub of an extensive business that linked Swiss publisher-wholesalers with French peddlers who sold books throughout the Loire Valley and the surrounding provinces. 

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The entrepreneur at the heart of this network was Jean-François Malherbe l’aîné.  He had no right to deal in books, because he had no connection with a chambre syndicale and no “brevet de libraire,” a license that could be purchased under certain conditions by private individuals who operated outside the professional trade.  Officially, Malherbe was a “commissionnaire”—that is, a shipping agent and trader who dealt in all sorts of goods.  He appeared in the Almanach général des marchands, négociants, armateurs, et fabricants (Paris, 1779, vol. 4, p. 174) as an expediter who handled everything, including literature: “Malherbe l’aîné expédie toutes les marchandises qui lui sont commises des denrées ou productions de cette province [Loudunais], Touraine et Anjou pour comptant, à la commission de deux pour cent.  On souscrit aussi chez lui pour divers ouvrages de littérature. »  Strictly speaking, therefore, he did not hide his ancillary trade in books.  The authorities probably paid little attention to it on the assumption that it could not amount to much in such an out-of-the-way location. 

References scattered through the first letters in Malherbe’s dossier indicate that he was a Huguenot who had relatives in Switzerland and personally knew all four of the STN’s founding partners, Frédéric-Samuel Ostervald, Jean-Elie Bertrand, Jonas-Pierre Berthoud, and Samuel Fauche.  He probably had studied in Neuchâtel, boarding with Samuel Fauche, while Ostervald, Bertrand, and Berthoud ran the local college.  His first letter, written to Fauche on March 10, 1770, includes many intimate details, suggesting close relations with the entire Fauche family.  Among other things—greetings to the children and mutual friends—he asked Fauche to sell a watch that he had left behind after a visit to Neuchâtel.  By then, Malherbe had attempted to set up business as a commissionaire, but it had not gone well, and he needed money badly.  In fact, he sent the letter from a hiding place in Saint Maixent, where he had fled in order to escape debtors’ prison after going bankrupt in 1767. 

While his lawyer tried to negotiate a settlement with his creditors, he toyed with various possibilities of starting a new life: “Quand une fois je serai libre, je pourrai vous mander plus positivement à quoi je me fixerai.  S’il y avait disgrâce pour moi à rester en France, je ne détournerais en Suisse que pouvant m’y faire un sort gracieux.  Autrement je pense à me ménager une occasion de lier société avec un ami que j’ai à Cadix. »   One escape fantasy was marriage : « Procurez-moi une aimable amie et 20 ou 25 mille de dotte.  J’en espère plus, mais pas au-dessus de 10 à 12 du vivant de mon père, qui aime trop jouir. »  His father was a hard man, he wrote, so he could not expect to revive his business with the help of a family loan.  The most feasible plan was to put together assets that he had dispersed in various places—no doubt without the knowledge of his creditors—and begin again collecting commissions on sales of imports and exports.  Books figured prominently among the articles he had in mind: “Vos testaments et psaumes serviraient à nos paysans du Poitou.”  By the end of 1772, a court in Poitiers had finally disposed of the suit connected with his bankruptcy, and he was back in business in Loudun.       

His shaky financial past did not make Malherbe look like a promising client.  Yet he managed to ingratiate himself with his Neuchâtelois contacts by a stream of seductive letters and all sorts of helpful activities.  He announced that he would attend Huguenot services outdoors in “le désert,” where he would sell Bibles and psalms to ministers and their flocks.  He offered to collect subscriptions for the STN’s Journal helvétique.  He knew booksellers in Poitiers, Saumur, Tours, Angers, and Nantes; and he was trying to win them as customers for the STN.  He also had contact with individual entrepreneurs like Lair, a schoolmaster in Blois, Desbordes, a merchant in La Rochelle, and Boisserand, a shipping agent in Roanne, who were eager to order books.  To drum up orders he also circulated the STN’s catalogues among his correspondents and placed advertisements for its books in commercial news sheets (“affiches” and “feuilles d’avis”) published throughout the Loire Valley.  He clearly knew his way around the book trade.  In fact, he had marketed books for Samuel Fauche and Gabriel Cramer of Geneva before he went bankrupt.  But books were incidental to his main business, which consisted of forwarding shipments for suppliers of all kinds of goods, collecting payment for sales that he arranged for them, and marketing local products.  He was eager to supply Swiss correspondents with “…huiles de noix, lin, chanvre,…nos grains de coriande, anis, fenouille, citrouille, nos plumes d’oie, canard, volaille, nos peaux d’agneau, parchemins, chagrins, etc.”  As indicated by his verbose and lengthy letters, Malherbe did a little of everything.  He lived by his wits—and by gathering information from an extensive network of correspondents.

Thanks to his experience as a shipping agent, the information that Malherbe provided to the STN concerned the best routes for its shipments and the best ways to prevent them from being confiscated, both at the French border and at chambres syndicales inside the kingdom.  He sent reports about the “insurance” operations of smugglers and advised the STN about their rates: it should be prepared to pay from 12 to 15 percent of a shipment’s value for a clandestine border crossing—a reasonable sum, as it also would provide a way to avoid the import duty on books.  In 1773, when the STN had contracted with an insurer at a rate of 16 percent, Malherbe wrote that it should be able to negotiate its payments down to 10-12 percent.  He also warned it when service on segments of the shipping lanes became excessively expensive or slow.  And in letter after letter, he demonstrated his usefulness in opening up new markets for the STN’s books.  He charged only a small amount “pour mes petites opérations mercantiles,” which included printing and posting fliers about new editions and in one case paying a scribe to produce copies of the STN’s catalogue by hand.  By the end of 1773, Malherbe had set up some store rooms in an inn at Saumur, and he had hired a local worker to forward shipments that arrived there from various locations on the Loire, all the way up to Roanne, the main port for goods shipped from Lyon.  Although his business as a commissionnaire did not amount to much, he developed contacts and handled merchandise that passed through some of the main thoroughfares of the kingdom.

After a succession of letters attesting to the promise of his new business, Malherbe asked whether the STN would send him an assortment of books that he could keep in stock, selling them off at a commission as occasions arose. The STN refused.  Like most publisher-wholesalers, it did not engage in “à commission” arrangements of that sort.  Undaunted, Malherbe came back with a more attractive proposition.  He had just arranged for advance sales of several books of Protestant sermons, which the STN could ship to him while crediting him with a small payment for his role as an intermediary.  They agreed on the price and route in March, 1773, but the shipment got stalled at the border and then was sent over the Massif Central by mule, in two packets weighing 190 pounds each, from Lyon to Limoges.  When they finally arrived in Loudun, ten months after leaving Neuchâtel, they had accumulated 118 livres 10 sous in charges for goods worth 250 livres 10 sous—at least 30 livres more than they would have cost, Malherbe objected, had the STN’s agent in Lyon followed his instructions to send them down the Loire.  Still, the import duty on books had been reduced to 8 livres per quintal, and it soon would be rescinded.  Therefore, instead of hiring insurers for border crossings, the STN could send its shipments through Lyon, relying on its agents to get them past inspection in the chambre syndicale.  Once it had established such a “voie ouverte,” Malherbe hoped that they could do a good deal of business.

The nature of the business that Malherbe had in mind began to show through his letters early in 1774.  On January 17 he wrote that a “marchand colporteur” had come to see him with a long list of books he wanted to order.  “Colporteurs” or peddlers came in many varieties.  In large cities, they walked the streets, hawking their wares from trays suspended from their necks (hence “col-porteurs”).  They had to be authorized by the police and to wear a copper badge as certification of their legitimacy—at least in principle.  In practice, they frequently operated outside the law and sold forbidden books “sous le manteaux.”  The peddlers encountered by Malherbe tended to be “marchands forains” who traveled from town to town on horse-drawn wagons loaded with large assortments of books, which they purchased from wholesalers, including publishing houses in Switzerland and the Low Countries.  They set up stalls during market days and annual fairs, and they served customers scattered around the countryside.  Many of them came from Normandy, especially Coutances, where entire families lived from peddling, generation after generation.  But they often had no “domicile fixe” or permanent address where bailiffs could be sent to collect unpaid money orders.  Wholesalers mistrusted them, because they were notorious for failing to pay their bills.  In order to persuade a supplier to provide them with a shipment, they usually paid for a portion of it in cash and left a promissory note (usually a billet à ordre), binding them to come up with the balance at a certain date and place—often an inn, which supposedly served them as headquarters. 

Malherbe knew that peddling was a risky business, but the peddler who approached him seemed to represent a promising opportunity: “Si cet homme est exact, il pourra vous procurer un bon débit, allant de ville en ville.”  He included a letter from the peddler, J. Blaisot, inside the one he sent to the STN.  Blaisot had wanted a dozen copies of 19 books that he chose from the STN’s catalogue, but Malherbe persuaded him to limit his order to 3 or 4 copies of each so as not to expose the STN to the risk of a large transaction.  Blaisot’s selection was similar to those of established booksellers—an assortment including some history, travel books, Mercier’s An 2440, and an edition of Rousseau’s works.  The shipment had to be delivered at the STN’s expense and risk to Orléans, where Blaisot would pick it up in the storeroom of Pisseau et Cagnyé, a well-known shipping agency.  As a reference, he suggested the STN contact Couret de Villeneuve in Orléans, a reputable bookseller with whom he did a good deal of business.

In February, 1774, Malherbe wrote that Couret and Pisseau had both reported that they knew Blaisot as someone who made occasional purchases of books and always paid for them on time.  Therefore, he recommended that the STN fill Blaisot’s order.  It sent the books through its smugglers in the Jura Mountains, and Blaisot picked them up safely in Orléans about six weeks later.  He made no difficulty about paying for the transport and “insurance,” although those expenses came to a third of the books’ wholesale price: 30 livres for a shipment worth 91 livres.  Four months later, he reappeared in Loudun and paid Malherbe for the books themselves.  Everything suggested that Malherbe had opened up a rich new market for the STN.

The demand in that market, as Malherbe assessed it, favored the works of the Enlightenment: “Le goût des livres relatifs aux sentiments que répandent les nouveaux philosophes est le seul en vogue, et ce sont les seuls livres qu’on débite bien.”  The STN had high hopes of satisfying the demand in 1774, because it had been succeeding in getting its shipments through Lyon.  Malherbe assisted it with expert (but unsolicited) advice on the shipping costs.  In fact, he drew up a general model to guide its calculations.  It usually sold its “livres philosophiques” at a wholesale price of 2 sous per sheet (twice its normal price for pirated versions of legal books), which came to one livre (20 sous) for 10 sheets.  10 sheets weighed slightly less than five pounds (in units known as poids de marc).  So a bale with a hundredweight of sheets, packing included, was worth 200 livres tournois.  The costs for a shipment of a hundredweight of books from Neuchâtel to Lyon could be calculated as follows:

Transport Neuchâtel-Lyon…………….……………………..10 livres

    Neuchâtel-Geneva…..3-4 l.

   Geneva-Lyons……….5 l. 

Supplementary payment to the driver at 10 s. per cwt……......1

Commission to smuggling agent in Lyon..……………………2

Various other charges………………….……………………....1

Total…………………………………….…………………….14 livres

14 livres for a hundredweight worth 200 livres was 7 percent of the value of the merchandise.  Therefore, the STN should be able to make its shipments available, free of costs and risks, to its customers as far as Lyon at a reasonable percentage of the wholesale price.  If the STN followed this model in arrangements with its wagon drivers and shipping agents in Geneva and Lyon, Malherbe argued, it could avoid arbitrary surcharges and put an end to the complaints of its customers in France. 

          Whatever one makes of the arithmetic, the calculations illustrate the way the book professionals thought about their business.  The underground distribution system, as they saw it, was economically feasible.  Its main problem was poor coordination and dysfunction at the human level.  Would peddlers behave in a way to make it work? 

          While the STN rebuilt its route through Lyon, word spread among the peddlers that Malherbe represented a breakthrough on the supply side.  He provided them with copies of the STN’s catalogues, including the handwritten lists of forbidden books gathered under the rubric of “livres philosophiques,” and they added Loudun to their itineraries in the hope of tapping the flow from Neuchâtel.  In March 1774, Malherbe again proposed that the STN provide him with enough books to create a “dépôt.”  He would parcel them out in small amounts to the peddlers, demanding cash payments from those he did not know, and every six months he would send the STN a bill of exchange to cover the sales, minus a small commission for his services.  He had seen the Mémoires de Mme de Pompadour, Dieu et les hommes, and L’Arétin moderne sold in his region for the extravagant price of six livres a volume.  They could charge less and still make a killing, for that kind of “livres philosophiques”—political libels and pornography as well as Enlightenment tracts—was sure to sell.

          The directors of the STN knew better than to supply Malherbe with a whole warehouse of such literature.  But they kept filling his orders, which kept arriving with greater frequency and higher proportions of illegal books.  Soon Malherbe was buying the books on his own account.  By ordering them from the STN and selling them to the peddlers, he turned a nice profit.  From his vantage point in Loudun, unlike the Swiss in Neuchâtel, he could assess the peddlers’ reliability, accept promissory notes from those he trusted, and demand heavy down payments in cash from those he did not know.  In some cases, as in his dealings with Blaisot, he passed their orders directly on to Neuchâtel, and therefore one can catch glimpses of their trade.

          For example, in June 1774 Malherbe recommended a peddler from Saint Maixent named Planquais, who had gone off three months earlier with one of the STN’s manuscript catalogues of “livres philosophiques” and returned with an order for 59 works, most of them in units of two to four copies.  Having sounded his customers, Planquais evidently decided that he could order enough books from the STN to fill half his wagon.  His order included a few legal works (Marmontel’s Contes moraux and the sentimental novels of Mme Riccoboni), a good deal of Rousseau (2 copies of Emile, 4 Contrat social, 2 fifteen-volume editions of the collected works), some Voltaire and Diderot, and an assortment of scabrous works (4 Thérèse philosophe, 4 Lauriers ecclésiastiques, 3 Chandelle d’Arras).  He even ordered a copy of Le Colporteur by François Antoine Chevrier.  What he thought of it, as a colporteur himself, is impossible to say, as the order was little more than a list of titles, drawn up without commentary in Malherbe’s hand, perhaps because Planquais could not write.    

          Two months later, Malherbe reported that more peddlers were coming to his house and that he needed more catalogues of “livres philosophiques”: “C’est bien la partie de plus de débit pour le moment….Les colporteurs sont fort avides de ces sortes d’ouvrages.  Ils y gagnent bien plus que sur d’autres, parce que leur prix est idéal et de fantaisie relative au désir ou à l’envie que fait un tel ouvrage.”  By September, the catalogues had arrived, and Blaisot and Planquais had returned for fresh supplies accompanied by a third peddler whom Malherbe did not name.  All three placed large orders composed entirely of forbidden books, which Malherbe passed on with a request for a two percent commission and some additional remuneration for his success in procuring customers.

          Instead of rewarding him, however, the STN demanded that he collect its bills before it would fill any more orders for the peddlers.  Malherbe replied that he would settle with them when they resumed their rounds in the spring of 1775.  Blaisot had inquired about his shipment in letters written from Confolens and Angoulême.  It would be a pity to disappoint him, and Planquais, too, Malherbe said—although he probably could satisfy both peddlers by ordering from the STN’s rival and former partner, Samuel Fauche, who had left the firm after a quarrel in 1763 and continued on his own, selling a great many “livres philosophiques.”  This argument brought the STN around.  But when its crates arrived in June, 1775 Malherbe wrote that he had not seen Blaisot or Planquais since the autumn.  Rumor had it that they were running away from bankruptcies.  Indeed, if the other peddlers were to be believed, Planquais had abandoned his circuit and had disappeared somewhere in his native Normandy, while Blaisot had vanished in Languedoc.  Still, Malherbe could find replacements for them; and his own position now looked better, because his father had ceded him some property worth 10,000-12,000 livres.  He could buy Planquais’s shipment himself and sell it off to his most recent acquaintances among the itinerant dealers.

          One acquaintance who looked especially promising was Noël Gilles, a marchand forain based in Montargis.  Gilles set up a stall and hawked his wares in Loudun for a week in August, 1775.  “Il est bon et fixe,” Malherbe reported.  Gilles seemed to be a savvy professional with sources of information about potential best-sellers that were just reaching the market place: “On m’a parlé du Maupeouana, d’une Histoire de Louis XV toute nouvelle….Ces ouvrages-là se vendraient bien.”  After Gilles rode off on his wagon, Malherbe took soundings about his reputation and received a favorable report.  So he was happy to endorse a large order which arrived from Gilles about three months later: 50 Système de la nature, 50 Système social, 50 Pucelle d’Orléans, 25 Journal de Maupeou in five volumes, 12 Maupeouana in five volumes, 25 Compère Matthieu, 25 Parnasse libertin, and a dozen other works of a similar nature.  Malherbe requested the STN to send him the shipment accompanied by two invoices: one with the normal prices for Malesherbes himself and one with those prices plus a hidden surcharge of five percent, which he would present to Gilles.  In this way he could collect his commission surreptitiously from his customer.  But he needn’t have taken the trouble to disguise it, because two weeks earlier Gilles had written to the STN from Fontainebleau asking it to deal directly with him on the grounds that Malherbe charged “une commission trop exorbitante.”

          The STN preferred to send the books to Malherbe.  It had learned from its experience with Planquais and Blaisot that it needed a middleman to act as a bill collector in sales to peddlers.  By the beginning of 1776, it had tried several times to get Planquais’s note for 237 livres paid in Saint Maixent and had discovered that he had no home address.  Malherbe’s own inquiries made the case look even worse.  He reported that Planquais had defaulted on a debt of 1,000 l. to Pavie, a bookseller in La Rochelle who was trying to get him arrested.  But no one could pin him down: “On soupçonne qu’il a déposé [that is, declared bankruptcy by depositing a balance sheet] à Cognac.  Il n’est point à Saint Maixent…On le dit natif de Coutances en Normandie.  Un marchand d’images à Tours à qui je vendis il y a peu quelques livres me dit le connaître.  Il ne m’en a rien annoncé de bon. »

          Gilles, however, looked like an exception to the rule about the need to beware of bad faith among peddlers.  After he came through Loudun to pick up his shipment in April, 1776, Malherbe gave him a clean bill of health: “Il avait un chariot très chargé et un commis avec lui.  Il paraît bien assorti.  Il me paya une dizaine de louis et m’en prit pour 3 à 400 livres.…Il paraît fort rangé.  A moins que les prohibés qu’il débite beaucoup ne lui attirâssent mauvaises affaires, je ne crois pas qu’il fasse perdre.  Il est d’ailleurs marié à Montargis. »  Four months later Gilles declared himself bankrupt.  Among the debits in his balance sheet [Archives de la Seine, D.4B6 59/3773], he listed 1058 l. owed to Malherbe.  Among the credits, he gave the names of a dozen fellow peddlers to whom he had sold portions of his stock.

          Gilles, Planquais, and Blaisot clearly belonged to the same species, and Malherbe stood to lose a great deal by trading with them.  But how could he avoid entanglement in their affairs, a web of debts strung out between obscure nodal points in market places, country fairs, and wayside inns?  He had no purchase in the merchant houses of high street.  Therefore, he remained stuck in the role of a middleman, mediating between the international and the rag-and-bone elements of the book trade.  “Comment se tirer des colporteurs, qui paient si mal?” he lamented.  « Je leur vends peu, et encore ne peut-on éviter d’en être dupe.  Voilà Noël Gilles failli.  Presque tous sont véreux, et les libraires établis et domiciliés veulent avoir à si grand marché que souvent on ne peut traiter avec eux. »

          From this point on, Malherbe had nothing good to say about peddlers, although he still felt tempted to do business with them and occasionally gave in to the temptation: “On pourrait profiter avec les colporteurs coureurs, mais ce sont de si chétifs gens sans lieu ni domicile qu’on est dupé par les trois-quarts, et je cherche toujours votre Planquais, qui roule en Poitou vers Confolens et Limoges. »  In January 1777, he wrote that he had sold some STN books to « un nommé Quesnil dit l’Anglais, des environs de Meaux, » who had disappeared.  So had another peddler, “un nommé Denis Bouillard.”  By October the list of defaulted debtors had grown so long that Malherbe hired a bailiff to track them down in the diocese of Coutance, Normandy, where most of the peddlers were born [See Alain Girard, Dictionnaire des imprimeurs, libraires, et gens du livre en basse Normandie].  But he did not expect to find “gens sans domicile” installed at addresses in their home towns.  There seemed to be no solution, except to resolve once more to do without them, or at least to sell to them only for cash.

          Although he continued to operate as a commissionnaire, Malherbe had become a bookseller operating on a fairly large scale.  There was no way out of it, for he had accumulated a large stock, which he kept hidden in a warehouse in Loudun.  Therefore, while the peddling sector of his trade collapsed, he tried to find another outlet.  In the spring of 1777, his thoughts turned to “un débouché nouveau qui serait plus sûr qu’avec les colporteurs”—the new American republic!  “Si cette nation parvient à  se rendre indépendante, comme tout semble l’annoncer, » he wrote, « nous y gagnerions une belle branche de commerce. »  His imagination warmed as the Americans’ prospects improved :

L’Anglais voit d’un œil d’envie les avantages qui résultent pour notre commerce de l’entrée que nous tolérons des navires américains dans nos ports et les expéditions directes qui se font pour Boston et la côte.  Le général Waginsthon [sic] paraît avoir remporté un double avantage sur les frères Howe et le général Cornwallis.  Si cela est constant, voilà la campagne décidée pour eux, et l’Anglais écrasé….Cette querelle fait présager une révolution intéressante dans les affaires politiques. »

But Waginsthon and world politics did not offer an immediate escape from the problems of the book trade in Loudun.  Boat captains who docked in Nantes sometimes picked up a few goods (“pacotilles”) and sold them as a private speculation in other ports of call.  Thanks to the good offices of a friend, Malherbe unloaded 1200 livres’ worth of books in this way.  Then he imagined he could expand from the Loire to the coastal trade while waiting for the New World to open up; for at the very least, pacotilleurs were better than peddlers.  “Si ce debit s’achallandait, il serait plus solide qu’avec ces colporteurs, qui n’ont ni feu, ni lieu, et qui souvent sont des dupeurs. »

          These prospects turned out to be more escape fantasies.  Malherbe was trapped in the smallest circuits of the retail trade, where there was plenty of demand and little cash or credit.  The established booksellers would have nothing to do with him.  Michel-Vincent Chevrier, the most important bookseller in Poitou, broke off relations with the STN in 1775, because it provisioned Malherbe, who then ruined the local market with cut-rate books: “Vous avez un commissionnaire à Loudun qui fait trop de tort à la librairie,” he wrote.  “Il donne au particulier au même prix que vous me vendez, sans doute, Messieurs, que vous lui passez à meilleur marché qu’à moi.”  Despite the STN’s protests that it supplied all its customers at the same price, Chevrier would not be moved.  Malherbe was dumping cheap merchandise on the market; and worst of all, he was an outsider, who had no right to sell books at any price: “Si encore le sieur Malherbe était libraire, je ne serais pas si fâché.  Mais un homme qui n’a aucune notion de librairie, qui promène dans tout Poitiers et à tous les particuliers que quiconque désire des livres, il n’a qu’à s’adresser à lui et qu’il les fournira à un sol la feuille; vous penserez, je crois, avec moi que ceci n’est pas gracieux. »

          When Favarger traveled through the area in 1778, he heard the same thing from many of the important booksellers: Pavie in La Rochelle, Elie in Niort, and Chevrier once again in Poitriers.  In Orléans, Couret de Villeneuve warned the STN to steer clear of Malherbe.  Interlopers like him were illegal in themselves, and they also specialized in illegal books, courting disaster: “Vendant beaucoup de livres contraires aux bonnes moeurs, à la religion, et au gouvernement, il est rare qu’une délation ne perde pas ces sortes de gens.” 

Yet Malherbe never got caught, and Favarger sent a quite favorable report on him:

Après avoir pris informations sur l’état actuel de cet homme, l’on m’a répondu qu’il n’y a rien à craindre avec lui, qu’il est fort rangé et très actif, que la mort de son père l’a mis au large, quoique la mère se soit réservée pour 1200 l. de rentes par an, qu’en général il sait fort bien vendre ses coquilles, et il m’a paru qu’il ne donne pas beaucoup d’or pour un sol.

A few months earlier, however, the STN had received a warning about Malherbe from Batilliot l’aîné, a banker and bill collector in Paris who specialized in affairs of the book trade: “Je sais que Malherbe ne vaut rien du tout.  Méfiez-vous en.” [Batilliot to STN, February 18, 1778]  How “solide” was Malherbe, really? 

          Information scattered through his letters indicates that he came from a well-educated and fairly well-off family with agricultural holdings around Loudun and connections with the trans-Atlantic trade from Nantes.  When asking the STN for an extension of “confiance” in a letter of June 28, 1777, he said that his parents had permitted him to sell one of the houses they owned for 11,500 livres in order to prop up his business.  He also possessed two “métairies” (sharecropping farms) and tried to raise funds by selling them.  That effort failed, he wrote, because the collapse of overseas trade during the American war had damaged the regional economy so badly that land prices had fallen below an acceptable level.  He had invested in the coffee and sugar trade himself, he explained, but he could not collect on debts owed to him in Port-au-Prince, Capetown, and Cadiz.  Unable to raise cash, he tried to pay off some of his own debts by shipping coffee to the STN.  It refused to write off a substantial amount from his account, however, because it found the coffee undrinkable.  As one prospect after another failed to produce much income, he relied increasingly on his parents: “M. Ostervald savait bien que je n’étais pas riche, mes meilleures espérances restant au pouvoir de père et mère. »   

          Malherbe’s father died on April 21, 1778 [Registre de l’Etat Civil de la Mairie de Loudun—the only information available in Loudun].  Although he expressed sorrow at the loss in a letter of May 6, 1778, Malherbe noted a month later that his affairs now looked much better, thanks to the inheritance, which he had divided with his brother, leaving their mother to live on an annuity: hence Favarger’s favorable report on his financial situation in October.  The ups and downs of Malherbe’s business can be followed in detail through his subsequent letters.  It must be admitted that they make dreary reading, owing in large part to their verbosity and poor handwriting.  After years of haggling, the STN asked him to keep to the terms on which they had agreed for each of his orders, “…sans nous fatiguer par un long verbiage indéchiffrable.”  In 1785 it hired a merchant in Poitiers to collect Malherbe’s unpaid bills.  He got nowhere and finally gave up, refusing to accept any more of “…ses lettres fatigantes, soit par leurs longueurs, soit par la difficulté de les lire” [Laurence to STN, October 12, 1785].  Yet the wordiness of Malherbe’s letters actually adds to their value for the historian, because they show how the contingencies of the book trade were experienced by a marginal dealer; and as Malherbe knew the directors of the STN personally, he talked about his situation in a familiar manner unlike that of the established booksellers, whose correspondence usually remained strictly business-like in tone. 

Three themes stand out in the rich dossier of 124 letters sent to the STN by Malherbe: his struggle to survive in the hardscrabble world of early-modern business, the effects on business of shifts in government regulations, and the demand for literature as Malherbe understood it from his particular perspective.

1.     The Balzacian world of the provincial book trade

          Malherbe began ordering books on his own account in January 1773.  Despite setbacks and logistical difficulties, the shipments made it safely to his store house in Loudun for the next five years.  By April 1776, he had paid his first bills, and the STN expressed considerable confidence in its trade with him.  But on October 6, it sent him a letter warning about the accumulation of his debts, and in January, 1777 it refused to accept his version of his account.  The account showed a deficit for the sizable sum of 1,494 livres, 6 sous.  Malherbe demanded a reduction of 240 livres on various pretexts, such as the high price of its “livres philosophiques,” which, however, he continued to order.  After much haggling, it agreed to a reduction of 187 livres, but in June it warned that it would not send him any more books until he had acquitted the first of three promissory notes that he had sent earlier.  It would only extend its “confiance” so far. 

Malherbe pacified the STN with the assurance that he would come into a considerable inheritance after his father’s death, which then seemed to be imminent.  The shipments resumed until February, 1778.  At that point, however, Malherbe failed to honor a note for 700 livres, which he had written on Barré fils, a marginal bookdealer in Paris.  The STN had commissioned Batilliot, its financial agent in Paris, to collect the note, and he could not locate young Barré.  Malherbe’s relations with the STN therefore were suspended, pending the death of his father.  That happy event occurred in April or early May.  Malherbe then managed to redeem the unpaid note on Barré fils, and he wrote hopefully about the prospects of reviving his business, thanks to the assets inherited from his father and some new arrangements for getting shipments past the authorities.

          Early in 1779, Malherbe agreed to purchase a large portion of the STN’s stock of “livres philosophiques” at a 35 percent reduction.  The books went off in seven large bales in May, and they arrived safely in September.  The bill came to 3,356 livres, a large sum for a book-trade transaction at that time.  Malherbe tried to negotiate a reduction of 165 livres on the grounds that many sheets had been torn or stolen en route and that he would face great difficulties in selling such works.  But he backed down after the STN rejected that pretext.  There was no disputing a basic point about the illegal trade that it had made in one of its earlier letters: “Il est certain que plus d’entraves il y a pour l’entrée de ces sortes d’ouvrages et plus rares doivent-ils être autour de vous, et cela doit accélérer la vente et la rendre avantageuse.”  The real problem concerned payment.  Malherbe had agreed to discharge the debt by notes (his letters do not indicate their exact nature, whether lettres de change, billets à ordre, or traites of various kinds) that would mature at successive dates over a period of less than three years.  When the first note, for 848 livres, became due in March, 1780, his banker in Paris refused to honor it.  For the next six years, most of Malherbe’s letters represented attempts to dodge, delay, and write off his debts.

          He strung out endless excuses: the general disruption of commerce owing to the war; the lack of specie and difficulties in negotiating bills of exchange; increased costs of shipments, especially after 1778 when the government began to police the book trade more rigorously; and the decline in his own sales accompanied by an increase in the difficulty of collecting payment for them.  Of course, the STN suffered from the same problems.  As pressure mounted on its own finances, it had less sympathy for Malherbe’s predicament.  In May 1780, it refused to let him reschedule some of his payments.  In November, his Paris banker refused a note for 408 livres.  Malherbe claimed that it should have been covered by funds deposited for him by Prudhomme, a bookseller in Meaux—one of many booksellers who owed him nearly 1,500 livres in unpaid bills.  To compound his difficulties, he could not raise money by selling any of the land he had inherited, because it had fallen disastrously in value and potential buyers could not find enough cash to purchase agricultural property even at bargain rates. 

The STN warned Malherbe in December, 1780 that it had unleashed Batilliot to do everything necessary, including legal action, to force him to pay.  Batilliot was known in the trade as a bulldog, pitiless in his measures to extract funds from indebted booksellers.  He charged a great deal for his services, and that expense was added to the growing deficit in Malherbe’s account, along with the heavy cost of “protêts”, the legal formalities that took place when a creditor presented a money order for payment on its date of maturity and the debtor or his agent (often a merchant banker with whom he had supposedly deposited funds) refused to honor it.  In February, 1781, the STN warned Malherbe that his order for 1,318 livres would be due soon and that it had better be paid.

          On March 3, 1781, Malherbe sent a circular letter to his creditors announcing that he had gone bankrupt. Although they sometimes involved court cases, bankruptcies usually took the form of a “faillite,” or suspension of payments on debts, and the deposit of a balance sheet with an agent, such as a reputable merchant house, who sometimes helped negociate terms for a settlement.  Rather than losing everything, creditors often agreed to accept repayment on all or part of the debts over an extended period of time.  In this way, a business could be saved, despite the damage to its credit.  Malherbe deposited his balance sheet with Veuve Boutet, Daillé et Dupuis, a merchant house in Saumur and pleaded his case for such an arrangement “à l’aimable” in personal letters to his main creditors, which he sent with the circular.

According to the circular, his debts came to 58,000 livres, which were offset, at least in principle, by 73,002 livres in assets.  The latter included 36,000 livres in real estate (3 métairies, a vineyard, and a house in Loudun) and 400 livres worth of furniture “…dans la chambre que j’occupe, ne tenant pas maison ni ménage, mangeant chez ma mère, ce qui doit vous ôter la crainte que le luxe m’a ruiné.”  The other assets consisted of debts owed to Malherbe, but many of them were “douteuses ou de longue durée,” and he had written off still more—25,785 livres, as “créances faillies ou sur gens peu en état de payer.”  The balance sheet covered all of his transactions as a commissionnaire, not just his activities as a bookseller.  He estimated the debts that might still be collected from his sales of books at 800-1,000 livres.  But in a special letter begging for mercy to the STN, he held out little hope of payment in the near future: “Je ne sais quasi plus à qui me confier, tant je suis malheureux avec les libraires.  Ceux fixés paient mal ou manquent.  Les colporteurs volent.  Ils m’enlèvent bien 10,000 livres.”  The collapse in the value of land made it impossible for him to sell his farms.  The only way he could reduce his debt to the STN was to send it some coffee by an arrangement with friends in Nantes—or goods produced in the area around Loudun: nut oil, wax, and honey.  As explained in the circular, he proposed to pay off his debt in annual installments, each for one-third of the total, extending from 1782 to 1784.   Meanwhile, he would continue his business, doing everything possible to force his own debtors to pay up: “C’est le seul parti qui puisse empêcher ma ruine et vous éviter perte, malgré le travail le plus opiniâtre et assidu depuis 10 ans.”

          The STN answered on May 8 that they had made inquiries about his situation, which made them feel justified in demanding full payment right away.  But they would agree to a delay if he paid the first of the money orders he owed them, the one for 1,318 livres that he had failed to honor a few months earlier.  Impossible, Malherbe replied.  He could not come up with the cash.  He owed more money to Fauche than to the STN, yet Fauche was being flexible.  If the STN resorted to litigation, it would crush him, but it would fail to collect much in repayment.  He was honest and upright, a victim of circumstances.  He would work day and night to pay off everything, down to the last penny.  And he would continue to deprive himself of any indulgences, as he had always done : “Je travaille de mon mieux, ne fais nulle dépense de luxe ni superflue, je ne fais point ménage, ma mère me donne sa table….Enfin, ma liberté, mes affaires sont à la merci de mes amis.  Je ne veux travailler que pour eux. »

          In June, a bailiff sent by Batilliot knocked on Malherbe’s door and demanded payment of a new order written on him for the 1,318 livres plus expenses.  Malherbe could not pay it.  All he could say to the STN by way of explanation was that he had no access to cash: “Il est cruel d’être assiégé ainsi de tribulations quand on a toute bonne volonté.”  He followed this lament two weeks later in a letter that sounded truly desperate.  Batilliot had impounded three bales of books from the STN that had remained unpacked in Malherbe’s storeroom.  They had cost 1,559 livres, and Batilliot was threatening to auction them off for whatever price he could get:

Si la rigueur de vos commissionnaires se perpétue jusqu’à ce point, d’en exiger vente publique, je suis perdu.  On ne fera pas à Loudun 300 livres de ces 1,559 livres 10 sous, et vous savez que la nature de vos objets n’est pas pour paraître en public.  Il faudra donc que je me voie consommer en frais…peut être voir intervenir la police, qui confisquera ces livres, s’autorisera de là de faire perquisitions chez moi—à quelles peines me préparez-vous.   

          It is difficult to know how Ostervald and the other directors of the STN read this letter.  Having received many overwrought missives from Malherbe, they may have come to distrust them.  He might, after all, be bluffing.  Other indebted booksellers also sounded desperate; and then, when faced with bankruptcy, they sometimes tried to play some creditors off against others, offering secretly to pay a few of them in exchange for favorable terms, while inflicting delays on the rest.  Batilliot’s threat could have been a way of calling a possible bluff.  But there was no denying Malherbe’s argument about the counter-effectiveness of a public auction.  In the end, therefore, the STN sent a warning that it would not permit him to favor any other creditor (presumably Fauche) at its expense, and it granted the three-year delay.  Malherbe replied that he was relieved and grateful, and he sent four new money orders to repay the debt, with 3 percent interest, over three years. 

Even then the haggling continued.  The STN refused to accept the money orders, because it insisted on receiving three larger notes at 5 percent interest due respectively in 1782, 1783, and 1784.  Malherbe complied, but he extended the maturation dates by a year to the period 1783-1785.  In October, 1782 he failed to acquit a note related to another transaction worth 490 livres.  He parried the STN’s objections by sending a substitute note with a later date of maturation.  Things continued to get worse as the due dates of the three big notes got nearer.  By 1783, Batilliot himself had gone bankrupt; and the STN was having trouble meeting its own payments, because it suffered on a larger scale from the same problem that crippled Malherbe: unpaid debts from besieged booksellers. 

In April, 1783, when the first of the three notes became due, Malherbe failed to pay once again and again sent a substitute note due at a later date.  In May 1784, he could not pay the second note.  This time, he attempted to fend off the STN’s threats by writing a note on a certain Caboche in Bailleul, far off in Flanders, for 500 livres.  But Caboche refused to honor it and then disappeared—to Gothenburg, Sweden, according to some rumors, although Malherbe had heard he would probably return to Bailleul in order to collect an inheritance from his mother and an uncle, who had just died.  Malherbe’s third note went unpaid in 1785.  By then, he no longer pretended to have correspondents who could redeem his old notes.

He continued his book business, however.  Having failed to extract any more goods from the STN, he received shipments from Brussels and Avignon.  He may have taken to peddling them himself, because in his last letters to the STN he mentioned trips to sell merchandise in Poitou and Saintonge.  The final letters repeated the same complaints: unpaid debts, unavailable cash, underpriced land.  Although the STN continued to threaten him with litigation, it had little leverage to force payment.  How would it persuade a French court to award payment for books that the French authorities should have confiscated?  “Nous sommes las d’une correspondence aussi désagréable,” the STN wrote in July, 1785.  By then Malherbe had failed to pay yet another note that he had written to replace the unpaid note for 500 livres on Caboche.  As a token of his good faith, he sent some more bad coffee and some inferior textiles, which the STN said it would sell for whatever small sum they would fetch.  He never came up with cash and never ceased sending testimony to his own uprightness:

Je ne crains la langue de qui que ce soit…Je ne suis livré à aucun genre de faste.  Je vis frugalement chez ma mère qui, seule, m’a offert sa table depuis la mort de mon père.  Je n’ai aucun train de ménage à pourvoir, vivant garçon.  Mon entretien est simple.  Je ne dépense que pour ce qui est nécessaire à mes affaires—lettres et quelques voyages.

Malherbe died in January, 1787.  The STN tried to collect something from his estate, but its agent, a merchant in Poitiers, reported that there was little hope [Laurence to STN, March 18 and June 17, 1787], and a correspondent in Loudun confirmed that Malherbe’s assets were buried under a mountain of debts.  Three attorneys spent 23 days taking an inventory of his papers and effects.  His books were disposed of for 5,202 livres, apparently without any objection from the subdélégué of the intendant.  His furniture and other property might bring in 20,000 livres, the Loudun correspondent reported, but that would be offset by 60,000 in debts [Luca to STN, July 26, 1787].  The STN eventually wrote off Malherbe in its account of “mauvais débiteurs” for a loss of 1,368 livres, 15 sous and 3 deniers.

2.     The effects of government regulations

          The regulations governing printing and the book trade published in a series of edicts dated August 30, 1777 were the most important attempt by the state to assert control over an industry that had grown enormously since the last major regulations, issued in 1723 for the Parisian area and extended to the entire kingdom in 1740.  Although the provisions of these reforms have long been familiar to book historians, little is known about their actual implementation.  Malherbe discussed them frequently, monitoring their effect in his region of France. 

          The reforms threatened to disrupt his business in two ways: they represented an attempt to crush the trade in pirated books, which constituted the bulk of his orders with the STN, and they established new chambres syndicales, which raised the danger of more rigorous policing.  Before 1778, Malherbe did not worry about trouble with the authorities.  In a letter of September 21, 1776, he said that there was little danger of inspections in small cities like Loudun, although word had spread that a tough book inspector would be appointed in Orléans, where the shipping agent Pisseau et Cagnyé handled many shipments from the STN.  Malherbe did not operate a shop in Loudun, did not sell books to individuals, and got on well with the intendant’s subdélégué, an unpaid local official who never interfered with his operations.  In October, 1777 he asked the subdélégué whether he could obtain formal authorization to deal in books.  The answer was yes, for a payment to a special office, the parties casuelles, in Versailles; but Malherbe decided that his standing as a commissionnaire gave him all the legal covering that he needed.  To be safe, he kept the most dangerous works in a secret storage facility and did his best to stay informed about conditions, relying on the trade grapevine.

           Information about the new regulations circulated immediately after their publication.  What mattered most to Malherbe, and in fact to all booksellers, was less their terms than the way they would be applied.  In October, 1777 rumors spread that officials were searching bookshops and cracking down on the illegal trade.  Malherbe still had learned nothing about the execution of the edicts in November, but word began to dribble out in February, 1788.  Because provincial booksellers dealt so heavily in pirated works, the regulations permitted them to sell off their current stock, provided that each book should be stamped in the nearest chambre syndicale.  Stamping had begun in Rouen, Malherbe learned, and if it were severely enforced, he feared that “le commerce de la librairie sera perdu en province.”  A chambre syndicale was supposed to be established in Poitiers.  “Si on y établit des inspecteurs pour visiter, il faudra bien se tenir en garde à se trouver nanti de livres suspects, soit galants, soit philosophiques, soit contre le gouvernement—et de contrefaçons postérieures à les arrêts. »  Placards had been posted in Orléans warning that all bales with books had to be inspected in its chambre syndicale.  Therefore, Malherbe directed the STN to suspend all its shipments of prohibited works, pending readjustment of the system, for he suspected that there would be enough resistence within the trade to force a modification of the regulations.  In May, 1778, he advised that books could get past Orléans if they were disguised as domestic shipments labeled “mercerie.”  A month later, he reported that the inspector named to the chambre syndicale in Poitiers was a friend, and he also expected favorable treatment from an acquaintance who was one of its new syndics.  They were about to rent an office where they would inspect shipments and stamp pirated works.  Thanks to personal contacts and reciprocal self-interest, it seemed as though adjustments were being made to circumvent the system even before it was put in place. 

          Not that conditions were easy.  In September, Malherbe wrote that the edicts were being applied “avec rigueur” in Bordeaux and Toulouse, where many bales of pirated works from Avignon had been confiscated.  Still, his own supply lines functioned well.  Shipments arrived safely via Lyon and Orléans, although some had to be sent by way of the expensive mule trains to Poitiers.  Five small crates even arrived “par des chemins de traverse sur le dos d’un homme.”  And the huge shipment of seven crates sent in 1779 made it to Loudun without mishap.  By 1780, Malherbe had become so embroiled in his financial quarrels with the STN that it stopped sending him books.  Therefore, his letters only reveal how the distribution system adjusted to the attempts by the state to police it during the 1770s.  Seen from Malherbe’s peculiar perspective, the severity of the government’s measures varied from time to time and place to place; but over the long run, by wagon, boat, mules, and backpacks, most books made it safely to their destination.  The slump in the economy probably did more to stifle the trade than the efforts of the police.

3.     Literary Demand as Seen by a Small Bookseller

Along with lamentations about the state of the economy and variations in the rigor of government surveillance, Malherbe filled his letters with remarks about the demand for books.  His observations do not carry as much weight as those of veteran booksellers, because he did not operate a shop and did not sell books directly to consumers.  He probably got much of his information from the peddlers he supplied, and they tended to deal in the most illegal varieties of literature.  Yet Malherbe seemed to know his way around the market very well, and he also had informants in Paris, including a relative, Jacques-Henri Meister, the friend and collaborator of Diderot.  Before their falling out, the STN even solicited his advice about what books to pirate.  He recommended works of the philosophes and libertine literature: “On parle d’une brochure nouvelle de M. de Condorcet.  Il y a une edition des comédies gaillardes en deux volumes octavo qui est bien mieux que celle que j’ai eu de chez vous.  Les Tableaux des saints mystères ou Christianisme dévoilé sont recherchés. »

Although  Malherbe’s early letters suggested that he concentrated on the market for Protestant books, he changed his tune by 1775: “Les nouveaux ouvrages de M. Voltaire seront sûrement bien demandés….Quant aux sermons, le débit n’en est pas grand.  Les livres de dévotion sont communs et la dévotion très refroidie. »    Many letters registered strong demand for the political libels that attacked Louis XV and his ministers, especially chancellor R. N. C. A. de Maupeou, who had provoked an explosion of hostile public opinion by destroying the political power of the parlements in 1771.  Although most of this literature appeared after Louis XVI ascended the throne in May, 1774, the authorities treated it as seditious and did their best to repress it.  On November 4, 1775, Malherbe wrote that a new edition of Journal historique de la révolution opérée dans la constitution de la monarchie française par M. de Maupeou, chancelier de France was sure to sell well.  His customers frequently asked for similar works, which combined political protest with scandalous reportage, notably Maupeouana, ou correspondance secrète et familière du chancelier de Maupeou and Le Gazetier cuirassé, ou anecdotes scandaleuses de la cour de France

In reporting on requests from his customers, Malherbe also noted books that did not sell well—for example, Le Partage de la Pologne by Theophilus Lindsey, Histoire générale de l’Asie, de l’Afrique, et de l’Amérique by P.-J.-A. Roubaud,   and (even though he ordered it on three occasions) Les Loisirs du chevalier d’Eon.  Sometimes customers wanted a book whose title was new to him.  In such cases, he would ask for information from the STN or request a small number of copies to see whether it would generate demand.  When he first heard about the anonymous Lettres chinoises, indiennes et tartars, which were actually by Voltaire, he wrote, “Je ne connais pas les Lettres chinoises.  Est-ce différent de celles du marquis d’Argens [i.e. d’Argens’s Lettres chinoises, ou correspondance philosophique, historique et critique entre un chinois voyageur à Paris et ses correspondants à la Chine, en Moscovie, en Perse et au Japon] ?  Alors 3 à 4 d’essai. »  He reacted to word about Le Paysan perverti by N.-E. Restif de la Bretonne in a similar manner: “Je ne le connais pas, mais il m’a été demandé. »  

Aside from assessing the demand for individual titles, Malherbe developed a sense of what genres were most popular.  In December, 1776, he wanted “quelques bons ouvrages écrits depuis 8 à 10 ans sur l’économie politique.”  In November 1779, he noted that the demand for books by the philosophes had continued to hold up, accompanied incongruously with works on black magic: “Auriez-vous Politique naturelle [an anonymous tract from the circle of d’Holbach], oeuvres de Fréret, Boulanger, Helvétius, Shaftesbury édition d’Hollande, Véritable secret du Petit Albert éprouvé dans plusieurs villes et villlages avec appellation et conjuration, Le Dragon rouge, Grand grimoire, Agrippa, Enchéridion—sots livres, mais demandés. »  Books about black magic often circulated in the same bales as those with works of the Enlightenment, all of them equally illegal.  The market for libels related to the Maupeou crisis remained strong into the 1780s, judging from remarks scattered through Malherbe’s letters.  By the end of 1781, he detected a decline in the sales of books by Voltaire, but all signs seemed negative to him at that point.  He found it difficult to sell off the large stock of cut-rate “livres philosophiques” that he had bought from the STN: “Ce genre n’a plus une vogue bien courante.”  Consolation was only to be had in the continued demand for sex books: “La galanterie va encore un peu.”

Malherbe’s comments on literary demand sound similar to those of established booksellers.  They all had the same sources of information, most of it transmitted through the trade grapevine—that is, commercial correspondence, visits from sales reps, and gossip picked up on travels.  What set Malherbe apart from the others was the fact that he had no retail outlet, except for religious works, which he sold to the Huguenots of his region.  The great majority of his sales went to other middlemen, primarily peddlers.  They planned their itineraries so that they could stock up in Loudun, fill their wagons with as much as they could buy with promissory notes or down payments in cash, and drive off through the Loire Valley and adjoining areas, hawking their wares wherever they could find customers.  (For further information on peddlers and their trade, see the essay on Noël Gilles, one of Malherbe’s clients, which also appears under Loudun in this website.)  Exactly who those customers were is impossible to determine.  Some of the peddlers who bought supplies from Malherbe tried to order books directly from the STN, but they did not mention their clients in their badly-scribbled letters.  The only tendency that stands out from the available documentation is that peddlers—at least the marchand forain variety—dealt heavily in forbidden books.

Thus the statistics based on Malherbe’s orders with the STN have a distinct character. They are also quite exhaustive, because until 1785, as Malherbe emphasized in his letters, he acquired all of his supplies from the STN and from its former partner, Samuel Fauche, who ran a similar publishing-wholesaling business in Neuchâtel after he left the STN in 1773.  Therefore, the statistics provide a broad view of a particular stage in the diffusion of literature—the intermediate phase in which a middleman channeled books to obscure retailers who sold them in the capillary networks of the trade.  (To avoid distortion, the statistics entered on this website cover only Maleherbe’s own orders, not those that he passed on to the STN for peddlers like Blaizot, Planquais, and Gilles; nor do they included his large order of February, 1779, which did not express current demand but rather was a one-off deal done at a discount when the STN was trying to clear old stock from its warehouse.) 

Aside from Protestant editions of the Bible, the psalms, and liturgical works, the top “best-sellers” among the books Malherbe ordered most often were political libels aimed at the most prominent personages from the last years of Louis XV’s reign: Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry and Mémoires de l’abbé Terray.  Further down the list came the seven-volume Journal historique de la revolution opérée dans la constitution de la monarchie française par M. de Maupeou.  The « best-sellers » also included some materialistic philosophy (d’Holbach’s Système de la nature, Helvétius’s De l’homme), some anticlerical fiction (La Pucelle d’Orléans by Voltaire, Le Compère Mathieu by Henri-Joseph du Laurens), some bawdy poetry (Recueil de comédies et de quelques chansons gaillardes, an anonymous anthology), and the erotic, autobiographical novel by Nicolas-Edme Restif de la Bretonne, Le Paysan perverti ou les dangers de la ville.

Malherbe’s proclivity for the varieties of illegal literature sold under the rubric “livres philosophiques” should not obscure the fact that he also ordered many perfectly legal books, although they came in pirated editions.  Among works in light fiction, he favored the frothy plays and poetry of Claude-Joseph Dorat and the sentimental, bucolic writings of Salomon Gessner, translated into French.  He requested a total of 127 copies of Claude-François-Xavier Millot’s Eléments d’histoire générale ancienne et modern, a 15-volume survey of Western history, and he ordered it repeatedly—eight times between 1775 and 1785.  The repetition of orders is especially revealing, because it indicates sustained demand.  Malherbe sent in five separate orders for the 20-volume Histoire de France by Paul-François Velly.  He ordered Jacques-Christophe Valmont de Bomare’s 12-volume Dictionnaire raisonné universel d’histoire naturelle eight times.  And he sent four orders for a 6-volume edition of Montesquieu’s works.  The overall pattern suggests that the public served by Malherbe’s peddlers wanted substantial, serious literature along with a spicy assortment of scandalous and irreligious books.  It may not be typical of the demand registered by official booksellers with shops on main streets, but it shows how extensively radical and secular works penetrated the smallest channels of the book trade.