A Literary Tour de France

Both as a printer-publisher and as a bookseller, Jean Mossy dominated the book trade in Marseille.  One can catch glimpses of him as a human being—cautious, crafty, garrulous, tough—in his letters to the STN.  But they were business letters; and whether or not they can be taken as an accurate expression of his character, they provide a rich running commentary on business conditions.   Marseille funneled the flow of books from northern Europe to the Mediterranean.  It drew so heavily on the cheap, pirated editions available from Switzerland, Lyon, and Avignon that it never developed much of a publishing industry of its own.  It lived by trade, and Mossy chronicled the trade in books as the city’s fortunes waxed and waned during the last two decades of the Ancien Régime. 

Spoiler: Highlight to view

In one of his first and most loquacious letters, dated December 25, 1771, Mossy parried a proposal by the STN to establish relations.  It had claimed that it could undersell his French suppliers, because it charged a standard price of only one sou per sheet.  Thus a typical octavo of 20 sheets (320 pages) composed in cicéro (pica) would cost only one livre to him as a wholesaler—and as the French government had just levied a tax on paper of 20 sous per ream (500 sheets), the STN’s books, which were printed on paper manufactured outside France, were an unbeatable bargain.  In reply, Mossy noted that to offset that unfair advantage in the cost of paper, the government had also begun to tax the imports of foreign books at a very expensive rate: 60 livres per quintal (hundredweight).  In any case, he said rather grandly, he would not enter into a discussion about such fiscal considerations, because he was, first and foremost, a patriot: “…Je ne vous cacherai pas que je suis bon Français et que j’aime ma patrie, que je n’aime guère à favoriser les entreprises qui peuvent nuire à mes compatriotes. » 

This was sheer palaver.  Mossy went on to congratulate the STN for its astute decision to pirate a French edition of Bougainville’s Voyage autour du monde, and in later letters, he revealed that he traded extensively with foreign pirates, including Swiss houses in Geneva, Yverdon, and Bern  The real difficulty, he explained, was that he based his relations with other publishers on exchanges.  By swapping sheets with them, he acquired what he needed for the general stock (assortiment) of his shop.  He did not have a huge retail trade, and he did not like to part with cash; so if the STN insisted on selling him its works instead of trading them in exchange for his, he could not deal with them.  True, the book duty threatened to cut off all trade between French booksellers and their foreign suppliers:

Mais que puis-je y faire?  Si ce n’est que soupirer.  D’un côté l’impôt que l’on a mis sur la matière première de notre fabrication a exigé du moins que nous ne perdissions pas toute la consommation intérieure et extérieure; et dans les grands maux il faut quelquefois des remèdes qui dérangent la machine mais qui conservent du moins le malade….Vous voulez imprimer et vendre tout de suite.  C’est la meilleure façon, mais en France nous ne saurions faire de même.  Chacun a ses privilèges, et pour vendre, il faut nous assortir.  Nous le faisons par le moyen des échanges, et il y a apparence que ce n’est pas là votre genre. (Dec. 25, 1771)

In fact, the STN relied on the exchange system in exactly the same way as Mossy did, but it usually swapped sheets with allied publishers in Switzerland.  Exchanges with Marseille could incur heavy transport costs, although the STN eventually did do some exchanging with Mossy, who probably built up most of his stock by exchanges with the pirates in nearby Avignon.  When he purchased books from the STN, he supplemented this stock of livres d’assortiment with works that he thought would appeal to his local customers, but he did not order them in large quantities.  Like other well-established booksellers, he asked only for a few copies of each work and included a large enough quantity of different works to make up a considerable bale, thereby saving on the shipping charges.  In some cases, he arranged in advance to sell the books to his clients before ordering them.  Above all, he avoided risks: “Pour ce qui est des articles nouveaux, j’y vais doucement.  Tous ne réussissent pas, et excepté de les connaître, je ne saurais en prendre de nombre.  Je tâtonne, et je m’en trouve bien.  Les temps d’ailleurs, surtout dans cette ville, sont un peu scabreux, et il faut aller doucement par force. » (Nov. 21, 1774)

This cautious strategy was typical of the dealers that Favarger put down in his diary as “solide.”   Yet Marseilles, the third largest city in France, enjoyed an enormous trade in all kinds of commodities, and Mossy, the most important bookseller in the city, could have ordered books in great quantity.  He had established his own printing shop in 1768, despite the efforts of the other printers to prevent him from breaking into their ranks.  There were only three of them, and Mossy persuaded the authorities that Marseille was entitled to six masterships, according to an edict of 1704.  By 1771 he employed 60 persons in the combined bookshop and printing shop that he had established in Marseille’s arsenal [Marseille, Archives municipals, FF 208-9].  Unlike the other printers, who limited their production to religious and administrative ephemera (“petits ouvrages casuels,” according to the survey of 1764, which emphasized the underdeveloped nature of publishing in Marseille), he produced books and a commercial journal, the Affiches de Marseille, which he replaced in 1781 with a more ambitious periodical, Journal de Provence.  He also ran a “bureau de recette” where customers could subscribe to other journals, and he acted as a wholesaler, providing supplies to the smaller bookshops in Marseille and the surrounding area.  By combining roles as a printer, publisher, and bookseller, he had become the wealthiest and most powerful figure in the book trade  throughout the entire province. 

Judging from the two surviving professional directories, the trade might seem to be flourishing: the Almanach de la librairie for 1777 listed 19 booksellers in Marseille, and the almanac for 1781 listed 14.  But as the fluctuation of the numbers suggests, most of those retailers ran modest, marginal businesses.  According to the survey of 1764, “Leur réputation est assez bonne, leurs facultés très minces.”  Favarger confirmed this view.  When he made the rounds of the bookshops, he found few possibilities for extending the STN’s commerce.  His report to the STN provides a good example of how a sales rep took stock of the trade in a provincial center, consulting various informants, assessing wealth and reputations, determining the character of each bookseller’s business, checking supply lines, and collecting information about the severity of the local authorities.  It deserves to be quoted at length:

Allemand est un jeune homme dont le père a remis le fonds, mais qui, à ce qu’il paraît, en fait un mauvais usage.  On ne conseille pas de rien faire avec lui.  Boyer n’existe plus, s’est sauvé en Amérique.  Abert, Chambon, Paris.  Trois personnages à qui l’on ne confierait pas 5 sous.  Je ne les ai pas vus.  Roulet est très médiocre.   Remis un catalogue, etc.  Il m’a dit que s’il faisait quelque chose, ce serait au comptant.  Taine est bon, mais il ne tient de boutique qu’un cabinet littéraire et pour s’assortir il prendra chez nous, mais ce sera toujours fort peu de chose, ne faisant rien en gros.  Isnar est fort bon.  C’est lui qui protège les balles à leur passage ici des Genevois et Lausannois.  Il m’a promis la même protection pour les nôtres.  Il dit qu’il en voit beaucoup qui viennent par Nice et sur mer jusques ici, que lorsqu’elles prennent cette route elles peuvent plus facilement éviter la Chambre syndicale d’ici dont l’inspecteur est très mauvais, un de ces hommes qui pour se faire un plat mangerait son frère.  MM. Bugot me l’ont dépeint dans ce goût aussi.  Nous pouvons donc dans l’occasion réclamer les bons offices de M. Isnar.  Je lui ai remis un catalogue, etc.  Mais il ne fait plus guère en livres; cependant pour lui aider à écouler son fonds dont il cherche de se défaire, il choisira, dit-il, un petit assortiment sur notre catalogue.

The STN had already entered into relations with one of these marginal dealers, Caldesaigues, who had gone bankrupt and fled, like Boyer, in order to escape debtors prison (see his dossier on this website.)  Favarger concluded that there were only two booksellers with whom the STN could do business in Marseille: Mossy and Sube & Laporte—and in fact, after the disappearance of Caldesaigues, it limited its trade to Mossy.

          Why was Marseille such a relatively weak market for books—so much weaker, for example, than Besançon and Rouen, which had much smaller populations?  One can only speculate, but a crucial factor might have been the city’s rather thin infrastructure of administrative and legal institutions.  Provincial capitals like Besançon and Rouen had parlements, intendancies, and all sorts of official bodies, which supported the well-educated professional classes.  Unlike nearby Aix-en-Provence, whose parlement and administrative offices attracted much of the province’s legal business, Marseille remained a commercial center attached above all to its port.  Of course, the merchants and manufacturers of Marseille were perfectly literate, but were they avid book buyers?  Unfortunately, booksellers rarely identified their customers in their letters.  When they did—in exceptional cases such as references to subscribers to the Encyclopédie (see “The Encyclopédie Wars of Prerevolutionary France” on this website)—they mentioned far more lawyers, doctors, administrative officials, and priests than businessmen.  But the evidence is too thin to support general conclusions about the demand for literature in the commercial and industrial bourgeoisie.  Moreover, the dossier of Caldesaigues includes a few shards of information, which suggest that at least some merchants in Marseille spent significant sums on books.  Before he abandoned his business, Caldesaigues collected many subscriptions to the Encyclopédie, and he identified twelve of the subscribers in his letters to the STN.  They included an infantry captain, a broker (“courtier”), a tradesman (“marchand”), and eight merchants (“négociants”).

          If ever a city had a strong identity, it was Marseille.  Long before the rest of France was captivated by the films of Marcel Pagnol and tales of criminal derring-do, descriptions of Marseille stressed the supposedly volatile character of its citizens—their fiery temperament, love of pleasure, loquacity, and willingness to play fast and loose with the law.  (see the description from 1789 by Jacques-Antoine Dulaure cited in the “research background” documents attached to this website)  Those may be nothing more than clichés, but Mossy himself remarked on the character of his customers: “…Vous n’ignorez peut-être pas que le public, surtout le Provençal qui est tout feu, est d’une impatience extraordinaire….”  They wanted quick service, the latest works, spicy nouveautés.  One might expect, therefore, that Mossy did a large trade in forbidden books.  They sold well in Marseille, according to the book-trade survey of 1764, which deplored the profusion of works “…qui sont égalemment pernicieuses à la religion et aux bonnes moeurs, et qui produisent une licence effrénée dans les opinions. »  Marginal booksellers such as Caldesaigues speculated heavily in this sector of the trade. But Mossy did not. 

To be sure, when he saw an opportunity to sell some hot items from the underground trade, he seized it; but only if he did not run the slightest risk.  In 1774, when radical works began to appear about the political crisis during the last years of Louis XV’s reign, he ordered a certain number, insisting that the STN clear them through the chambre syndicale of Lyon, where the danger was greatest.  Espion anglais, ou Correspondance secrète entre mylord All’eye et milord All’ear figured near the top of the list of the books he most often ordered.  So did Mercier’s Tableau de Paris.  Mossy ordered 40 copies of it as soon as he heard that it had been confiscated in a raid on a Parisian bookshop: “…Cela lui donne quelque vente par ici.” (June 29, 1781)  When nouveautés hit the market, he snapped them up, provided he felt certain that he could sell them rapidly.  If he could not get them quickly, he would not order them, even if they came from the pen of Voltaire.  In fact, like many booksellers, Mossy deplored the profusion of Voltaire’s works, which were constantly pirated and cobbled together in ways to make them seem newer than they actually were:

La science de notre commerce, c’est de ne pas se surcharger et de déboucher.  Quand on prend pour le simple détail, il faut surtout faire attention aux nouveautés qui, ne formant que d’ouvrages qui n’ont qu’un temps, tout autant qu’il en reste, c’est tout autant de perdu.  Les nouveautés de M. de Voltaire, excepté dans la plus grande nouveauté, ne se vendent pas, parce que l’on en fait à tout instant d’éditions sur éditions. On y joint deux ou trois pièces, et les premiers restent dans un coin. (Oct. 30, 1776)

In short, Mossy conducted his trade according to an explicit strategy based on two principles: adhere as closely as possible to demand and avoid risks.  He never ordered more books than he expected to sell: “…Il faut que je me règle sur la vente.” (June 29, 1781)   Instead of taking chances with a large order, he would ask for a few copies of a book and then, if it sold well, order more:

Vous me parlez de quelques articles nouveaux.  Il est nécessaire de les connaître un peu pour s’engager à en faire provision.  Si la prudence ne conduit pas nos opérations, nous nous trouvons étranglés.  Quand on connaît la valeur d’un article, qu’on en voit à peu près le succès, pour lors on s’y abandonne.  Mais ne soyez pas surpris si je ne donne pas dans toute proposition.  J’aime mieux à y revenir. (Aug. 4, 1777)

Remarks of this sort might seem obvious: isn’t all commerce an effort to match supply and demand as closely as possible?  But few booksellers observed this principle as assiduously as Mossy, for they often over-estimated potential sales, and their miscalculations led to requests for deferring payments of bills of exchange.  Mossy always paid his bills on time.  He also expanded and contracted his orders according to circumstances, both economic and political.  And because he accompanied the orders with so much shop talk—unlike most booksellers, who kept their correspondence terse—his letters provide a rich vein of information about the changing conditions of the trade. 

          The first series of letters emphasized the problems of coping with the import duty on books and the need to set up effective supply lines.  By mid-1775, the duty had been rescinded, and the STN had engaged an effective shipping agent to clear its bales through the chambre syndicale of Lyon.  In 1777 Mossy hired an agent of his own, Roubert frères, to get them to his shop in Marseille without running into difficulties with the authorities.  The main route, which went from Neuchâtel to Pontarlier, Lyon, and Marseille, then functioned reasonably well, although shipments sometimes took more than two months and cost more than 15 percent of the value of the merchandise.  At the end of 1776, however, Pierre Durand, the official described by Favarger as fiercely repressive, assumed the position of inspecteur de la librairie.  Mossy later attributed some of his ferocity to an attempt by the government to stamp out piracy by new regulations on the book trade issued on August 30, 1777.  Acknowledging that provincial booksellers depended heavily on pirated works, which they acquired for the most part from foreign publishers, the government permitted them to sell off their current stock, provided that they had the pirated books stamped by an inspecteur.  After a grace period long enough for the estampillage to take place, the government announced that it would confiscate all unstamped pirated works with the greatest severity; and it created several new chambres syndicales along with inspecteurs to enforce its will throughout the kingdom.           

          The new regulations did not go into effect in Marseille and most other cities until the spring of 1778.  Mossy suspended all orders from his foreign suppliers in March and warned the STN that they could not renew trade for the foreseeable future, owing to the severity of Durand:

Nous avons ici un inspecteur qui est difficile et un des plus rigides de toute la France.  Les balles sont épluchées de sorte que j’ai résolu de suspendre toute demande jusqu’à ce que ce premier feu soit passé.  J’ai été dans le cas de faire estampiller mes livres contrefaits.  Je suis même au milieu de cette opération.  J’ai tous les jours l’inspecteur chez moi.  Jugez si c’est un temps propice.  (June 29, 1778)

Despite strenuous efforts to rebuild its contraband routes, the STN did not resume shipments to Mossy for a year—and even then, he reduced his orders, because the book trade suffered badly from the economic downturn produced by the American war.  Mossy reported that his customers among the small retailers of the region were unable to pay their bills on time, and he worried about his own exposure to events far away: he had 40,000 livres invested in the Caribbean.

          The campaign against piracy continued with such rigor that Mossy feared his correspondence was being intercepted or might be confiscated in a raid on his shop.  Therefore, in February 1782 he resorted to a trick used fairly often in the book trade: he sent a lettre ostensible or fake letter, ordering the STN to cease all shipments of works that could not pass openly through the chambre syndicale.  He kept a copy of it in his files as evidence of his respect for government regulations, and he explained the maneuver in a confidential letter sent by a safe route.  He also instructed the STN to say in its next letter that it used him only as a shipping agent to forward books to its Italian customers, and he sent the names and addresses of several Italian booksellers that the STN should mention in order to make its own lettre ostensible convincing.  

          Mossy relied on this subterfuge for more than a year.  He insisted that the STN take great care in the phrasing of its letters and that it send its shipments to him as if they were meant for Gravier of Genoa or Bouchard of Rome.  As he relied on Rosset to get the bales to him from the port in Marseille, his main concern was Lyon.  But the STN had agreed to cover the risks in that stage of the distribution system.  It relied mainly on Jacques Revol, a seasoned smuggler, who earned Mossy’s respect, although confiscations of several bales in the Lyon chambre syndicale had made Revol look suspicious to the Lyonnais authorities. 

As these arrangements began to function and the bales arrived safely, the tone of Mossy’s letters became more confidential.  He ordered only books that he felt sure his customers would buy, but he had tastes of his own, and he did not hesitate to pronounce on the quality of the works that appeared on the market, especially if he disliked them.  He felt nothing but scorn for an edition of the works of Alexis Piron: “Je pense que le nom de l’auteur a plus fait de sensation que l’ouvrage lui-même, rempli de fadaises. » (August 4, 1777)  He dismissed a botched edition of Bayle’s Dictionnaire as a « maussade rapsodie.” (July 10, 1776)  And although he bought a fair number of the libels against Louis XV and his mistresses, he had a low opinion of some of them.  The Mémoires authentiques de Mme la comtesse du Barry, he proclaimed, “…est encore un ouvrage qui sûrement ne valait pas la peine d’être imprimé.” (October 30, 1776) 

The authors who interested Mossy most were those most in the public eye on the eve of the Revolution, largely because they had been persecuted by the authorities.  He may have collected information about them for the sheer love of gossip, but gathering information through the professional grapevine was an important aspect of the bookseller’s business.  Mossy often asked the STN for reports about Raynal, Mercier, and “le trop fameux Linguet.” (June 29, 1778)  After Rousseau’s death in 1778, the talk in the trade was all about the possible existence of the Confessions.  Mossy wanted to be among the first to get their hands on them: “On nous parle beaucoup de [la] suite des oeuvres de J.J. Rousseau…Ce sont des mémoires de sa vie dont on parle.  On assure même que cela est sous presse en Suisse.  On pourrait bien en prendre un nombre. » (April 12, 1779)  

Mossy probably procured the Confessions from the Société typographique de Genève, which published the first posthumous edition of Rousseau’s works.  But the list of the books that he ordered most frequently shows that they included many by the other authors that he mentioned: Raynal (Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements des Européens dans les deux Indes, a great best-seller, especially after its condemnation in 1781), Linguet (Mémoires sur la Bastille), and Mercier (Tableau de Paris, L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante, and Mon Bonnet de nuit).  The list also contains some utilitarian works: a Latin-French dictionary, a textbook on German, and Traité des maladies vénériennes, along with a few classics (Fables de la Fontaine, Lettres de Mme de Sévigné), and several sentimental novels (Cécilia ou Mémoire d’une héritière by Fanny Burney, Les Aventures de l’infortuné Napolitain by the abbé Olivier, and Sterne’s Voyage sentimental). By following the market closely, Mossy trimmed his orders to suit what the public wanted.  Of course, he procured other works from other publishers, although he noted that he sometimes ordered the same works from several Swiss houses, presumably to be sure of receiving an adequate supply on time.  All in all, everything one can learn about his way of doing business indicates that his orders provide a fairly reliable index to literary demand in Marseille.    

Literature, however, was overshadowed by current events, especially the American war, according to Mossy’s remarks about the temper of the public in Marseille:  “On ne songe qu’à la politique.” (June 14, 1782)  When at last the war came to an end, he expected business to pick up, but he was disappointed.  Throughout the 1780s he continued to complain about hard times.  He tried to take advantage of the public’s increased interest in America by publishing a Traité general du commerce de l’Amérique and arranged to exchange 50 copies of it for a selection of works from the STN’s stock.  But when the STN began selling it to its own customers, it received complaints that the book had already appeared under a different title, Essai sur le commerce de l’Amérique.  Publishing old works under new titles was a well-known trick of the trade among eighteenth-century publishers.  After receiving an angry letter from the STN, Mossy prevaricated, protested about worse “tripotage” among Swiss houses, and finally admitted that his product might not have been “tout à fait nouveau.”  He reduced the value of his share of the exchange in the hope that they would remain “bons amis.” (June 18, 1784)

By the time they had patched up this quarrel, Mossy and the STN had to cope with another difficulty, which ultimately led to the end of their commercial relations.  On June 12, 1783, the French government issued an order requiring that all imports of books be sent for inspection to the chambre syndicale of Paris before being forwarded to their final destination, wherever it might be.  As soon as he learned of this measure, Mossy warned the STN about the new danger and noted its perplexing character.  Regulations of the book trade normally came from the Direction de la librairie, but the order of June 12 was issued by the ministry of foreign affairs and directed to the Ferme générale (the corporation for collecting indirect taxes, which handled customs at border stations).   What were the authorities up to?  Because Mossy had an extensive correspondence and worked hard to keep himself informed about the innermost operations of the industry, he eventually determined that the government meant to stamp out the trade in highly illegal works, not merely pirated books, and that it did not trust the provincial chambres syndicales to do the job.  The order from the foreign ministry threatened to close off the STN’s route to Marseille via Lyon and to cripple its shipments everywhere in France with excessive transport costs. 

Faced with this catastrophe, the STN fell back on the more expensive route via Turin and Nice, and it agreed to cover the costs as far as Turin, where Mossy had a trustworthy agent.  He was especially eager to receive the forbidden books that then were selling best, Raynal’s Histoire philosophiques, Linguet’s Mémoires sur la Bastille, Mercier’s Tableau de Paris, and the anonymous libel entitled Espion anglais.  The STN managed to get a few bales to him in 1784, but the Turin route took too long and cost too much.  In December 1785 he reported that the agents of the Ferme générale were confiscating all shipments of books that came through Nice.  If the STN wanted to continue their trade, it would have to get its goods through Lyon, from which point they could be sent safely as domestic shipments, provided they had made it past the Lyonnais chambre syndicale.  But the STN failed to make the necessary smuggling arrangements, and it ceased corresponding with Mossy after February 1786.  His last letters showed that he was still king of the roost in Marseille, still buying books from other foreign suppliers, but had become pessimistic about the future of the trade: “Nous ne savons que trop que le commerce est gêné à un point extraordinaire, et nous ne doutons nullement que dans dix ans tous les libraires détaillants ne soient ruinés.”