A Literary Tour de France

The STN hired a succession of shipping agents (commissionnaires) to get its books through Lyon, where they had to undergo inspection by officials in the headquarters (chambre syndicale) of the local booksellers’ guild.  Most of the agents, such as Claudet frères, also handled smuggling, which usually involved persuading the inspectors, with the help of bribes, not to notice pirated and forbidden books hidden in the packing or larded between the sheets of legal works.  Occasionally, however, the agents had to take more elaborate measures.  Revol perfected the more audacious techniques of smuggling, which he described in detail in his letters to the STN.

Spoiler: Highlight to view

Before venturing into the bookshops of Lyon, Favarger carefully studied the instructions written in his diary by the directors of the STN, because he knew that he would have to negotiate with some of the toughest customers in the publishing industry.  Lyon was difficult territory.  The second largest city in France and a great center of the book trade since the Middle Ages, it had a large population of people who lived from the printed word—publishers, printers, booksellers, binders, peddlers, type founders, paper merchants, shipping agents, smugglers, and adventurers of all varieties.  Plots and sub-plots were always brewing among these entrepreneurs, and in July, 1778, several imbroglios were threatening to boil over. 

The distinguishing feature of the book trade in Lyon was piracy.  The city served as a funnel for the cheap, pirated editions that Swiss publishers aimed at markets everywhere in France.  Books had poured through the main route between Geneva and Lyon since the early sixteenth century.  New presses in Lausanne, Yverdon, and Neuchâtel greatly increased the flow during the eighteenth century.  Publishers in Bern and Basel usually concentrated on northern routes, and the STN also tried, occasionally with success, to open up a northwest passage through Besançon and Dijon to Paris.  But Lyon remained its most important outlet to the French markets.  Not only did Lyon offer excellent communications by roads and rivers, but it also provided expert middlemen who facilitated commerce, especially in pirated books.

 A few distinguished bookseller-publishers dominated the legal market in Lyon; but all sorts of entrepreneurs battened onto the clandestine trade.  They competed fiercely among themselves, made and unmade alliances, and continuously devised tactics to adapt to changing conditions—for they had to cope with shifts in the economy (Lyon was a great center for negotiating bills of exchange) and in regulations issued by the government (especially the edicts of August 30, 1777, which were intended to destroy the trade in pirated works).  While sparring with one another at home, they often united against a common outside enemy: the booksellers’ guild in Paris.  The guild had established a virtual monopoly of the publishing industry at the expense of its provincial rivals during the seventeenth century.  Backed by the centralizing policies of the monarchy under Louis XIV, the Parisians bought up most book privileges, collaborated with the state in policing the trade, reduced provincial printing largely to local and ephemeral productions, and dominated much of the national market through networks of client retailers.  The boom in the business of foreign publishers like the STN resulted from the imbalance of the industry within France, for the foreign houses specialized in pirating the books turned out in Paris—and in producing works that could not pass the censorship, which was also located in Paris at the heart of the legal trade.  The foreigners could undersell the Parisians with cheap contrefaçons.  They were natural allies of the provincial booksellers, and they extended their alliances deep into the French economy, especially from centers like Lyon and Rouen. 

Yet the history of publishing under the Ancien Régime cannot be reduced to the opposition of the Parisians and their clients on one side and the provincials and their foreign suppliers on the other.  Booksellers took advantage of whatever opportunities came their way.  Some Parisian dealers, especially on the margins of the trade, secretly ordered illegal books from the Low Countries and Switzerland.  Some provincial firms produced pirated editions of their own, underselling the foreign suppliers.   Alliances and alignments were constantly coming apart and coalescing into new patterns.  As businessmen went, the Lyonnais were especially astute, but they needed to be watched carefully.

The directors of the STN had dealt with Lyon’s booksellers for many years, both by trading with them and by visiting them in their shops.  As preparation for a business trip in 1773, Jean-Elie Bertrand, the son-in-law and partner of the STN’s main director, Frédéric-Samuel Ostervald, described their characters in a series of thumbnail sketches, which he entered in a travel diary very similar to Favarger’s.  Some of the booksellers were inscrutable, like J. M. Bruysset, “homme froid et habile.”  Some were pretentious: “Les frères Périsse, gens d’esprit se piquant de littérature.”  A few were hostile: “Bruysset-Ponthus sera un des derniers à se lier avec nous.”  Most seemed sharp, but one or two neglected their business, as in the case of Bernard Flandin: “Il faudra lui tenir pied en boule, car c’est un grand paresseux.”  They might have airs, like J. M. Barret: “Il me paraît blasé”—or they might be masquerading as someone more important than they really were, such as Cellier: “C’est un simple loueur de livres qui s’est fait passer pour libraire.”  Many could not be trusted and should not be given sensitive information; thus Claude-Marie Jacquenod, père et fils: “Une simple visite, traiter légèrement avec eux.”  They abused confidences, hid the true state of their affairs, and canceled debts by staging bankruptcies in the manner of Veuve Réguillat et fils: “Ne lui parler que selon l’avis de M. Boy de La Tour [a Lyonnais merchant who represented the STN in the settlement of Réguillat’s bankruptcy in 1771].”

How was Favarger to negotiate a way through this complex human topography?  Before setting out on his rounds, he read and reread the instructions from the directors of the STN that he had entered at the beginning of his diary. In the first letter that he received from them in Lyon, they emphasized the importance of careful preparation: “Relisez bien toutes vos notes pour Lyon avant de faire aucune visite, afin d’avoir balle en bouche en traitant, et prenez le temps nécessaire pour toutes les affaires….”  The instructions provided Favarger with directions about how to handle every aspect of his mission, bookseller by bookseller [see the instructions and the text of the diary transcribed on this website].  Two tasks stood out among his many assignments: negotiations related to the STN’s part in the publication of an edition of Diderot’s Encyclopédie in quarto format and arrangements to smuggle books through Lyon’s chambre syndicale.

The trickiest task concerned the speculation on the quarto Encyclopédie and the Lyonnais bookseller who had organized it, Joseph Duplain [See “The Encyclopédie Wars of Prerevolutionary France” on this website].  In 1776, the STN had entered into a partnership to reprint the Encyclopédie with Charles Joseph Panckoucke, a powerful Parisian publisher who had purchased the plates—and therefore, as he construed it, the rights—to the original edition.  By this time, the scandal produced by the Encyclopédie in the 1750s had died down, and Panckoucke had persuaded the French government to permit a new edition.  But Duplain, an audacious and unscrupulous entrepreneur, beat Panckoucke to the market by launching a subscription for a cut-rate, pirated edition, which eventually ran to 36 volumes of text and 3 volumes of plates in quarto format.  At first, Panckoucke planned to exclude the quarto from the French market by mobilizing his protectors in the French government.  But the subscription sold so well that instead of fighting Duplain, Panckoucke and the STN ultimately decided to join him. 

Between 1777 and 1780, the quarto Encyclopédie went through three “editions,” as the publishers called them, although their usage did not conform to modern bibliographical terminology, which would distinguish between editions and “states.”  Duplain began printing at a pressrun of 4,000 copies (actually 4,400 copies or 8 reams and 16 quires per sheet, allowing for “chaperon” or extra sheets to compensate for “défets” or spoilage).  As the subscriptions poured in, he increased the pressrun to 6,000 (actually 6,150, but the publishers used round numbers in their correspondence) and reprinted the sheets that had been completed at the original run: hence, in his language and in the contracts for the printing, two “editions.”  Even then, subscriptions continued to arrive in large numbers.  Therefore, Duplain, Panckoucke, and the STN agreed to publish a “troisième édition” of 2,000 copies (actually 4 reams 15 quires per sheet, or 2,375 copies).  In the end, after allowing for spoilage, the quarto consortium produced 8,011 complete sets.  Having begun as a fly-by-night speculation in piracy, the quarto Encyclopédie turned into a gigantic, million-livre enterprise—the most lucrative, its backers believed, in the entire history of publishing. 

The demand for Encyclopédies remained so strong that two Lyonnais publishers, Jean Marie Barret and Joseph Sulpice Grabit, who were cut from the same cloth as Duplain, decided to pirate his pirated edition early in 1778.  To prove they were in earnest, they printed six sheets (48 pages in-quarto) at a pressrun of 2,000 and told Duplain it would cost 27,000 livres to get them to stop.  That was an enormous sum—the equivalent of a lifetime’s wages for one of their printers—but after a great deal of agonizing, Duplain agreed to pay it.  The three pirates signed a formal non-aggression pact; Barret and Grabit delivered the printed sheets; and Duplain came up with the ransom.  It was an extraordinary coup, even by Lyonnais standards; but as Panckoucke later remarked (he and the STN had to approve of the deal in their capacity as Duplain’s partners), “Quand on ne peut détruire les corsaires, la bonne politique veut qu’on compose avec eux.”

At the same time, two pirate publishers from Lausanne and Bern launched a similar attack.  They attempted to raid the French market with a cheap reprint of the quarto text in an octavo format—that is, once again, to pirate a pirated edition, although Panckoucke’s hold on the rights to the original Encyclopédie conveyed a certain legitimacy to the quarto, which the French government openly tolerated.  An Encyclopédie war broke out between the quarto and octavo groups while Favarger traveled around France.  He sold subscriptions to the quarto and did his best to undermine the octavo wherever he went.  At his first stop, in Pontarlier, he discovered how the octavo publishers were smuggling their shipments across the border.  That information proved crucial, because as soon as he received it, Panckoucke alerted the French authorities, and they confiscated enough bales to destroy the profit margin of the octavo Encyclopédie and to discourage French readers from subscribing to it.  The octavo publishers withdrew from the French market in 1779, survived by satisfying the demand for cheap Encyclopédies in the rest of Europe, and finally made peace with the quarto group by an agreement signed in January, 1780.

While fighting off external enemies, Panckoucke and the STN worried most of all about treason within the ranks of their own consortium, which grew to include Clément Plomteux, an important publisher from Liège, because Duplain’s activities looked increasingly suspicious.  He ran the entire enterprise, keeping most of it secret and refusing to give full reports of his accounts.  His partners began following leads that suggested they were being swindled on an enormous scale.  After a great deal of detective work and a succession of imbroglios, they came up with proof that he had embezzled at least 48,000 livres.  They confronted him with the evidence in January, 1780 at a meeting in Lyon, which turned into a final settlement of accounts.  Duplain put up a fierce resistance, but he ultimately capitulated and agreed to compensate his partners fully, if they would sweep the whole business under the rug, where it has remained until it surfaced in the archives of the STN.

The dénouement of the speculation on the quarto could not be predicted in July, 1778, when Favarger called on Duplain.  At that time, the plots and counter-plots had not yet come to a crisis, but it was clear that a great deal of money was at stake in every twist and turn of the Encyclopédie speculation.  Having followed the whole affair as a clerk in the STN’s office (many manuscripts in its archives are written in his hand), Favarger appreciated the importance of remaining on guard against Duplain’s duplicity; and at the same time he needed to concentrate on the most immediate concern of the STN: its need to win a larger share of the printing operation.  It had doubled the size of its printing shop and had hired 20 new workers in order to produce Encyclopédies on a large scale, but Duplain allotted most of the printing to shops in Geneva, Grenoble, Trévoux, and Lyon, whose combined capacity came to 53 presses.  According to contracts between him and the other quarto partners, he was to draw on the income from the subscriptions in order to job out the printing at specified rates.  He raked off the difference between those rates and the payments he actually made to the printers.    The STN would not work for such low pay, and therefore he refused to subcontract much of the printing to it.  By the time of Favarger’s arrival in Lyon, Duplain had given the STN only three volumes to print, and it had nearly completed its work on the third.  If he refused to give it another volume—a strong possibility considering his profit from the rake-offs—the STN would have to fire its work force and leave its warehouse full of expensive reams of unprinted paper. 

The STN paid for its costs as it accumulated them, expecting to be reimbursed with a profit after it delivered the completed volumes to Lyon.  Yet Duplain hinted in his correspondence that he would refuse to honor the bills of exchange that he had sent for the STN’s printing of its first two volumes and that soon would become due as it neared completion of the third.  As a pretext for refusing, he objected to the quality of the paper used by the STN and delays in its shipping.  He haggled and drove bargains at every step, because every volume in the three, 36-volume “editions” raised opportunities for shaving costs and outright peculation.  Favarger could not put a stop to Duplain’s profiteering.  He was only a clerk, not a partner of the STN or an associate in the quarto consortium; but he could help find ways to limit the damage and to increase the profits of his employers.  He had plenty of work cut out for him.   

His first task, according to the instructions in his diary, was to gather information about the general state of the quarto enterprise, for Duplain kept everything so secret that the STN knew little about its actual operation: “Voir M. Joseph Duplain, tâcher de savoir, mais sans témoigner trop de curiosité, à quoi on en est pour l’impression des volumes de l’Encyclopédie quarto, combine de presses y travaillent à Lyon ou ailleurs; si l’on a commencé la troisième édition, à combien on la tire…”  The instructions went on in this fashion at great length.  Favarger was to listen attentively to every word Duplain said without revealing the STN’s anxieties about getting more volumes to print.  Yet he should defend the excellence of its printing, the paper it used, its care in correcting the proofs, and the justice of its general claim to have a large share of the work, as it was one of the partners in the enterprise and had expanded its printing shop expressly to produce the Encyclopédie.

Geared for battle, Favarger walked into Duplain’s headquarters accompanied by Jacques-François d’Arnal, the STN’s banker in Lyon, who handled its financial transactions with Duplain.  D’Arnal was also the son-in-law of one of the STN’s directors, Abraham Bosset de Luze.  He provided important support, having followed the Encyclopédie affair closely.  Of course, Favarger knew it intimately, not only from the instructions he had received but also by helping with the STN’s commercial correspondence.  He had come across letters from Duplain that were openly hostile and nastier in tone than anything it received from its other correspondents.  To his surprise, however, Favarger was given a warm reception.  Duplain seemed downright affable.  He praised the quality of the STN’s most recent printing, and without any prompting he promised to give it another volume to produce at the enlarged pressrun of 6,000 copies.  Even better, he said he would allot it three volumes of the third edition, which he had just begun to produce.  In fact, he announced that he would market this edition under the STN’s name, as if it were the publisher.  (The first two “editions” had appeared under the name of Jean-Léonard Pellet of Geneva, while Duplain remained hidden behind the false address on their title pages.)  By this ploy, Duplain hoped to boost sales, for word had spead  that the Pellet editions were full of faults and inferior paper.  But there were two further considerations. 

First, Duplain had made a disastrous mistake in calculating the size of the quarto sets.  A printing shop foreman had assured him that the seventeen volumes of text in the original folio edition plus the four folio volumes of the Supplément (a separate enterprise published in 1776 and 1777) could be reprinted in 29 quarto volumes.  In fact, they barely fit into 36 volumes.  According to the terms of the subscription, Duplain (hiding behind Pellet as the ostensible publisher) would charge only 344 livres for a set—that is, 10 livres for each of the 29 volumes of text and 18 livres for each of the three volumes of plates.  At 10 livres each, the additional seven volumes of text would raise the price of a set to 414 livres, but Duplain could not violate the limit fixed by the contracts with the subscribers.  He eventually finessed this problem by charging the subscribers for four of the seven extra volumes without offering any explanations.  Then, in the prospectus for the third edition, he announced that the STN would provide 36 volumes for a total cost of 384 livres, the same price as in the first two “editions.”  In this way, he avoided further liability while switching his straw men.

Secondly, Duplain had run into severe cash-flow problems.  He commissioned so much printing that the completed volumes arrived faster than the payments he received from the subscribers.  Most of the subscriptions had been taken out by booksellers, who sold the Encyclopédies to their own customers at a retail price.  But it took time for the booksellers to collect the payments due to them, and they were in no rush to send their own payments to Duplain.  Therefore, he did not have enough cash on hand to redeem the bills of exchange that he had dispatched as payment to the printers.  He had sent the STN two notes for a total of 2,019 livres for its work on volumes 6 and 15 of the first two “editions,” and he was not able or willing to pay for them on the date of their maturity.  He also lacked the cash to pay for the third volume that he had allotted to the STN, volume 24, which it was about to finish.  But he offered a strong argument to persuade it to accept a delay in the payments: he would give it more volumes to print—volume 35 of the first two “editions” and the prospect of producing several volumes off the third, which (and this final flourish served nicely as a clincher to his argument) would appear under its name.   

    Duplain and the STN agreed on this arrangement in letters that they exchanged while Favarger was riding his horse toward Lyon.  So everything had been settled above his head before he appeared in Duplain’s shop.  But after Duplain informed him of the increase in the STN’s share of the printing and the desirability of a false front for the third “edition,” Favarger understood the reason for his surprisingly warm reception.  Duplain was not able to redeem the outstanding bills of exchange.  The additional printing jobs would serve as compensation for the delay in the payments; and the quid pro quo looked quite reasonable, for Duplain stated frankly that he made 1,500 livres in rake offs for every volume that he had printed in Lyon.  Moreover, he argued, the STN, unlike the other printers, was a partner in the enterprise.  Partners should share the burden of adjusting payments to the exigencies of production.  And the STN could fall back on the support of d’Arnal, who was capable of arranging the bills of exchange in his portfolio in such a way as to cover the extension of Duplain’s debt.  After all, d’Arnal was connected to the STN by family ties.

Contrary to what he had expected, therefore, Favarger got on well with the person who later turned out to be the supreme villain of the Encyclopédie story.  Duplain assured him that he had fended off the threat of the pirated quarto edition by Barret and Grabit, and Favarger informed Duplain about his discovery of how the pirates from Lausanne and Bern had smuggled the shipments of their octavo edition into France.  This news delighted Duplain.  “Il faut trémousser,” he exclaimed, when he learned about the maneuver of the octavo publishers.  “C’est ce que je ferai.  Ils ne seront pas peu capots quand ils en verront quelques magots d’arrêtés.”  In the report that he sent back to Neuchâtel, Favarger confessed that he felt convinced by Duplain’s account of his management of the enterprise.  But he assured his superiors in the STN headquarters that he had not deviated from their instructions: “Je…me suis conformé, Dieu merci, en tout point, à vos instructions, ce qui n’est pas aisé avec lui quand l’on y est aussi longtemps que j’y ai été.”

Favarger continued to discuss Encyclopédie affairs with Duplain every day for the following week.  Duplain printed a prospectus for the third edition and a circular letter inviting booksellers to collect subscriptions for it.  Both texts looked acceptable to Favarger, who sent them on to Neuchâtel for the STN’s approval, which arrived soon afterwards.  The prospectus made the ostensible STN edition look especially attractive, and it reinforced Favarger’s role as an Encyclopédie salesman.  He put copies of it with the STN’s catalogue and its prospectuses for the Bible in the pack that he loaded on his horse, and he distributed it wherever he went during the next four months.  But he had a great deal more business to transact in Lyon before he could resume his journey.

Among his tasks, he explored the possibility of commissioning a new font for the STN’s work on the Encyclopédie, and he bargained with a half dozen paper merchants in order to line up supplies for the third edition.  He called on nearly all of Lyon’s 38 booksellers, settling accounts and taking new orders.  They did not buy large quantities of books from the STN, because they drew a great deal of their stock from Geneva and Lausanne, and they produced many pirated editions of their own.  But they dealt heavily in the exchange trade with all the Swiss houses.  In his letters to the STN, Favarger gave extensive reports about proposed exchanges—that is, proposals to swap books from their stock for a corresponding number of sheets from books in the stock of the STN—along with remarks about the booksellers and their businesses.  Making such assessments was an important part of his mission, as his instructions emphasized: “Vous aurez  bien soin de mettre par écrit tout ce que vous apprendrez des libraires d’après les informations que vous en aurez prises.” In sizing them up, Favarger kept his remarks short and unsentimental.  Thus his view of Jacquenod: probably a double-dealer, “un couteau à deux tranchants”; Flandin: a hard-bargainer: “C’est un drôle qui connaît bien la valeur des livres”; and the Périsse brothers: inscrutable: “Ils sont très réservés, ces Messieurs, mais ils s’accordent à dire qu’il n’y a rien sous presse dans tout Lyon que quelques misères et l’Encyclopédie quarto.”  Each bookseller had distinct peculiarities and most were difficult to deal with: “J’ai été bien longtemps dans cette ville, mais quand l’on va parler à ces Messieurs, ils n’ont jamais le temps de vous écouter.  Il semble qu’ils ont des empires à gouverner, et ils ne font rien au reste.”

The lack of activity could be attributed in large part to the government’s attempt, proclaimed in edicts issued on August 30, 1777, to destroy the trade in pirated books:

“La librairie languit ici d’une manière inexprimable et cela pour deux raisons: la première est les entraves et l’abolition des contrefaçons que personne n’ose entreprendre, ni d’imprimer ni de vendre; la seconde est que quiconque avait un certain argent à mettre tous les mois ou tous les ans sur des livres l’a placé sur l’Encyclopédie quarto.”

Favarger confirmed this impression, gathered from his conversations with the booksellers, when he visited Lyon’s chambre syndicale.  It was there, at the headquarters of the booksellers’ guild, that piracy was supposed to be suppressed.  The syndics of the guild were responsible for inspecting the sealed bales that arrived from the local customs house and for discharging the acquits à caution (customs certificates) that had been issued by the customs agents at the French-Swiss border.  The Lyonnais booksellers had enjoyed a brief reprieve from the sanctions against piracy, because the edicts of August 30, 1777, permitted them to sell off their current stock of pirated books, provided that each copy received a stamp in the chambre syndicale.  But the syndics did not enforce these measures with any enthusiasm.  They were pirates or collaborators of pirates themselves, like most of their colleagues.  Therefore  Favarger received a warmer reception in the chambre syndicale than he had been given in the bookshops.  “J’ai passé l’après-midi hier à la chambre syndicale,” he wrote on July 15, venting his indignation against the latest restraints on a trade that he thought should be free:

 “Je ne conçois pas comment ce misérable estampillage n’occasionne pas des confusions épouvantables.  J’ai vu saisir et mettre au pilon un ballot des Oeuvres de D’Auguessau octavo, je ne sais de quelle édition, et il y avait d’autres  balles qu’on dit devoir subir le même sort; mais Dieu soit bénit, ce n’est pas des nôtres.  J’ai vu à ce tribunal inquisiteur à peu près tous les syndics, qui ont été fort honnêtes avec moi.

Favarger’s visit to the chambre syndicale was connected to another objective of his trip to Lyon, one nearly as important as the negotiations over the Encyclopédie: arrangements for smuggling.  Lyon served as the key hub for most of the STN’s shipments in France.  The Neuchâtelois sent their bales through Frambourg and Pontarlier or other border crossings, where customs agents sealed them and issued acquits à caution.  Then shipping agents forwarded them to Lyon for inspection in the chambre syndicale.  Once they had completed their inspection—with whatever degree of thoroughness they deemed appropriate—the syndics issued a “certificat de décharge” that the wagon driver returned with the acquit à caution to the border station as attestation that the bale contained no pirated or prohibited books.  The shipping agent, often Jean-François Pion in Pontarlier, served as “caution” for the return of the discharged acquit, and he would have to pay a heavy fine, as much as 2,000 livres, if it failed to arrive before a certain deadline [see the page on Faivre on this website].   

Despite all the paperwork that it required, the system functioned fairly well—provided that the inspectors of the chambre syndicale, who were often accompanied by an “inspecteur de la librairie” from the local police, did not neglect their job.  Their connections with the pirate publishers in Switzerland inclined them toward negligence.  But complicity and illicit shipping were never straightforward affairs.  The bookseller-syndics or their colleagues often quarreled with the Swiss publishers, or favored some publishers over others, or protected their own pirated editions against foreign competition, or marketed the privileged editions that were pirated, or feared being punished as collaborators in a criminal operation, or (rarely) simply had a distaste for illegal operations.  Although the STN cultivated allies among the provincial booksellers—[see the page on Charmet of Besançon on this website]—it could not count on getting shipments through chambres syndicales merely by relying on their good will or even by bribing them.  It needed professional help.

Shortly before Favarger arrived in Lyon, the STN engaged a shipping agent (“commissionnaire”) in Lyon named Jacques Revol to help clear its bales through the chambre syndicale and forward them to destinations throughout France.  It had heard from one of its customers in Bordeaux that Revol was able to avoid the inspections altogether.  In sounding him out about that possibility, it dangled the offer of doing a great deal of business; but it wanted him to provide “assurance”—that is, an insurance service, which would commit him to reimburse it for the value of any books that might be confiscated.  In a letter signed “Revol et Cie.”, he replied that the chambre syndicale had recently become very severe in policing the trade, because the government expected it to enforce the new edicts against piracy.  He had indeed found “un moyen sûr” to circumvent the inspections, but it required a great deal of trouble and expense, “…car avec toute l’économie possible, il vous en coûtera de 4 livres à 5 livres par quintal.”  He had ties with Duplain and could use shipments of the quarto Encyclopédie, which was openly permitted by the government, to hide sheets of illegal works. 

That sounded good, the STN answered, but could Revol guarantee to get books to its customers everywhere in France?  If so, it would pay 4 livres per hundredweight as “assurance.”  In reply, Revol avoided loaded language about insuring shipments but committed himself to get them to the booksellers it mentioned, who were located in Montpellier, Marseille, Bordeaux, Loudun, and Auxerre.  The STN sent off these first shipments in June 1778.  They got delayed, because they were not sent with bales of the Encyclopédie, as Revol had instructed.  He promised nonetheless to take care of everything that had been stalled en route and to clear a great deal more through the chambre syndicale by means of the STN’s shipments to Duplain:

Nous vous prévenons qu’avons des entrepôts sûrs; et si vous voulez profiter de l’occasion qu’avez de l’Encyclopédie, vous pouvez d’une balle en faire passer quatre, en les masquant sur les bords et aux têtes.  Nous vous les ferons passer avec facilité sans que personne s’en apperçoive, d’autant plus que c’est nous qui retirons toutes les balles de M. Duplain et qu’elles sont entreposées dans nos magasins.  Nous lui les [sic] envoyons déballées par ballot.  C’est fort rare quand on les visite à la chambre; ou si on les visite, on ne les regarde jamais en dedans ou ne visite que les bords.  Vous devez jugez qu’il nous serait facile de mettre en sûreté tout ce que vous voudrez.

Revol certainly sounded capable and well informed, but how trustworthy was he?  Could he provide insurance, and could he handle shipments after the STN had completed printing its volumes for the Encyclopédie?  Those were the questions Favarger needed to resolve.

The first thing that struck Favarger when he called on “Revol et Cie.” was that the “company” consisted only of Revol and his wife: “M. Revol, qui n’a d’associé que sa femme, n’est guère connu ici.  C’est un jeune homme, peu moyenné et fort hardi.  Il est vrai qu’il paraît intelligent, mais il ne faut pas lui accorder trop de confiance.”  Self-styled “commissionnaires” often set up businesses on their own, with few assets other than their wits and their connections.  Revol apparently had taken up the trade while acting as an expediter for Duplain, who needed help in handling thousands of shipments of his Encyclopédie.  They had been schoolmates, along with Amable Le Roy, another of Duplain’s lieutenants, and Revol wanted to use his contacts as a way to replace the STN’s normal shipping agent, Claudet frères et fils.  The Claudets were solid and responsible commissionnaires, who had successfully handled most of the STN’s business in Lyon for the last two years, but they refused to take risks after the French authorities began to enforce the new measures against pirated books.  The instructions in Favarger’s diary directed him to maintain cordial relations with the Claudets but referred to “Revol et compagnie” as “nos nouveaux commissionnaires.”  Favarger was to get information from them about how to avoid confiscations in chambres syndicales everywhere, not merely in Lyon, and he was to record all the details in writing—even, if necessary, “sous leur dictée et de suite nous les rendre mot à mot.”

When Favarger drew Revol into a discussion of the fine points of smuggling, he learned a great deal about a demanding profession.  Revol would not accept the formal obligations of an “insurer,” and he continued to insist on making the most of the Encyclopédie as a cover for clandestine shipments.  But he had an arrangement for handling illegal works when bales of the Encyclopédie were not available.  The wagon drivers were to drop off shipments for Paris and the north at a designated address in the Croix Rousse suburb of Lyon and shipments for the south at a similar location outside Lyon’s Porte de Saint-Clair.  Revol would break the seals on the bales, open them, remove the illegal books, replace those books with innocent works, bind up the bales and close them with a counterfeit seal.  He kept a supply of legal books in store, and he would be careful to make a selection of them that had the same weight as the books he removed.  Bills of lading had to mention the weight of the bales, which were weighed during their inspection at the chambre syndicale.  Thanks to this maneuver, the doctored shipments would pass through the chambre syndicale without difficulty, while Revol forwarded the illegal works to their destination as domestic shipments, which were rarely inspected en route, especially if they were labeled as “mercerie” (haberdashery, a common disguise).  True, they might be inspected in chambres syndicales located near their final destination, but Revol had contacts among the commissionnaires in such places who would make sure that the books reached the STN’s customers without mishap.  It might even be possible for Revol to get some acquits à caution discharged without any maneuvers in Lyon, if he could bribe one of the inspectors.  In that case, the shipments could wait in Pontarlier until an appropriate time had elapsed, and then they could be forwarded directly to their destinations, while Revol handled the whole transaction through the mail.  He never actually managed to execute this feat, but the fraudulent repackaging became one of the key items in his bag of tricks.

It took some time for Revol to piece together his system, and the full details of its operation emerged only gradually in the course of his correspondence with the STN, which eventually filled a dossier of 125 letters.  The letters produce something of a frisson when read today, but they do not seem exceptional if studied in the context of the mail that the STN received from other smugglers and middlemen.  To eighteenth-century publishers and booksellers, a certain amount of hugger-mugger went with their business.  The STN sought out “insurers” as soon as it began shipping books to France, and it maintained a steady correspondence with several of them [see the pages on Guillon and Faivre on this website].  When Jean-Elie Bertrand wrote out instructions in his diary to guide a business trip that he made in 1773, he noted that “les assureurs sont en grand nombre aujourd’hui et désoeuvrés,” and he made plans to find an “assureur solide” in Saint Sulpice and also in Les Verrières who could get the STN’s books across the border to Pontarlier.

Yet the border crossings were only the first step in a complex process, which extended everywhere in the kingdom.  The most common form of smuggling did not necessarily involve insurance.  It took place in chambres syndicales, especially in those of cities like Lyon, which were designated as “villes d’entrée” where inspectors discharged the acquits à caution issued by customs officers in border stations or “bureaux d’entrée.”  If the inspections in the chambres syndicales could be finessed, the shipments of pirated and even prohibited books could be grafted onto those of legal works, and the clandestine distribution system would follow the supply lines of the normal trade.  Therefore, Lyon functioned as the crucial center of communication for the publishing industry that linked Switzerland with France.  (Rouen played the same role in the trade between the Low Countries and northern France.  Despite the importance of national boundaries, I think it best to conceive of an industry organized around axes or zones such as Neuchâtel-Lausanne-Geneva-Lyon, Amsterdam-Brussels-Rouen-Paris, and perhaps Milan-Turin-Nice-Marseille.) 

Because of Lyon’s importance, the STN devoted as much attention to its agents there as it did to its smugglers at the border.  Revol was only the most recent in a long line of its Lyonnais commissionnaires, which stretched back from Claudet frères et fils to André Schodelli, Jean Schaub, and several others.  Each had special skills.  Schaub had ways of falsifying acquits à caution and avoiding the chambre syndicale by unloading shipments at an inn, Aux Trois Flacons, outside Lyon at La Guillotière.  Schodelli cultivated protectors among the syndics.  Claudet did, too, and even functioned for a while as an insurer, charging 6 livres per hundredweight, including 30 to 40 sous as his profit.  But in each case, the service broke down, owing to a change in the syndics, an unlucky discovery of forbidden books during an inspection, or increased vigilance at a critical juncture.  Revol succeeded better and longer than all the other agents employed by the STN, and therefore his dossier contains the richest revelations about smuggling at the most important point in the distribution system.

After describing his service to Favarger, Revol bargained over its terms in his correspondence with the STN.  He would not commit himself, he insisted, unless the STN commissioned him to handle all its shipments, not only those containing illegal books, and that meant cutting Claudet out of its trade.  He also demanded that the STN use intelligent wagon drivers, who could follow his directions exactly.  They must drop the bales off at the inn of Boutary, a half league outside Lyon’s faubourg Saint Clair, then deliver the acquit à caution and bill of lading to Revol himself so that he could take care of the fraudulent paperwork.  The main danger that worried him was the incompetence of Pion, who dispatched the wagon drivers from Pontarlier and often failed to give them accurate instructions. 

The STN agreed to those conditions, and by the end of August Revol had forwarded several bales to its customers after storing them in a secret warehouse outside the city.  He asked the STN to send him three or four hundredweight of legal books so that he had an adequate stock of material to substitute for the illicit works in the bales, and he warned it that Pion was overcharging for the transport expenses: the haul from Pontarlier to Lyon should cost 3 livres 15 sous per hundredweight, not the 4 livres 10 sous demanded by Pion.  Revol’s own work required more time and money than he had calculated, because he had to get the books from his warehouse to the other side of the Saône:

“Nous avons été obligés de déballer la balle S66 [a reference to the “marque” painted on the outside of a bale to identify it] et d’en former trois ballots, qui sont encore d’un poids honnête pour la charge d’un homme qui est obligé de le porter une lieue sur son dos par des chemins où les voitures ne peuvent passer et de là traverser la rivière de la Saône pour gagner le chemin de Roanne ou celui de Paris.  A présent que notre route est tracée, vos expéditions ne souffriront aucun retard.   

Of course, such service cost money, more than Revol had anticipated: “Vous sentez que nous ne pouvons agir seul et que lorsqu’on a besoin de gens de confiance pour se faire aider, il faut les payer.”  His fee of 5 livres per hundredweight (not 4 livres, as the STN had originally proposed) hardly covered his expenses, he claimed.  In fact, he was making no profit at all, and he would abandon the whole enterprise if conditions did not improve soon.  Such talk should not be taken literally, because Revol was always looking for a pretext to increase his fees, and his business seemed to be booming.  He worked for several other Swiss publishers, including the Société typographique de Berne and Samuel Fauche of Neuchâtel.  “Tout va bien,” he assured the STN in January 1779.  For the next four years, he got bale after bale past the chambre syndicale without a major mishap.

Minor difficulties occurred, of course.  Shipments to Marseille were sometimes delayed by flooding of the Rhône.  Revol had some trouble counterfeiting the lead seals on the bales.  He had to renegotiate his entrepôt arrangement when Boutary’s inn came under new management.  A freak accident took place when some customs agents spotted a wagon loaded with contraband muslins a league and a half outside Lyon.  Revol had stashed some illegal books under the muslins; and although he had cleared the books through the chambre syndicale, they were confiscated along with the more expensive booty of textiles.  It took months of string-pulling to get them released.  As business expanded, Revol found it necessary to hire a clerk, but the clerk ran off with a  bill of exchange worth 100 livres.  And then there were the constant headaches caused by the incompetence of Pion.

Pion frequently failed to send letters warning Revol about the imminent arrival of a wagonload of books.  Sometimes he neglected to instruct the wagon drivers to deposit the books at the designated inns outside Lyon.  The drivers then took them to the Lyon customs and from there to the chambre syndicale, where they were in grave danger of being confiscated.  Revol managed to extricate them, because he had ingratiated himself with the syndics while expediting endless shipments of the Encyclopédie.  On one occasion, he saved a load of pirated books because “…le syndic qui a été nommé pour en faire visite est un de nos bons amis.  Ils le sont presque tous.”  Revol kept this fund of good will in reserve for use during emergencies, and he maintained it with a certain amount of bribery.  But he could not expect the syndics to ignore everything they were supposed to inspect.  Instead, he sent them bales repackaged with legal books under counterfeit seals.  This operation—his normal mode of business when he was not forwarding illegal works under the cover of the Encyclopédie—worked well, as long as he could depend on reliable communication.  The mail service between Lyon, Pontarlier, and Neuchâtel was excellent.  The STN regularly sent directions to Revol with copies of bills of lading (factures), and its shipping agents alerted him by letter (lettre d’avis) when they forwarded bales from relay stations like Pontarlier.  The Pontarlier route was cheaper and four to five days quicker than the route through Geneva, but it had a disadvantage: Pion. 

Although he had the best horses and undersold his competitors among the other commissionnaires of the border area, he kept making mistakes.  His worst error, according to a letter that Revol dashed off on May 19, 1779, concerned 12 bales that Pion shipped without notifying Revol or giving the wagon driver adequate directions:

Nous avons en nos magasins à Lyon 12 balles de vos envois que nous avons reçues de Pion sans avis et que nous avons enlevées de notre douane la nuit à force.  Aussi nous ne sommes pas encore revenus de la peur que nous avons eue.  Quoiqu’il en soit, ells sont sauvées du naufrage.  M. Pion est un malheureux.

In a later letter, Revol described this operation as “un des coups les plus hardis qui ne se soit jamais fait.”  He claimed that Pion sent him a lettre d’avis after the fact in order to cover up his negligence and that he had not even loaded the wagon correctly, causing many sheets to be damaged by rain.  The STN then sent a severe reprimand to Pion along with a copy of Revol’s letters.  He answered by denying all the charges and defending his service in a tone of wounded professional pride: “Je n’ai point l’honneur de connaître MM. Revol et Compagnie que de correspondance, mais la copie de leurs lettres me fait penser qu’ils cherchent à envenimer ou grossir les objets pour se faire valoir [Pion to STN, May 29, 1779].”  Unconvinced by his defense, the STN broke relations with Pion—at least for several months, until his main competitor, Meuron frères of Saint Sulpice, failed to find enough horses for its shipments. 

Revol took revenge by holding back some discharged acquits à caution that he had received from the wagon drivers of other shipments sent by Pion.  They had to be returned to the customs bureau in Frambourg by a certain date or Pion, whose name appeared on them, would have to pay a heavy fine.  As the deadline approached, Pion sent angry letters to the STN as well as to Revol, but Revol was not impressed: “C’est un imposteur….Il est si paresseux à écrire que d’ordinaire nous recevons toujours ses avis 8 à 15 jours après avoir reçu ses envois, ce qui nous fait un tort considérable.”  Eventually Revol returned the acquits à caution on time, and the episode blew over.  It was only a trivial incident, but it illustrates the tensions that were always threatening to pull apart the ties that had to mesh together for smuggling to succeed.

            Revol’s relations with the STN reached a peak of confidence and cordiality during the summer of 1780.  By June, he had successfully handled a great many shipments, and his accumulated charges came to 1,991 livres.  He got to know the directors of the STN personally during a business trip that took him through Neuchâtel in August.  Judging from the tone of his subsequent letters, they hit it off well.  They must have discussed the duplicity and embezzlement in Duplain’s administration of the Encyclopédie enterprise, because after his return to Lyon Revol wrote that Mme. Duplain had recently died: “Il semble que c’est un châtiment du ciel pour le punir de son avidité et de sa soif de l’or aux dépens des uns et des autres.”  He sent some chocolates for Ostervald, some sample cloth for Ostervald’s daughter, and wine for Bosset de Luze.  He also sent occasional reports on books the Lyonnais were pirating.  In January, 1781, for example, he wrote, “Le Théâtre français au’imprime Grabit prend assez faveur.”  But by March the STN began to protest about delays and costs.  Although Revol did not deviate from the fee he charged the STN, he passed on increasingly heavy charges to its customers, and they responded with angry letters, both to him and to the STN. 

By 1782, the complaints became so common that Revol complained back: “Continuellement des reproches et si peu mérités, cela devient ennuyeux.”  He objected that the STN failed to appreciate the risks he ran and the growing danger of confiscations, not only in Lyon, but everywhere in France, where it would have suffered serious losses, had he not been able to mobilize agents and “amis secrets” along all the main routes.  He felt so piqued, he claimed (but one must always allow for the overheated rhetoric of his letters), that he was ready to give up the whole business:

Nous renonçons de bon coeur à un commerce fort désagréable pour nous, puisqu’en vous servant par inclination, vous nous injuriez—et vous ne prévoyez pas les dangers que nous courons en frustrant vos balles des visites de la chambre de Lyon et du royaume.  Les bénéfices que nous y faisons [ne] nous dédommagent point des peines et soins que cela nous occasionne—et d’une lettre de cachet pour notre récompense!  Ce qui pourrait bien nous arriver.

They patched up this quarrel in July, 1782.  Thanks to some “nouveaux arrangements,” Revol wrote that he could escape the increased vigilance of the French authorities while cutting costs and increasing the speed of deliveries.  He reorganized his business under a new name, Revol, Geste et Compagnie, evidently because he had taken on a partner.  But the new tactics for smuggling did not work well.  In February, 1783 Revol was caught handling a large shipment of prohibited political works such as Des Lettres de cachet et des prisons d’Etat, Les Fastes de Louis XV, and L’Espion dévalisé.  None of them had been sent by the STN, but the crisis was serious enough for it to suspend all shipments to him.  He took to bed, suffering from “une maladie très dangereuse” brought on by the disaster.  Favarger, who was on a business trip to Geneva at the time, wrote that Revol’s losses were rumored to be as much as 10,000 livres: “Ce n’est pas une petite affaire pour lui.  On doute qu’il s’en tire….Il faut regarder la route de Lyon comme perdue.”  How and when Revol recovered is not clear, but the Pontarlier-Lyon route remained closed, because on June 12, 1783 the French government issued an order requiring that all book imports be inspected by the chambre syndicale of Paris, whatever their ultimate destination might be. 

Faced with this obstacle, Revol and the STN ceased to do business, and their correspondence turned into a long debate over the settlement of their accounts.  Revol claimed the STN owed him 2,400 livres for his services; it held out for 1,800 livres; he agreed to cut 300 livres from his version of the balance sheet; and they finally settled for 2,100 livres in July, 1784.  From that sum Revol deducted 771 livres for some copies of the Encyclopédie that he had kept in his warehouse.  Therefore, the STN’s ultimate payment to Revol came to 1,329 livres.  He was not pleased with the outcome, according to a letter he wrote on July 4, 1784:

                Soyez bien persuadés que cette somme ne nous dédommage aucunement des peines, soins, entrepôts. À peine suffit-elle pour nous rembourser celle que nous avons été obligés de donner pour nous tirer des mauvais pas où nous nous sommes embourbés pour vous faciliter le passage de vos balles, et dans ces opérations, rien n’est plus vrai que par attachement pour Monsieur Le Banneret [Ostervald], nous avons exposé liberté, vie, santé, argent et réputation.

Liberté : En ce que sans nos amis nous aurions été fermés par lettre de cachet.

Vie : En ce qu’ayant été en différentes fois aux prises avec les employés des Fermes, et les avoir forcés, les armes à la main, à nous restituer les balles qu’ils nous avaient saisies (à cette époque il y en avait douze à votre maison, qui auraient été perdues pour vous, sans ressource).

Santé : Combien de nuits avons-nous passé, exposés à toutes les intempéries des saisons, sur la neige, traversé les rivières débordées et quelquefois sur les glaces.

Argent : Quelle somme n’avons-nous pas donnée en différentes fois, tant pour faciliter l’exportation que pour éviter les poursuites et calmer les esprits.

Réputation : En ce que nous avions acquis celle de contrebandier.


            Revol repeated this refrain in a letter of July 22, 1784, which announced his resolve never to work for the STN again.  That was the last it heard from him until January 29, 1788, when he answered a query about a report that he had resumed his services.  Many booksellers had begged him to do so, he wrote, but he had refused:

       La plaie est encore trop fraîche pour que nous en eussions sitôt perdu le souvenir. Vous devez vous rappeler, Monsieur, combien nous avons éprouvé des désagréments, santé, réputation, perte réelle de nos fonds, et beaucoup de peine. Le tout pour obliger en partie des ingrats qui n’ont pas crainte de nous compromettre ! Heureusement, nous en sommes réchappés par le moyen de nos amis, et nous serons bien gardés de recommencer ! D’ailleurs, nous sommes veillés de près.

And yet…if the STN could get shipments to Macon or Chalon-sur-Saône, he would fine a way to clear them through Lyon.  It did not bite at the offer, but eight months later he announced that he could send bales to France by disguising them as transit shipments to Avignon.  The STN sent him one bale for Avignon in November, 1788.  It got through without difficulty, and he wrote that he was eager for more.  But their correspondence ceased at that point, and the French Revolution broke out soon afterward, freeing the press and destroying an industry that had conveyed books to readers when such freedom seemed unthinkable.