The Singular Publications of Diane de Selliers
Since 1992, the Diane de Selliers publishing house has published only one book per year. Devoted to iconic literary texts and illustrated with works of art, they move us with their beauty and rekindle our humanity. The publishing house’s strength and singularity lie in the often previously unpublished paintings used as illustrations, which are chosen after extensive worldwide research.
Christian Razel of Imerse conducts an exclusive interview with Diane de Selliers, founder of Éditions Diane de Selliers—a member of the prestigious Comité Colbert since 2009.
Christian Razel: Why did you launch a collection of art books?
Diane de Selliers: This collection was the result of the discovery of an exceptional edition of La Fontaine’s Fables containing 275 engravings based on drawings by Jean-Baptiste Oudry as illustrations for the 245 fables by La Fontaine. This edition, released in color in the eighteenth century, was found in an antiquarian bookshop near the Grand Place in Brussels. I fell in love with the book and wanted to share it with as many people as possible, so I published a complete, contemporary edition of it through my publishing house, which was just getting started at the time. The book was a huge success and remains one of our bestsellers. I went on to publish La Fontaine’s Contes with drawings by Fragonard—60 bister-wash drawings held at the Petit Palais museum in Paris—followed by Dante’s Divine Comedy, with illustrations by Botticelli, which had never been done before. Three works, three successes. It was at that moment that I decided to create a collection called “Great works of literature illustrated by the greatest painters.”
Diane de Selliers
What is unique about this collection? To what does it owe its success?
This collection showcases the immense richness of literature and the arts. It introduces readers to numerous essential works of world literature. It creates a dialogue between humanity’s most beautiful texts, many of which are little known, by way of works of art.
Our books create connections between literature and painting, the text and the illustration. The images offer a new perspective on the text. They facilitate interpretation and enhance the text.
Likewise, understanding of an image is often achieved through reading. I am thinking, in particular, of the paintings of saints discussed by Jacques de Voragine in the Golden Legend or the mythological heroes described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Thanks to the narratives, the reader recognizes the characters and can distinguish between the attributes of the saints and heroes. The correspondences that we create illuminate and awaken the reader’s attention and imagination.
Our publishing house also offers a broader view of the work in each volume. The texts, presented in their entirety, are enriched by historical commentaries, analyses, notes, and appendices. These offer a comprehensive insight into the original context, the history, and the fate of the work.
This collection gives meaning to our lives because it puts us in touch with the building blocks of our culture and identity. Through paintings, which are often inaccessible, confined in museums or private collections worldwide, it celebrates the beauty that surrounds us. It introduces, or reintroduces, us to seminal texts.
Why do you only publish one art book per year?
We made the decision to only publish one new title per year for two main reasons:
The level of commitment and work involved in each book is such that we need time, not only to carry out the necessary research and create the best book possible, but also to publicize it and give it every chance of success.
Each publication becomes an editorial and cultural event in the run-up to the holiday season. Each year, our devoted readers wait impatiently for the release of the new title. We give it the greatest possible visibility. And new readers are delighted upon discovering our collection.
What place does research have in the creative process behind an art book?
For us, research is one of the most important steps in the creation of an art book.
There are two major focuses:
– The quality of the work must be perfect. We focus on the power of the texts, finding the best translation, the reproduction of images, the choice of paper, the typography, the page layout, the book cover, and the box. Every aspect of the book is carefully considered to ensure that it enhances the whole.
– Iconographic research is part of our savoir-faire. The process is completely integrated. We spend several years on research. We travel the world to find and obtain hitherto unseen or unpublished illustrations.
This meticulous work is very often carried out in collaboration with leading specialists, who guarantee that each book is characterized by exemplary scientific rigor. Images must fulfill criteria relating to quality but also rarity and relevance to the text they illustrate.
What have been your greatest successes?
Our bestsellers have included our first work, Jean de La Fontaine’s Fables that I spoke about earlier, an epic of late seventeenth-century society, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the early books in the collection.
Another great success has been Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, the seminal Japanese novel written in the tenth century. It was the first psychological novel ever written. From the twelfth century, scenes from the book were illustrated on scrolls by the best Japanese artists, and its iconography has endured throughout the centuries. Even today, there are comics and manga depicting the life of Prince Genji, a man who was enamored of power and women. We presented the text with original Japanese paintings from scrolls, albums, screens, and kakemonos, created between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. The book won prizes in France, but also in Japan, where it received, in 2007, an award from the Ministry of Culture and, in 2013, a special prize from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Murasaki-Shikibu's The Tale of Genji book
Anonymous, On the Northern Mountains,
© Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington / Photo Michael Cavanagh.
Anonymous, Prince Genji as a scholar,
© Mary and Jackson Burke Foundation, New-York / Photo Carl Nadiello
The craziest publication ever undertaken by my teams was the Ramayana by Valmiki, illustrated with Indian miniatures. It is a key text of Hindu civilization, written about 800 years ago. This exceptional, 1,700-page-long book spanning seven volumes is illustrated by 660 Indian miniatures from the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries. It required an enormous amount of research. Through great perseverance, a meeting with the Maharaja of Jaipur led to us finding the sixteenth-century royal manuscripts of Emperor Akbar, which contain some of the first Indian miniatures. They had been inaccessible for over forty years. In total, a decade was devoted to this book, during which time an inventory of more than 5,000 miniatures illustrating the Ramayana across five continents was created. We then made drastic choices, keeping only those that were most beautiful and best fitted the narrative. We archived all of the miniatures in our database, which is part of the Institut Diane de Selliers for research in the field of art history, an endowment fund that we created to promote and diffuse the results of our research.
Valmiki's Ramayana, the founding text of Indian culture, tells the epic tale of Prince Rama and advocates the universal values of courage, loyalty and love. This 7-volume edition is enhanced by 660 miniatures, most of them previously unpublished.
The god Siva receives the Ganga in his hair, © Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Museum of Indian art, Hyderabad / Photo Munish Khanna.
Ascetic Bharadvaja welcomes Rama to his hermitage, © Aga Khan Trust for Culture, Geneva.
Tell us about your collection in terms of figures.
The collection comprises 27 titles to date: seminal texts, spiritual texts, mythology, poetry, tales, novels—all works of world literature. We are currently working on five new titles that will be published over the coming five years. And we’re looking ahead. More than 20,000 paintings in very different domains have been identified, with over 5,000 being selected to feature in our works. More than 12,000 pages have been designed, with 48,000 pages having been published; each title has a print run of 4,000 copies on average. Around 200 authors, translators, and contributors have worked on creating this heritage collection.
In 2007, we created the Petite Collection in order to keep the collection going: the same works, with identical content, adapted to a smaller, more practical format that resembles a large paperback. The Petite Collection has been very well received; bookshops often display it on its own shelf, with a large number of titles, a little like the way they present the Pléiade collection.
Next year, in 2020, we will celebrate the release of the twentieth title in the Petite Collection. Among the bestsellers in this collection, I would like to mention Les Fleurs du mal by Baudelaire, illustrated with symbolic, decadent paintings, as well as Attar of Nishapur’s The Conference of the Birds, a long Persian poem about the quest of thousands of birds to find the deity Simorgh. To do this, they must cross seven valleys in which many are lost and die: the Valley of the Quest, the Valley of Love, the Valley of Love, the Valley of Detachment, the Valley of Unity, the Valley of Wonderment, and, finally, the Valley of Poverty and Annihilation. It is a very beautiful spiritual text, illustrated and annotated with 200 eastern Islamic paintings.
We also created the Collection Textes in 2013 with a few jewels such as the Canticle of Canticles, which presents the most famous love song in seven languages: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, alongside four French translations, enriched with essays, observations, and commentaries that serve to illuminate this text that is at once sacred and profane.
There is also the biography of Malak Jân Nemati by Leili Anvar, La vie n’est pas courte, mais le temps est compté (Life is not short, but the clock is ticking), which contains the life story and wise words of this exemplary Kurdish Iranian woman who radiated goodness and love.
What is your distribution network?
The books in the collection have a limited print run of between 3,000 and 4,000 copies, with an average price of €200 for single-volume works.
In the Petite Collection, each book has a print run of 6,000 copies, with a price of between €49 and €65 per volume.
We made 90 percent of our sales through bookshops 20 years ago, but nowadays half of our turnover comes from direct sales.
Our works are released and distributed by Interforum, a subsidiary of the Éditis group. They provide fast and high-quality service at all of their points of sale in France and abroad. The English-language editions are distributed by ACC Distribution.
It is worth noting that Interforum now provides publishers with a personalized on-demand printing service. We availed of this for À la découverte du Dit du Genji (In Search of the Tale of Genji), a guide to the book’s many facets, characters, and episodes. We will use the same production process for other books as it allows us to avoid spending a lot on books that we expect to sell slowly or in small numbers.
How has your publishing house been welcomed on the cultural scene?
It has been welcomed with open arms. The singularity and quality of our works and our approach has been praised in cultural circles. Our publishing house sets itself apart from traditional publishing through its high standards of excellence. Many of our books have won prestigious prizes that have helped to make them more widely known. My work as an editor has also been recognized on several occasions: The Académie des Beaux-Arts Cercle Montherlant named me “editor of the year” in 2013 and I was also awarded an “editor of the year” prize by the Cercle de la Closerie des Lilas. I was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 2007 and I have been an Officer of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres since 2017.
To pursue its mission, the Institut Diane de Selliers for research in the field of art history was founded in 2012 in line with the legislation on endowment funds. Its goal is to disseminate works that are “essential to the universal knowledge of art history” and to make an iconographic database available to the public.
The institute’s archive contains thousands of illustrations from antiquity to the present day. These were collected as part of iconographic research carried out by our publishing house. They come from hundreds of museums and libraries, as well as private collections worldwide.
The institute relies on donations to finance its research and share the results. Donations are tax deductible.
The website for making donations is:
Members of the Cercle des Amis de l’Institut (Circle of Friends of the Institute) can partake in conferences and private visits linked to the published works of art, as well as special soirées organized by us.
What will your next projects be?
For our thirtieth anniversary in 2022, we intend on organizing events that bring together our main authors around humanity’s major themes. A book showcasing the themes that are dear to the publishing house will be released to mark the anniversary.
I am also working on a book about my entrepreneurial venture in the realm of art and literature. It will give readers an insight into the work of publishing about which I am so passionate.
As a female business owner, what is your motto?
It is often said that my books are luxurious, in reference to their format, price, the number of images, and their quality. I think that the true luxury of these works is the time that is devoted to them. Time and perseverance are necessary to create great works.
My motto? Follow through with your ideas, your dreams. You can overcome or find a way around the obstacles that arise. Passion and a sense of meaning really do open doors.
Diane de Selliers bookshop on Rue Bonaparte, Paris