Friday, April 30, 2010

Letter from the Publisher

We're working hard double time to get everything ready for David R. Godine's 40th Anniversary Retrospective Lecture on May 6th at the Boston Public Library, and hope to see all of you at the talk. Until then, here is David's “Letter from the Publisher” which appears in our 2010 Catalog.


WHEN I STARTED this company, some forty years ago in an abandoned cow barn, I was only twenty five and had no idea what the word “publishing” meant, much less how to do it. We were then, all six of us, primarily printers, producing fine books for others, and, when the presses were unoccupied, occasionally issuing a title for ourselves. As the years went by, I decided to concentrate on publishing and, like many deluded capitalists, dreamed of growing what clearly is — and should remain — a cottage industry into a major international player. This wasn’t entirely hubris; all houses were much smaller then, the capital required to produce books was modest, government support (even to tiny houses) was flowing, and the cost of mistakes was small. The narrow, personal world of trade publishing was still run by opinionated individuals, whose names were often eponymous with their companies, and who more or less published what they liked and did their crying in private. Company policy was dictated by editors, not by marketing departments. (It was Edwin Land who taught me that the size of a company’s marketing department is always in inverse proportion to the quality of its products.) It was still possible to dream of becoming a general trade publisher whose list would cover a variety of subjects and whose books could be produced to high standards, and to do it all with a minimum of fuss and compromise.

Looking back, and knowing a little more about my own temperament, it was foolish (almost delusional) to have thought that this company could ever become larger than it is. We all have our strengths and weaknesses, and the pleasure I derive from working year in and year out in this ship of fools comes from the hands-on experience with the books themselves, not in being a manager or an administrator, for which I have little talent and less interest. If you pay attention, close attention, to every book you publish, and if you publish or reprint — as we do — close to sixty titles a year, it is all you can do to read the manuscripts that come in, oversee the design and production, and take an active part in the selling. So, for better or worse, this will always be a small company involving a few fanatics, selling to a relatively small lunatic fringe who still care about the niceties of a well-turned phrase, a neatly produced book, and an eclectic list. This is not exactly the recipe America prescribes for achieving commercial success.

In the sixteenth century, there was a small group of engravers known as “The Little Masters,” so called not because they were stunted, but because their work was small. Their motto was Multum in Parvo: a great deal in a small compass. I have always identified with these artists who were content to create miniscule masterpieces on their own terms and scale. If you believe, as I do, that your work is the footsteps you leave in the sands of time, then every book you publish should contain the proof of that devotion and promise. It is, I think, what Conrad had in mind when he wrote, in his Preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, “A work that aspires, however humbly, to the condition of art should carry its justifications in every line.”

For forty years, and admittedly with varying degrees of success, we have tried to make good on that promise. Not every book carries Conrad’s justification, but more have than not. And the mere effort of trying to come close, to engage in the process, to yet again take a sheaf of manuscript pages and turn them into something as miraculous and as workable and as permanent as a printed book seems tome worth any amount of trouble. As another of our favorite writers, Montaigne, observed,  “It’s the journey, not the arrival, that matters.”

D · R · G

1 comment:

  1. David,

    Bless you for inspiring owners of small literary presses to forge ahead despite torrential rains of commercial wisdom that implore us to know better. Your house is a role model for those seeking to publish works of lasting impressions.

    With one eye to the marketplace and the other eye on the bottom line, publishers often remain blind to the content they produce.

    Here's to staying small enough to care and strong enough to not only sustain but thrive.

    Onward and upward,

    Dan Cafaro
    Founder and Publisher
    Atticus Books