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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Art of the Publisher

Roberto Calasso; Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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PUBLISHING AS A LITERARY GENRE



I’d like to address something that is generally taken for granted, but turns out not to be so obvious: the art of publishing books. And first of all I would like to consider the notion of publishing itself, for it seems to be shrouded by a number of misunderstandings. If someone is asked what a publishing house does, the general and most reasonable answer is the following: it is a lesser branch of industry that tries to make money publishing books. And what should a good publishing house be? We suppose a good publishing house to be one—if you’ll allow the tautology—that publishes, so far as possible, only good books. Thus, to use a summary definition, those books of which the publisher tends to feel proud rather than ashamed. From this point of view, a good publishing house is unlikely to be of any particular interest in economic terms. Publishing good books has never made anyone terribly rich. Or, at least, not in comparison with what someone might make supplying the market with mineral water or microchips or buttons. It would appear that a publishing business can produce substantial profits only on condition that good books are submerged beneath many other things of very different quality. And when you are submerged, it is much easier to drown—and so disappear altogether.

It is also worth remembering that publishing has often shown itself to be a sure and rapid way of squandering substantial amounts of money. One might even add that, along with roulette and cocottes, founding a publishing house has always been one of the most effective ways for a young man of noble birth to fritter away his fortune. If this is so, we might wonder why the role of the publisher has attracted so many people over the centuries—and continues to be regarded as fascinating, and in some ways mysterious, even today. For example, it is not hard to see that no job title is more coveted by certain tycoons, who often obtain it literally at a high price. If such people were able to declare that they publish frozen vegetables, rather than produce them, they would presumably be very happy about it. We can therefore conclude that, apart from being one branch of business, publishing has always involved prestige, if only because it is a kind of business that is also an art. An art in every sense, and certainly a dangerous art since, in order to practice it, money is an essential element. From this point of view it can be argued that very little has changed since Gutenberg’s time.

And yet, if we look back over five centuries of publishing and try to think of publishing as an art, we immediately see paradoxes of every kind. The first might be this: on the basis of what criteria can the greatness of a publisher be judged? On this point, as a Spanish friend of mine often used to say, there is no bibliography. We can read many learned and detailed studies of the work of certain publishers, but rarely do we come across any judgment about their greatness, as normally happens when dealing with writers or painters. So what goes into making a publisher great? A few examples: the first, and perhaps the most eloquent, takes us back to the origins of publishing. A phenomenon occurred in printing that would later be repeated with the birth of photography. It seems that we were introduced to these inventions by masters who immediately achieved an incomparable excellence. To understand what is essential about photography, all you have to do is study the work of Nadar. To understand what a great publishing house can be, all you have to do is look at the books printed by Aldus Manutius. He was the Nadar of publishing. He was the first to imagine a publishing house in terms of form. And here the word form has to be interpreted in many different ways. Form is crucial, first of all, in the choice and sequence of titles to be published. But form also relates to the texts that accompany the books, as well as the way in which the books are presented as objects. It therefore includes covers, graphics, layout, typeface, paper. It was usually Aldus himself who wrote those short introductory texts—in the form of letters or epistulae—that are the precursors not only of all modern introductions, prefaces, and afterwords, but also of all cover flaps, catalogs, and publicity material of today. That was the first indication that all books published by a certain publisher could be seen as links in a single chain, or segments in a serpentine progression of books, or fragments in a single book formed by all the books published by that publisher. This, obviously, is the most hazardous and ambitious goal for a publisher, and so it has remained for five hundred years. And if you think that this is an unworkable enterprise, you may remember that literature loses all of its magic unless there’s an element of impossibility concealed deep within it. I believe that something similar can be said about publishing, or at least this particular way of being a publisher—a way that has not been practiced very often over the course of the centuries, but has sometimes produced memorable results. To give a sense of what can emerge from this conception of publishing, I will describe two books published by Aldus Manutius. The first was published in 1499 with the abstruse title Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, “The Strife of Love in a Dream.” Today it would be called a “first novel.” Moreover one by an unidentified author (and still an enigma), written in a sort of imaginary language, a sort of Finnegans Wake consisting entirely of a mishmash of Italian, Latin, and Greek (while Hebrew and Arabic appeared in the woodcuts). A fairly risky operation, you might say. But what did the book look like? It was a folio edition, illustrated with magnificent woodcuts that provided a perfect visual accompaniment to the text—something even more risky. But at this point we have to add something else: the vast majority of bibliophiles regard it as the most beautiful book ever printed. And you can see this for yourself if you ever happen to come across a copy of the book, or even just a good facsimile. It was obviously a single, unrepeatable stroke of genius. And in creating it the publisher played a fundamental part. But you mustn’t imagine that Manutius was great only as a provider of treasures for bibliophiles of future centuries. The second example that relates to him goes in a totally different direction. In 1501 and 1502, with his Virgil and Sophocles, Manutius invented “libelli portatiles in formam enchiridii” (“books that can be held in the hand”), otherwise described by him as “parva forma.” Anyone fortunate enough to handle one of them today would immediately realize that they are the first pocket-sized books in history, the first paperbacks. By inventing such a book, Manutius transformed the way in which people read. The very act of reading thus radically changed. Looking at the title page, we can admire the elegance of the Greek italic typeface used here for the first time and which would later become an invaluable point of reference. Manutius therefore managed to achieve two opposite results: first to create a book such as the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili that would remain unequaled, and is virtually the archetype of a book that is one of a kind. Then, to create completely different books that would be copied millions and millions of times over, right up until today.

You may say, fine, this is all very interesting and relevant to the glories of the Italian Renaissance, but what does it have to do with us, and with publishers today, who are inundated by a growing mass of tablets, e-books, and DVDs—not to mention the various incestuous alliances between all these devices? In order to answer this question I’ll give a few more examples. If I told you in no uncertain terms that in my view a good publisher today ought simply to try to do what Manutius did in Venice a year before the start of the sixteenth century, you might think I’m joking—but I’m not. And so I’ll tell you about a twentieth-century publisher and show you how he worked in exactly that way, even though the circumstances were completely different. His name was Kurt Wolff. He was a young German, elegant, wealthy, though not excessively so. He wanted to publish new writers of high literary quality. And so he invented a series of short books, in an unusual format, called Der Jüngste Tag, “Judgment Day,” a title that today seems highly appropriate for a series of books that mostly appeared in Germany during the First World War. If you look at these books, which are black in color, slim and austere, with labels glued on like school exercise books, you may find yourself thinking: “This is how a book by Kafka ought to be presented.” And several of Kafka’s stories were in fact published in this series. These included The Metamorphosis, in 1915, with a fine blue label and a black border. Kafka was a young, little-known, and extremely self-effacing writer at the time. But, reading the letters Kurt Wolff wrote to him, you are immediately aware, from his exquisite tact and gentle concern, that the publisher simply knew who his correspondent was.

Kafka wasn’t the only young writer published by Kurt Wolff. In 1917, a fairly turbulent year for publishing, Kurt Wolff collected the writings of several young authors into a yearly almanac entitled Vom jüngsten Tag. Here are some of the authors in the almanac: Franz Blei, Albert Ehrenstein, Georg Heym, Franz Kafka, Else Lasker-Schüler, Carl Sternheim, Georg Trakl, Robert Walser. They are the names of young writers who found themselves together that year under the roof of the same young publisher. And those same names, without exception, are on the list of essential authors to be read by any young person of today wanting to discover German literature in the early years of the twentieth century.

At this point my argument ought to seem fairly clear. Aldus Manutius and Kurt Wolff, living four hundred years apart, each did nothing substantially different from the other. Indeed they were practicing the same art of publishing—though this art may go unnoticed by most people, including publishers. And this art can be judged in both cases by the same criteria, the first and last of which is form: the capacity to give form to a plurality of books as though they were the chapters of a single book. And all this while taking care—a passionate and obsessive care—over the appearance of every volume, over the way in which it is presented. And finally—and this is certainly a point of no small importance—taking care of how that book might be sold to the largest number of readers.

Around fifty years ago Claude Lévi-Strauss suggested we should regard one of the fundamental activities of mankind—namely the elaboration of myths—as a particular form of bricolage. After all, myths are constructed from ready-made elements, many deriving from other myths. At this point I respectfully suggest we should also consider the art of publishing as a form of bricolage. Try to imagine a publishing house as a single text formed not just by the totality of books that have been published there, but also by all its other constituent elements, such as the front covers, cover flaps, publicity, the quantity of copies printed and sold, or the different editions in which the same text has been presented. Imagine a publishing house in this way and you will find yourself immersed in a very peculiar landscape, something that you might regard as a literary work in itself, belonging to a genre all its own. A genre that can claim to have its own modern classics: for example, the vast domains of Gallimard, which extend from the dark forests and swamps of the Série noire to the plateaus of the Pléiade, though also including various pretty provincial cities or tourist resorts resembling the papier-mâché Potemkin villages, erected, in this case, not for a visit by Catherine the Great but for a season of literary prizes. And we well know that, when a publishing house expands in this way, it can assume a certain imperial character. And so the name Gallimard rings out as far as the remotest confines of the French language. Or, on another side, we might find ourselves in the vast properties of the Insel Verlag, which appear to have been owned for many years by an enlightened feudal lord who has at last bequeathed his estates to his most loyal and trusted stewards … I don’t want to go any further, but already you can see how intricate maps can be devised in this manner.

By looking at publishing houses in this way, one of the more mysterious aspects of our profession might perhaps become clearer: why does a publisher reject a particular book? Because he realizes that publishing it would be like putting the wrong character into a novel, a figure who might throw the whole thing off balance or radically change it. A second point relates to money and copies: following this line we are forced to consider the idea that the capacity to make people read (or at least buy) certain books is a key factor in the quality of a publishing house. The market—or the relationship with that unknown, obscure being known as the public—is the first ordeal of the publisher, in the medieval sense of the word: a test of fire that can send a considerable amount of money up in smoke. Publishing could thus be described as a hybrid multimedia literary genre. And hybrid it certainly is. As for it becoming mixed up with other media, this fact is now obvious. But publishing, as a game, is nevertheless fundamentally the same as the old one played by Aldus Manutius. And a new author whom we come across with an obscure book is very much the same for us as the still elusive author of the book calledHypnerotomachia Poliphili. So long as the game lasts, I am sure there will always be someone ready to play it with passion. But if the rules should one day radically change, as we are sometimes led to fear, I am also equally sure we’ll be able to turn our hand to some other activity—and we might instead find ourselves meeting up around a roulette or écarté or blackjack table.

I would like to end with a question and a paradox. To what extreme can the art of publishing be taken? Can it still be imagined in circumstances where certain essential conditions, such as money and the marketplace, basically disappear? The answer—surprisingly—is yes. At least if we look at an example that has come to us from Russia. At the height of the October Revolution, in those days that were, in the words of Alexander Blok, “a mix of anxiety, horror, penance, hope,” when printing presses had already been indefinitely shut down and inflation was pushing up prices hour by hour, a group of writers—including the poet Vladislav Khodasevich, the thinker Nikolai Berdyaev, and the novelist Mikhail Osorgin, who then recorded those events—decided to throw themselves into the wild business of opening a Writers’ Bookshop that would still enable books—and, above all, certain books—to circulate. The Writers’ Bookshop soon became, in Osorgin’s words, “the only bookshop in Moscow and in the whole of Russia where the first to arrive could buy a book ‘without authorization.’”

What Osorgin and his friends had wanted to create was a small publishing company. But the situation made it impossible. And so they used the Writers’ Bookshop as a sort of double for a publishing house. No longer a place that produced new books, but one that sought to house and circulate large numbers of books (some valuable, some ordinary, often incomplete, but all destined to oblivion) that had ended up at their shop stall through the wreck of history. It was important to keep certain practices alive: to continue to handle those rectangular paper objects, to leaf through them, order them, discuss them, read them in the pauses between one task and another, and finally to pass them on to other people. The important thing was to create and maintain an order, a form: reduced to its lowest and most basic definition, this is the very art of publishing. And this was how it was practiced in the Writers’ Bookshop in Moscow between 1918 and 1922. It reached the acme of its noble history when the founders of the bookshop decided, as printed publishing was impracticable, to set about publishing a series of works with one single handwritten copy. The complete catalog of these books, which were literally one of a kind, remained in Osorgin’s house in Moscow and was eventually lost. But, as a hovering phantom, it is still the model and the guiding star for anyone who attempts to become a publisher in hard times. And times are always hard.



Copyright © 2013 by Adelphi Edizioni S.p.A. Milano

Translation copyright © 2015 by Richard Dixon