The publishers' dilemma

Willie Fitzgerald

November 30, 2015

As the co-founder of this site put it in September, we are living in a golden age of publishing. Social media, the Espresso Book Machine and yes, even Amazon’s e-book arm have collapsed the distance between writer and audience, and in some cases entirely circumvented the need for traditional publishers.

In the face of these near-instantaneous platforms, those traditional publishers start to look like hidebound anachronisms, stubbornly inefficient relics from a bygone, pre-digital age. This is not an unfair characterization! Nor is it wrong to say that in addition to being fickle and almost comically slow, traditional publishing is, on the whole, appallingly homogenous, unadventurous, and frequently in thrall to the market or to awards selection committees or to both.

If we’re being deeply uncharitable, one could call the publisher a simple purveyor of writing, a huckster, a middleman, a market-driven intermediary between the true artist (the writer) and her audience. That’s hyperbole, of course, but there’s still a persistent misunderstanding—or maybe intentional blind spot—as to the role of the publisher in the literary world today. It can sometimes feel as though publishers can be separated into two camps: those foundering publicly, and those toiling away in obscurity.

Publishing has been around since the 16th century. Only a few people during this time could afford to buy books — European moveable type was barely 50 years old — and so wealthy patrons took the place of the market. The first book covers were mostly notes addressing the patron and explaining the merit of the work to follow. The blurb, then, is nearly as old as the book.

“What is a publisher,” he asks, “but a long snakelike progression of pages?”

Publishing transformed drastically over the next 400 years, but it only becomes recognizable to us in the early part of the 20th century. During that time, publishers realized they could have their own particular identity, and that each book they published might further deepen and define that identity. It’s easiest to think of this in terms, I’m sorry to say, of brand. For instance, Alfred A. Knopf founded his eponymous press in 1915 in order to publish sophisticated literature. That was the Knopf brand (the iconic borzoi colophon, essentially a logo in dress shoes, followed in 1925).

The publisher as distinct, unique entity is the foundation of Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, a small collection of connected essays and transcribed talks about Adelphi Edizioni (the Italian publisher Calasso has worked for or run in some capacity since 1962) and about publishing in general. Calasso immediately complicates the idea of the publisher, pushing it past purveyor of art and into art itself: “What is a publisher,” he asks, “but a long snakelike progression of pages?”

A publisher, then, is a sort of super-book that contains hundreds, maybe thousands of distinct but “mutually congenial” individual books. Each publisher is a multimedia, multidisciplinary project (including everything from editorial to publicity) whose essential concerns are whether and how a book gets published.

Things, then, haven’t really changed in 500 years. Whether and how have always been the primary concerns of the publisher. The former is a complicated question. It’s a bit like asking, “What makes a good book?” The answer might be beautiful or moving, but it’s just as likely to be subjective, overly reliant on current trends, biased, or myopic. Calasso pokes fun at the question of what makes a good publisher even as he fails to adequately answer it: “A good publishing house [is] one that… so far as possible, publishes only good books.” Elsewhere he invokes publisher-as-book: “publishing the wrong book would be like putting the wrong character in a novel.”

Good publishing, like good writing, always feels inevitable after the fact.

Calasso dances even further, saying that publishing, like literature itself, should have some “element of impossibility contained deep within it.” That feels like a bit of a rhetorical cop-out — how do you define “impossibility”? — but stare at your copy of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and it does feel sort of impossible not only that Rankine wrote it, but that Graywolf published it.

Consider: Citizen is a lyrical, multi-genre book about the black body, the most abjected (or else commodified or ignored) body in America today. Its author is a Jamaican-born black academic. The book’s iconic cover (recognizable even here, at a Donald Trump rally) shows a decapitated black hoodie, invoking instantly the murder of Trayvon Martin and thereby ensnaring the reader, before they have read a single word of text, in a conversation about violence and race in America. Citizen is the very opposite of market-driven, safe, or conventional publishing. That this book got published seems, after the fact, essential. But good publishing, like good writing, always feels inevitable after the fact.

(An aside: I believe publishing is an essential part of literary culture, and good publishers — like Graywolf — are still the best way of getting new stories, and new ways of telling stories, in the hands of more readers. But publishing on the whole is overwhelmingly white, straight and male. When Calasso makes the publisher a work of art, I can’t help but think that this gives us a new avenue for critique: not only is publishing’s obstinate homogeneity a moral and historical failing, it’s an aesthetic one as well.)

With regard to how a book is published, Calasso is much more decisive. He is, understandably, a staunch defender of the book itself, and a theorist of the cover flap. To create a book cover, for example, is to practice “ekphrasis in reverse” — it is the process of summoning a relevant image from a text. In another essay he calls the book cover a letter to a stranger. His distaste for publicity and award-hunting (“aspiring to prestige is a weed that grows everywhere”) also makes for fun reading.

The Art of the Publisher sings when Calasso is thinking about books and reading in this philosophical — and often very funny — way. His defense of paper books is the best I’ve ever read: “For someone reading a page in a book, beyond the letters is the whiteness of the page, which is mute and recalls the stubborn muteness of the world that surrounds the book.” The book — not the text, but the physical form of the book — is “isolated, solitary and self-sufficient.”

Books, in other words, do not simply contain knowledge — they represent a way of knowing. Books defy digitization, they offer no inter- or intra-textual links, and furnish nothing besides the world they imperfectly contain. To use a common phrase, a book’s “solitary” nature is a feature, not a bug. To read a book is to plunge, alone, into something thoroughly not-you.

Despite its frequent brilliance, The Art of the Publisher is uneven and scattered. You have to wade through a few bogs to rejoin its swifter currents. It’s too easy to lose your momentum in the morass of redundancies, recursions, feints and winding historical asides. Some of these are fascinating: Calasso returns again and again to Aldus Manutius, the 16th century Venetian publisher who invented the paperback book, and, along with his typographer Francesco Griffo, italic type. Other digressions feel like little more than opportunities for Calasso to compliment himself and Adelphi Edizioni. Calasso has earned every bit of his status as intellectual heavyweight, but some of The Art of the Publisher's detours are self-indulgent at best, and boring at worst.

As a foundational text about publishing, then, The Art of the Publisher falls short. But as a serious investigation into the aesthetics and complicated theories of publishing, it’s a welcome addition, and one that should make you, if you don’t already, turn a book 90 degrees and hunt for the little letters at the base of its spine.

Books in this review:
  • The Art of the Publisher
    by Roberto Calasso
    Translated by Richard Dixon
    Farrar, Straus and Giroux
    November 03, 2015
    160 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Citizen
    by Claudia Rankine
    Graywolf Press
    October 06, 2014
    160 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Willie Fitzgerald is a co-founder of APRIL, Seattle's festival of independent publishing.

Follow Willie Fitzgerald on Twitter: @williefitz

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