The Art of the Publisher

Roberto Calasso’s The art of the publisher, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon, is published in Britain by Penguin (2015). Tastefully published too, in a dinky little format.

It is an assemblage of various occasional pieces, written over several decades.

The book raises important questions, generates numerous insights, but, perhaps because of its origins, is far from systematic in argument. This last point makes it difficult to review: it explains why the comments below are somewhat fragmentary.

The insight that struck most forcefully concerns evaluation. Calasso points out that works of art — novels, paintings, etc. — are commonly subject to explicit valuation. But the same cannot be said of publishers:

On the basis of what criteria can the greatness of a publisher be judged? On this point…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.

Behind this lies, I think, a conception of publishing as itself an art form — or at least, an aesthetic activity. Certainly Calasso thinks that publishing houses exhibit ‘form’. What he means by this is not defined precisely (Calasso is not a greatly analytical thinker), but is characterised roughly, as follows:

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.

That Calasso writes well on such features (corresponding in the main to what Michael Bhaskar, in The Content Machine, calls the ‘framing‘ function of publishing) is one of the main reasons why this book deserves a place on reading lists on publishing studies courses. He writes especially well, in the long essay entitled  ‘Singular books’, on book covers and their relationship the texts they contain within them and their readership.

At such times I found Calasso reminiscent of Michael Bernard’s Transparent Imprint in demystifying the genetic process of publishing and, in the process, revealing how seemingly disparate decisions need to hang together.

To illumine his conception of publishing as an aesthetic activity, Calasso draws on Clause Levi-Strauss’s notion of bricolage:

I respectfully suggest we should consider the art of publishing as a form of bricolage. Try to imagine a publishing house as 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 overs, cover flaps, publicity, the quantity of copies printed and sold, or the different editions.

Thus a publishing house may be seen ‘as a literary work in itself, belonging to a genre all its own’. 

Calasso implies that a corollary of his aesthetic conception of publishing (i.e., publishing as form) is that ‘all books published by a certain publisher could be seen as links in a single chain’. (‘What is a publishing house other tha a long, serpentine progression of pages?’) This idea, the logical derivation of which is, sadly, never properly explained, is intriguing. It leads to a focus on the specific role of publisher, which Calasso wishes to demarcate sharply from associated roles, such as publishing manager and editor. Of the latter he writes:

All editors are associated with a list of authors and books as though they are theirs. This, however, doesn’t include the form itself — the catalog, the programme of the publishing house for which they work. 

This conception, I think, points a weakness in Calasso’s thinking. Lurking behind such conceptions, I suggest, is an assumption of publishing houses as small-scale, each emanating from an individual or small group. His points need some modification when it comes to conglomerates. The question there arises of the extent to which Calasso’s points apply to imprints within houses. Would Calasso apply the point about editors quoted above, for example, to an editor with his or her own imprint within a conglomerate?

Calasso’s conception of the ‘form’ of a publishing house may seem synonymous with ‘brand’. Yet, though the two obviously overlap, he has interesting things to say about the distinction between them. It is worth dwelling on such passages as this:

If a publishing house is not conceived as a form, as a self-sufficient composition held together by a high physiological compatibility between all its constituent parts, it easily turns into a casual association, incapable of triggering that magical element — brand power — that even marketing experts consider essential for achieving some degree of success./ And here is the paradox faced by the publishing manager, who is a recent figure and now widespread throughout the book world: on the one hand he has been taught to extol the importance and the value of the brand, while on the other his approach can only weaken, and ultimately compromise, the special quality of the brand itself.

This is an instance of a pattern I find in Calasso’s thought. Discussion about publishing is often rendered boring by the debates within it being reduced to binary arguments — for example, ‘editorial’ (or ‘literary’) versus ‘sales’ (or ‘commercial’). The typical movement in Calasso’s mind, in contrast, is to move to some more subtle idea a synthesis to the binary thesis/antithesis, if you like. Here, for example, the commercial considerations are not dismissed or objected to, but rather presented as something that requires the sensibility of the publisher.

It’s a shame that The Art of the Publisher is such a small book, because that makes it too easy to ignore, whereas in fact few books on the subject are more deserving of attention, reading, rereading, and reflection. One might even call it profound.


PS I wonder whether Calasso is aware of  Alessandro Gallenzi and Elisabetta Minervini’s enterprises, first Hesperus and then Alma Books? They strike me a publishers  who exhibit form.


One Response to “The Art of the Publisher”

  1. Well said. The usual conception of publishing as ‘brand’ strikes me as reductive – it’s much more interesting than that. Yes, publishing as Gesamtkunstwerk (total work of art) opens up many more creative possibilities for publishers. And publishing is a commercial act too. I would argue that publishing at its very best is paradigmatic of the kinds of ‘immersive’ and ‘disruptive’ ‘engagement’ that contemporary corporate (non-publishing) marketers only dream about in their jargon-induced stupor. Mallarmé: ‘The world exists to become a book.’ Bookification, anyone?

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