Every now and then, a book comes along which changes your life. For me, Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher is one of them. But you don’t have to be – or, like me, want to become – a book publisher to find this gem an inspiration.
For quite a while now, publishing has been steeped in a pervasive atmosphere of gloom and doom, especially in South Africa. The threat of the internet, the e-book, the retail giant Amazon, and the financial crisis have made life for the printed book difficult. Locally, a seemingly general disinterest in South African fiction and foolish political decisions have made survival tougher for our publishers, and consequently, of course, for us writers. Book sales are not encouraging. Publishers scaling down even less so. Yet, watching developments like the self-publication of Paige Nick’s latest novel, Death by Carbs, or new publishing ventures like uHlanga and Tattoo Press, I have a feeling that some creative and daring people in the country are on to something which gives me many reasons for optimism.
Roberto Calasso’s essays collected in The Art of Publishing attest to the fact that it all comes down to basics. And the basics are vision and quality. It is these two aspects of publishing that readers throughout centuries have best responded to with enthusiasm. These are no trade secrets, just simple rules which those who have been successful in publishing have always followed.
Critic, writer, and a publisher himself, Calasso has been at the forefront of Italian publishing for decades. His love for literature and the book shines through every single paragraph of The Art of Publishing. His passion is one of beauty. His insights are heartening to read.
When it matters, publishing is not about money, although, as with all art forms, moderate financial rewards cannot and should not be excluded. There are enough examples out there to prove the case. All aspects of the form play an integral part in its success: “choice and sequence of titles published…texts that accompany the books, as well as the way in which the books are presented as objects.” Calasso does not deny that this is “the most hazardous and ambitious goal for a publisher, and so it has remained for five hundred years”, but he also reminds that “literature loses all of its magic unless there’s an element of impossibility concealed deep within it.”
He goes into the fascinating history of publishing, asks what constitutes culture, celebrates the great publishers of our times, explores the relationship between the publisher and the writer, demonstrates how crucial the nourishment of writers and the care for the book as an object are to a thriving publishing environment, and most importantly, to our intellectual and emotional lives.
Calasso also shows that even if often unbeknownst to us why a particular publisher attracts our enthusiasm, as readers we understand the value of our “repeated experiences of not being disappointed.” And that is what only a publisher of vision and quality can offer.
The Art of the Publisher by Roberto Calasso
Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
Penguin Books, 2015
Review first published in the Cape Times, 22 January 2016.
When I truly enjoy a book I have the need to share it with others. I have already bought several copies of The Art of the Publisher for friends, two more today…
I was attracted to the book in the first place because it appealed to me as an object. I saw it displayed at the Book Lounge in Cape Town and could not walk away from it…