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Saturday, September 1, 2012

Traditional Book Publishing: Far from Dead

Recently, having received an irresistible catalog in the mail, I ordered books for the first time from the publisher David R. Godine. Somehow my call to order the books got briefly sidetracked into a discussion of Northport’s dog parade, but that only enhanced the experience. They are real people there! And look at these beautiful, beautiful books! This was not my complete order. Several items sold so quickly they practically flew off the shelves. The quality of the paper and binding, the beautiful color reproductions, and the unusual and intriguing titles insure that I will be ordering more from Godine in the future. I’m glad they’re around!

Showing Sketches for Friends to David, with its charming Ardizzone illustrations (wouldn't it be thrilling to get illustrated letters like this in the morning mail?), and telling him how taken I am with the Godine books, it occurred to me that I should write about a few of the publishing houses I admire. Two that I’ve written about on other occasions are Penguin Books and Modern Library, so I’ll start with them.

Most of my ordering is done through book distributors, but even there, from time to time, a publisher name stands out. In my last post, a book review, I mentioned that Penguin Books, the publisher, was also responsible for a related and worthy title. I’ve loved Penguin Books for a long time. Handling a lot of used books, one can’t help noticing that some paperbacks hold up and others don’t. With some, cheap paper becomes brittle, and corners break. Worse yet, cheap glue dries out and old pages detach when turned. Never happens with Penguin. The oldest Penguin paperbacks I’ve run across are still holding together. Penguins open nicely, too, and you don’t have to fight to keep them open while reading. That’s all on the physical side. As for content, whether it’s a reprint or a “Penguin Original,” again the key word is quality.

My love affair with Modern Library goes back to the 1960s when my mother worked part-time in the gift department of a downtown bookstore during the holidays. That same bookstore, Henley’s (in Joliet, Illinois), sold textbooks to high school students, giving me a chance to stand in line and feast my eyes on the other books I coveted, including the entire wall of Modern Library editions. I have about three and a half shelves at Dog Ears Books currently filled with Modern Library books from various eras. It’s interesting to see how Mercury’s looks have changed over the years. What hasn’t changed is the quality of books published.

Switching to a more regional focus, one Michigan publisher from whom I order directly is Avery Color Studios in the Upper Peninsula. What started as a printing business has expanded over the years from paper placemats to books. New this year is a collection of true stories from a U.P. lawyer called I Talk, You Walk, stories so readable and illustrative of actual defense law practice that one of my customers, a retired law school professor, said the book should be required reading for pre-law and first-year law students—and he wasn’t kidding! Avery has jigsaw puzzles, too. And they are friendly people. Finally (I love this part!), all their products are “Proudly Printed in Michigan, U.S.A.” All right!  

Lone Pine stood out for me during my one experience at the GLBA trade show, and I still order their titles through my distributors. Perennials for Michigan and Tree and Shrub Gardening for Michigan are important books for me to keep in stock, informative, colorful and well bound as quality paperbacks. DK (aka Dorling Kindersley, Limited, in the U.K.) is another house with a strong list of nature and other nonfiction books for adults and children alike, and more recently I’ve started paying attention to Chelsea Green, from White River Junction, Vermont, because of their focus on farming and environmental issues. “Sustainable living” into the future, that’s Chelsea Green. I worked for a small publisher in the Traverse City area for a couple of years, and Arbutus Press is still around and going strong. One of their latest titles, Fishtown: Leland, Michigan’s History Fishery, by Laurie Kay Sommers, is this summer’s gotta-have regional book.

From the national to the regional and back again, I come to employee-owned Norton, publisher of Bonnie Jo Campbell’s national bestseller, Once Upon a RiverW. W. Norton is an old name, going back to 1923.  Now employee-owned, the company remains true to its mission “to publish books not for a single season, but for the years.” Besides textbooks and fiction and other areas, they have a special focus on poetry. Cool house!

While I’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of this topic, already merely turning my attention in that direction has me noticing colophons much more carefully, especially those that repeat frequently on my shelves—Watson Guptill’s horse framed by initials W and G; the Perennial imprint of HarperCollins, with stylized flames above stylized waves; Norton’s seagull in flight; Thomas Dunne’s gryphon; etc. One could make a study (as I’m sure someone has) solely of colophons.

These days, anyone can set up as a publisher of his or her own or a friend’s book. Some self-publishers are one-shot wonders, but a few, I’m sure--perhaps to their surprise--find the work of publishing, in all its complicated stages, as challenging and as fascinating as the work of authorship. Publishing (like bookselling) is at its best—its essence most fully expressed—when business is combined with vocation. Established houses, with skilled, discriminating, and experienced editors, will have an important place in the world of books for as long as new books continue to be born.

Have you thought about much how books get from writers to bookstores and into your hands? Do you have a favorite publisher? One whose books have made a difference in your life?


Kathy said...

The Godine publisher books look so very intriguing. I could see how they might sell quickly. I have not thought much about how my favorite books get into the hands of publishers, although years before I thought about self publishing a book--and almost did.

dmarks said...

Avery is a major postcard publisher, as well.

P. J. Grath said...

The Godine books in the photograph were only a few of the children's/illustrated titles. There were others, too. And I'll have to get the whole Avery history one of these days from Wells, as they have been around a very long time.

Gerry said...

I fell in love with Avery books during my first grown-up trip to the U.P., when we visited the shop and came home with presents tied up in red ribbon with a sprig of balsam. I forget everything, but not Avery.

I think a lot about how books get from manuscript to reader. To me it's about as engrossing a subject as how fine apples get from seeds to my personal tastebuds. In both cases it's a long and perilous journey, requiring skill and commitment and plain hard work on someone's part. I'm grateful lots of someones still care to make the effort. You are right that there will always be a place for quality and integrity, whether in publishing or orchardry.

John said...
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