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the Complete Review
the complete review - publishing


The Art of the Publisher

Roberto Calasso

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To purchase The Art of the Publisher

Title: The Art of the Publisher
Author: Roberto Calasso
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2015)
Length: 146 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: The Art of the Publisher - US
The Art of the Publisher - UK
The Art of the Publisher - Canada
The Art of the Publisher - India
L'impronta dell'editore - Italia
La marca del editor - España
  • Italian title: L'impronta dell'editore
  • Translated by Richard Dixon

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting pieces, but not quite any sort of whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 29/6/2015 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "Calasso, novelist and publisher of Adelphi Edizioni, the highly regarded Italian press, has meticulously crafted 11 brief, elegant essays on book publishing. (...) Several of these short takes and memoirs are must-reads for anyone interested in serious books, and the collection benefits from Richard Dixon’s strikingly graceful translation." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Art of the Publisher collects eleven articles, essays, and speeches by Roberto Calasso, arranged in four sections. Unsurprisingly, there is some overlap and repetition -- "I am well aware that the names of Aldus Manutius and Kurt Wolff appear rather too often", he admits in a Textual Note listing the origins of the pieces -- and it's a shame (and a bit surprising) that publishing man Calasso didn't put a bit more effort into this and aim for a more cohesive whole. Nevertheless, many aspects of publishing are addressed and many of the publishing-notables of the past century mentioned and knowledgeably discussed, and Calasso offers a variety of interesting insights and thoughts on the art/business/passion of publishing.
       One section is devoted to small portraits and homages to some of the major publishers (and publishing personalities) of the past century, including Farrar, Straus & Giroux's Roger Straus, as well as, among other Giulio Einaudi and Peter Suhrkamp. While of some interest, this is the weakest part of the book -- stray pieces that aren't even all comparable in approach.
       In contrast, the wide-ranging 'Singular Books' (which pieces together three separate pieces, the longest one previously unpublished) takes up nearly half the book, and while it too isn't tightly focused is certainly the most interesting part of the book.
       Calasso, better known as an author in the English-speaking world, has long also been a publisher, of leading Italian house Adelphi Edizioni, and much of the best material in this collection has him discussing and explaining the history and running of Adelphi. He's still of an old (and largely European) school of publishing, maintaining that:

The way in which books are presented and the context in which they appear -- which may be denoted by a simple typographical frame -- still evidently have some importance. The essential role of the publisher is exactly this.
       In today's US/UK conglomerate age (even if some of those conglomerates are foreign-owned ...), publishing houses are less distinctive and, for readers, reliable. Calasso laments what he sees as: "the obliteration of publisher identity", observing that:
For anyone entering a London or New York bookshop, it's increasingly difficult to recognize individual publishers on the New Books display. The name of the publisher is often discreetly reduced to one or two initials on the spine of the book. As for the book covers themselves, each are different -- and in a certain sense too much the same.
       It's telling that the nimbler -- and nowadays almost invariably more interesting -- publishers in the US and UK tend to have a distinctive look (often of the European-continental uniform (if generally not quite so bare) sort) that make their titles readily recognizable even at a distance -- New York Review Books, Peirene Press, and (Italian offspring) Europa Editions among the ones most obviously so, but Open Letter, Dalkey Archive Press, and many of the Pushkin Press titles, among many others, too. Meanwhile, the overextended majors have largely lost any sense of identity -- and hence their value, in some important respects, to readers.
       Calasso's account of the development of Adelphi, and how he and a few others shaped it -- distinctively in everything from appearance (he discusses the careful selection of cover-images at some length) to the defining authors Adelphi published (as, for example, an: "enduring link between Adelphi and Mitteleuropa was established between 1970 and 1980) -- is particularly interesting (and makes one wish he'd centered his text entirely on this, as it leaves room enough for many of the tangents he goes off on). From the great early twentieth century Austrians that Adelphi published by the yard to Simenon's romans durs and the success Adelphi had with them (more than near anywhere else, in one of those strange constellations of publisher, presentation, timing, and readership that sees certain books being so much more successful in one place or language than another) he adroitly addresses general publishing issues using his Adelphi-experiences as his main examples and counter-examples.
       Even as his focus is very much on the books themselves, Calasso acknowledges that the conception of what it means to be a publisher is something that extends beyond merely that:
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.
       So also among the interesting topics he touches on is that of jacket-copy -- mentioning the 1,089 pieces that he's written to (then-)date for the cover flaps of Adelphi books, aware that this is often the only limited guidance readers have to what they might be getting in and from the book.
       The Art of the Publisher is a bit of a mixed bag of a book, and it's a shame it wasn't shaped into something more uniform and cohesive. Nevertheless, it covers a great deal, from the changing reading (and publishing) culture in Italy in the last century to Google's efforts to digitize everything (which Calasso -- a lover of the (individual) book, as the titling of the major section of this volume, 'Singular Books', also suggests -- is very wary of). An old-school publisher, Calasso also clearly shows how important the publisher-figure can still be in this day and age -- in the proper environment (such as at Adelphi).
       Certainly of interest to anyone interested in publishing, and reading culture, but not quite the definitive Calasso-on-publishing volume one might have hoped for.

- M.A.Orthofer, 13 October 2015

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The Art of the Publisher: Reviews: Roberto Calasso:
  • Q & A in The Paris Review
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Italian author Roberto Calasso was born in 1941. He is the publisher of Adelphi Edizioni.

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© 2015 the complete review

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