David R. Godine is a respected, adventurous, outspoken publisher and a soi-disant cultural elitist. On a staff of ten, he runs his small and surprisingly successful, young house – David R. Godine Press – from the basement of a shabby genteel, back-bay Boston mansion, organized, as he puts it, as a ‘participatory dictatorship’. Since Godine set up shop ten years ago on family capital, the annual list has grown to forty titles – or what one journalist recently described as .0001 per cent of America’s annually published books. But what sets the Godine fraction apart from most others is his unflinching commitment to the highest standards, with respect to content and production.
In a publishing era plagued by conglomerate financing, increasing bureaucratic specialization, high-rolling agents, pre-fabricated best-sellers, seven-figure advances, the media ‘blitz’ and paperbacks that fall apart in one reading, the Godine Press is something of an anomaly. Godine’s house is independent and small – in size though not in scope – and essentially intends to stay that way. Hating agents and avoiding big money promotion, Godine relies instead on the intrinsic quality of his books, good and prominent reviews, word-of-mouth advertising, and a healthy relationship with a range of bookshops that regularly stand by him. His books, some of the few in the country to carry a colophon, reveal a meticulous attention to the quality of paper (invariably acid-free), bindings (always sewn, even on the paperbacks), typeface, typesetting and design. The care taken with production shows too in the judiciously selected and deliberately eclectic range of books he publishes – art, photography, chap-books, history, fiction, and inexpensive, hardbound editions of poetry. How he has managed this hat-trick – quality content, quality production and increasing market acceptability during a recession – is something of a mystery. With the mannered cultivation of the theatrically iconoclastic, Godine offers his own explanation: ‘I’ll tell you a well-kept secret in publishing. If you publish good books and keep your expectations within the bounds of reality and run a fairly tight ship, you’ re going to make money – there’s no way not to. But if you build a house of trash, some day it will burn.’
This kind of go-ahead prescription doesn’t account for how Godine has succeeded so much as it simply reiterates the fact that he has done so. But the aggressiveness and bluntness reveal more than they say. Godine is a master of the re-tooled cliché, the pithy and promotional aphorism, which shows in his glib – and sometimes meretricious – desire to surprise. Taking aim at one of his bêtes noires – technology and its deleterious effects on the aesthetics of publishing – Godine will say: ‘One of the prime rules of life is that as technology improves, aesthetics deteriorates. Speed substitutes for quality. Invention is the mother of problems.’ Part of the secret of Godine’s success is his straightforward self-promotion and disarming conceit.