In 1970, after a stint as a printing apprentice in the wilds of Western Massachusetts, where he worked alongside celebrated sculptor and graphic artist Leonard Baskin, David Godine started a small publishing company in an abandoned cow barn in Brookline.
Godine’s aim from the outset wasn’t to crank out crowd-pleasers, but to publish “books that matter for people who care,” paying special attention to paper quality, bindings, typeface, and design to produce an eclectic array of books that were often beautiful to behold.
His obsessive interest in the picayune details of production, and the smart, small-batch books he handled — poetry, gardening, calligraphy, contemporary fiction, photography, children’s books — eventually established Godine, who lives in Milton with his wife, Sara Eisenman, as one of the country’s premiere independent publishers.
Over 50 years, he published books by the likes of John Banville, Noel Perrin, Janet Malcolm, Andre Dubus, and Georges Perec; collections by photographers Sally Mann, Yousuf Karsh, Nicholas Nixon, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo; children’s books whose authors/illustrators included Mary Azarian, Dylan Thomas, Barbara McClintock, and William Steig; and novels by two Nobel laureates, Patrick Modiano and J. M. G. Le Clezio.
Godine sold the company last year, but has just published “Godine at Fifty: A Retrospective of Five Decades in the Life of an Independent Publisher,” which tells his personal — and entertaining — story through 300 of the fine, fastidious books he published. Last week, we spoke to Godine about his career.
Q. What’s your status with the company now?
A. I would describe it as totally removed.
Q. So not day-to-day?
A. No. Barely month-to-month. I think this is good because it would be extremely frustrating if I were involved. I was very fortunate to have found a buyer who agreed to keep the imprint alive and has paid every debt we ever owed to anybody. So the books are clean. They’ll maintain a publishing program that is demonstrably different from the one I did, but that’s to be expected when you have a new owner.
Q. How does that feel?
A. My name is intimately associated with it, so I can’t exactly walk away from that. I do think anyone who sells their business has mixed feelings. On the one hand, you look at things and they’re not being done the way you would have done them. But it’s under entirely new ownership. It’s a whole new crew and they’re going to do their own thing and, in many ways, I’m sure, it will be financially more successful.
Q. That’s good, I suppose.
A. Yes, it could have been a lot worse. You look at companies that have entirely disappeared, or imprints that have entirely disappeared.
Q. You were very fastidious about what you published. Profit wasn’t the motive.
A. Profit had to be the motive at certain times because we wouldn’t have lasted 50 years if we were that stupid, financially. But it wasn’t the motivating motive. Except for perhaps poetry, I don’t think we deliberately published books where we knew we were in for a big loss. Also, we published a lot of books that sold many, many copies and paid for a lot of books that didn’t sell many, many copies, but which you feel a responsibility to do.
Q. You feel a responsibility to do. I’m not sure other publishers would.
A. I give most publishers more credit than that. I really do. It’s always a balancing act between commerce and, you know, love of literature or whatever. People don’t go into publishing as a general rule to make a lot of money. If we wanted to make a lot of money, we would have worked for Morgan Stanley.
Q. You tell a funny story about the time, in the company’s early days, when an accountant came to “look at the books.”
A. [Laughing] Right. I began showing him 16th- and 17th-century books, and when I got to the 18th century, he said, “These are not the books I came to look at.”
Q. A characteristic of a Godine book was always the quality of the book itself.
A. Your first role as publisher is to recognize that you don’t know everything, and whether it’s a bookbinder or papermaker or editor, you’re looking for people who care about quality, who are passionate about what they do and how they do it. I was in the fortunate position, running a small company, that I could be involved in making those decisions or picking the people who make those decisions.
Q. But was it always cost-effective to, as you say, “produce books of typographic distinction that delight the mind”? It’s a lot of work, isn’t it?
A. It didn’t cost any more, or it didn’t cost much more, to do it right than to do it poorly. It doesn’t cost very much more to hire a designer who really knows what they’re doing and does it well. Nobody questions the editor who goes out for the three-martini lunch and offers a half-million dollars for a book that hasn’t even been written yet. But when it comes to producing it, somebody says, “How can we save some money?” Well, where do you save some money? You save some money in the last step of the publishing continuum, which is the production. That’s why bindings are so [expletive] — because publishers have an opportunity to save a few pennies. And it really is a few pennies. Are we going to heaven because we saved a few pennies on the binding?
Q. Your personal interests played a big role in what Godine published. Can you give me an example of a book, or an area of interest, that you knew wasn’t going to set the world on fire, but which you felt was important to publish?
A. I’ll give you two — one of which turned out very well and one of which will probably never turn out well. The first is the early interest we took in photography and in reproducing photographs well via duotone. There weren’t many publishers interested in the complex process of turning a full-tone photograph into a half-tone image. That really interested us because that’s what the photographers cared about. I mean, Sally Mann, Paul Caponigro, Arnold Newman, all of whom we published, were concerned about how their work was reproduced because the work was, in fact, the photograph. There’s an example of a field that wasn’t hot back in the 1970s, but certainly is very hot now. The first book we published by Sally Mann is selling for, I don’t know, 20 or 30 times what we issued it for.
Q. And what didn’t turn out so well?
A. A field which I wouldn’t say we dominated, but we certainly made signal contributions to was the history of graphic art typography. And we published really important books — from Joe Blumenthal’s “Art of the Printed Book, 1455-1855″ to Alexander Lawson’s “Anatomy of a Typeface” to Jerry Kelly and Eric Gill’s books — where we really address the history of graphic art and typography, and present printed information in a format that people would not only understand but would enjoy. But [the audience] for that is the lunatic fringe. [Laughs]
Q. What didn’t you publish?
A. We didn’t publish any books on society or current events. We were not heavily engaged in the 21st century or where it was going. In terms of nonfiction — with the exception of Richard Rodriguez and a few others — I don’t think we ever published any groundbreaking books. Current events were not my interest.
Q. Anything else?
A. We didn’t do any books on celebrities or glamour. Nothing on material culture. We did absolutely no books on weight loss or exercise. We had no books on horror, no fantasy, and no graphic novels.
Q. You say every self-respecting publisher has a responsibility to support poetry, but celebrity, weight loss, and graphic novels would have sold a lot better than poetry, right?
A. [Laughs] Absolutely. Publishing poetry is like dropping a rose petal off the rim of the Grand Canyon and anticipating the echo. It’s Dante-esque in the purity of its hopelessness. It’s not an arena one enters with any expectation of making money.
Q. Is there a book that you’re proudest of publishing? A book you’re happy was published by Godine?
A. I’ll give you two. One is the biography of Starling Burgess, who was a Milton Academy boy who went on to design three of the great J boats, three boats that won the America’s Cup, but who also was one of the great modernists. That book is called “No Ordinary Being” and it was written by Llewellyn Howland. We did that with the New Bedford Whaling Museum, and it is a beautiful book in every way: Well-written, beautifully illustrated, beautifully designed. We had no trouble selling that book and we never reprinted it. The other is Joe Blumenthal’s “Art of the Printed Book.” Joe tells the story of fine printing so well, with such prescient selections of books over five centuries, that people really got it.
Q. Do you still have that old press in your barn?
A. I do. I was working there yesterday. My daughter has figured out that someday I’m going to have to go into a nursing home, and she’s figured out that it’ll cost a lot of money, so we’re going to need a source of income. Her idea was to take quotes — from people like Emerson, Longfellow, Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Wendell Berry — and set them in type and put them together with wood engravings and start a card business. They’re all done letterpress, mostly two colors. She has no interest in selling them, so I go around to the bookstores and I sell the cards. We’re having a great time. That’s what we’re doing to ensure I’ll be able to pay for the nursing home.
Mark Shanahan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @MarkAShanahan.