Thursday 9 April 2009

Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita... (Dante)

A publisher’s progress (2002-2009).

It’s good to look back sometimes, and try to make sense of the senseless activity that seems to drive you forward every waking day. I was looking up Calder’s ISBN book today – not a pretty sight. Things got a bit messy over the years, but it is clear that Calder was a publisher with a strong beginning, an apex, a golden period and a rapid decline. John Calder appears to have published around eight or nine hundred titles in total, by my reckoning. A “serial” publisher, one might think. But if you consider that his career spanned over sixty years, that only gives you an average of around fifteen books a year. But then he published very little in the late Eighties, in the Nineties and the Noughties – so his already modest average goes down the drain. Then again, if you consider that more than half of what he has published is still in print and manages to inspire readers and writers worldwide, John Calder’s legacy goes well beyond the sheer number of published titles. Quality, not quantity.

What strikes me about John in his long and exceptional career is that he seems to have been constantly urged on by a devilish desire to publish what he liked, no matter what – irrespective of his financial or social or personal circumstances. You will see John publish, at times, horrible hardback play “scripts” which could have been typed on a faulty Underwood Five. You will see one of his Opera Guides sponsored by Barclays Bank and with a Martini logo on it. You may laugh at them now – but they are still read and appreciated and talked about by people with an ounce of brain. In short, John is – quintessentially – a very successful publisher, because his books, in one form or another, are still very much alive, and read, and promoted.

Now if I look back at what I have done in the past seven years – basically since I began my career as a publisher in the UK – what conclusions can I reach?

If I exclude hack jobs and books I wouldn’t want to be credited with after I’m dead, there is significant evidence that I have published in excess of 275 titles. If we consider all various editions and reprints, and the books I have been instrumental in publishing (Pushkin Press, Bitter Lemon Press etc), this figure goes up to around 500 titles. If you divide this by seven, it gives you around seventy titles a year – which is pretty mental.

Of the individual 275 titles I have published in the last seven years, 146 were published under the Hesperus imprint (2002-2006), 38 under the Alma imprint (2006-2009), 6 under the Herla imprint (2004-2009) and 85 under the Oneworld Classics imprint (2007-2009).

Year by year, I find myself publishing 29 titles in 2002, 40 in 2003, 35 in 2004, 32 in 2005, 22 in 2006, 30 in 2007, 64 in 2008 and 22 in the first quarter of 2009.

Language-wise, I have published 134 English-language texts and 141 translations. Of these, 108 were originally English, 26 American, 45 French, 31 Italian, 26 Russian, 22 German, 7 Spanish, 5 Japanese, 2 Latin, 2 Persian and 1 Hungarian.

As regards the genre, 20 were non-fiction titles, 2 were plays, 24 were poetry books, 55 were short-story collections, 7 were travelogues and the rest (167) novels or novellas.

If we look at the statistics by author, you will see that – er – the author I have published most is Jane Austen (8), followed by Lawrence (7) and Dickens (6). It’s a disgrace, I know – but after these popular authors there’s more open field: Dostoevsky (5), Charlotte Brontë (5), Chekhov (4), Robbe-Grillet (4), Bulgakov (4), Dante (3), Conrad (3), Collins (3), Boccaccio (3), Aretino (3), Fitzgerald (3), Hoffmann (3), Swift (3), Tolstoy (3), Virginia Woolf (3), Wilde (3), Twain (3), Zola (3), Tsutsui (3). My reputation is safe – just – I think.

My plums: Lorenzino de’ Medici’s Apology for a Murder – great reviews and incredibly good sales for a book that has been out of print even in Italy for over fifty years. Dante's Rime – simply the best book I will ever publish.

My turkey: a book called Sheepland, a kind of post-archaic Swiftian satire by an Arabic professor – which was forced down my throat by one of our Hesperus investors.

Have I been slack? Have I been a busy fool? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I hope readers will keep enjoying what I have done so far and what I am planning to publish in the next few years.

So long,


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