As new to the position of publisher, I have been reading the works of other book publishers. Not the books they have published, which you can learn alot from, but rather from their own words.
Roberto Calasso, publisher at Adelphia Edizioni in Milan, describes the job as “[p]art merchant, part circus impresario, the publisher has always been considered with a certain distrust, like a clever huckster, and yet ‘publisher’ may also be one of the most prestigious titles around.”
With that same pride and grandeur, Calasso shares many stories in his book The Art of The Publisher. My favorite was his description of the work required to create the right cover to represent a book. He talks about not using graphic designers because of their “following certain rather narrow minded rules practiced by followers of the Modernist bible.” At Adelphia they took on the work themselves, using a process he calls “the reverse of ekphrasis”. Ekphrasis is a term from ancient Greece that describes the effort to convey the beauty and power of visual works of art into words. Calasso says (yes, in a single paragraph):
All publishers who uses images practices the art of ekphrasis in reverse, whether they realize it or not. And even typographical book covers are an application of it, if only in a more limited and underhanded form. And this is true irrespective of quality: as an art, it is no less important for a pulp book that for a novel of great literary ambition. But here we need to add one crucial detail: it is an art on which there is a heavy onus. The image that is to be the analogon of the book must be chosen not for itself, but above all in relation to a vague and ominous entity who will judge it: the public. It is not enough for the image to be right. It has to be perceived to be right by a multitude of extraneous eyes, who generally know nothing about what they will find inside the book. A paradoxical situation, almost comical in its ramifications: an image has to be offered that will intrigue and encourage unknown people to pick up an object about which they know nothing except the name of the author (a name they are seeing for the first time), the title, the name of the publisher, and the words on the cover flap (a text that is always suspect, since it is written pro domo). But at the same time the cover image must look right even after these unknown people have read the book, if only to stop them from thinking that the publisher doesn’t know he’s publishing. I doubt whether many publishers have thought much along these lines. But I know that all of them without distinction—the best and the worst—each day ask themselves one question that is more straightforward in appearance only: is this particular image selling or not.? When considered closely, the question is more akin to a koan than to anything else. To sell indicates here an equally obscure process: how can you stimulate a desire for something that is a composite object, largely unknown and to an equally large extent elusive? In the United States and in Britain, teams of sophisticated art directors find themselves in this situation every day: they are given an entity (a book, which they haven’t necessarily read), together with several primary and secondary characteristics (expected print run, type of target readership, subject matter and the issues it might raise). Their task is to create the image and the most effective packaging in which to represent it. American and British books today are the result. Sometimes ugly, sometimes brilliant, but always following this pattern, so that they become too closely related to each other. It’s as though all the book covers on display in a bookstall came from one same center, in which some departments are highly expert and others fairly inept. This system may or may not appeal. But so far as Adelphia is concerned, a very different system was always applied.
Calasslo developed the idea that you could use images that already existed as cover art for Adelphi titles. His staff and, oftentimes, the authors themselves helped with the selection of the images that appeared on their covers.
Calasslo says criteria did evolve over time. Popular artists were avoided. Images too easily recognized were put aside. He said, “some element of surprise—in the image itself or in its context—was an essential requirement.” He says the visual language might be seen if all the books were put on a table, but Calasslo cautions, “[T]hese things ought not to be emphasized, except in passing. It is for readers to discover them, mentally retracting the paths and reasons that have led to certain combinations.”