The publisher as distinct, unique entity is the foundation of Roberto Calasso’s The Art of the Publisher, a small collection of connected essays and transcribed talks about Adelphi Edizioni (the Italian publisher Calasso has worked for or run in some capacity since 1962) and about publishing in general. Calasso immediately complicates the idea of the publisher, pushing it past purveyor of art and into art itself: “What is a publisher,” he asks, “but a long snakelike progression of pages?”
A publisher, then, is a sort of super-book that contains hundreds, maybe thousands of distinct but “mutually congenial” individual books. Each publisher is a multimedia, multidisciplinary project (including everything from editorial to publicity) whose essential concerns are whether and how a book gets published.
Things, then, haven’t really changed in 500 years. Whether and how have always been the primary concerns of the publisher. The former is a complicated question. It’s a bit like asking, “What makes a good book?” The answer might be beautiful or moving, but it’s just as likely to be subjective, overly reliant on current trends, biased, or myopic.
Calasso pokes fun at the question of what makes a good publisher even as he fails to adequately answer it: “A good publishing house [is] one that… so far as possible, publishes only good books.” Elsewhere he invokes publisher-as-book: “publishing the wrong book would be like putting the wrong character in a novel.”