Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Celebrating My Favourite Publishers of 2008. . .

The internet and blogworld are buzzing with year end lists of top books and favourite reads - all of which I enjoy browsing as I inevitably end up noting down a new title or two. I've kept a reading journal for years and will blog about my top 10 favourite reads of 2008, but not until January 1st. I get a lot of reading done over the holidays - to pick now would just be premature.

So instead, to inspire all those shoppers planning to give books as gifts, I'm going to list my 10 favourite publishers of 2008. I've bought and read books from all of them this year but they get my vote not only for their interesting and unique lists, but also the care and attention they take in terms of covers and design, editing, websites and blogs - they all have a distinctive and eye-catching look. Not surprisingly they are small and independent presses. Do spend some time exploring their websites - there is some amazing publishing going on here. In my fantasy store, they'd all be well represented. In my private library, they are.

My Top 10 Favourite Publishers of 2008 (in alphabetical order)

Coach House Press. Lots of great Canadian writers got their start with this press and I still discover new talent every year. One of my favourites is Sean Dixon's The Girls Who Saw Everything, about a very unusual type of bookclub. The books always have a savvy design and they use beautiful paper.

Dalkey Archive Press. A publisher that keeps classics alive and introduces all sorts of interesting international literature and literary criticism. They publish one of my favourite contemporary novels of all time - Janice Galloway's Foreign Parts. This year on a trip to Seattle, I picked up one of their newer books that was calling out to me from the tables at the famous Elliot Bay Book Company - Olivier Rollin's Hotel Crystal. And started reading it (where else) but in my hotel room.

Europa Editions. I love the bold covers and French flaps of these trade paperbacks and they have a quirky selection of interesting European crime novels sprinkled among their literature. They had a big hit this year with The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson. It's on my to-be-read pile.

Gaspereau Press. This tiny press in Kentville, Nova Scotia designs the most beautiful books. They are works of art. Their mission statement says it all:

At the core of our philosophy is a commitment to making books that reinstate the importance of the book as a physical object, reuniting publishing and the book arts. Many of our covers are letterpress-printed, feature original artwork by artists like Wesley Bates and George Walker, and are printed on fine paper, in some cases even handmade. Most of our books are smyth-sewn & bound into card covers and are then enfolded in letterpress-printed jackets. Our house paper is Rolland’s Zephyr Antique Laid, a creamy, sensual book paper. Overall, the result is strong, flexible, attractive books that are comfortable, attractive and durable.

My favourite Gaspereau book is The Logogryph by Thomas Wharton. And I'm definitely going to pick up one of their newest - Eva's Threepenny Theatre by Andrew Steinmetz.

Melville House Publishing. A small press that combines all the best of what I love - literature in translation, the classics and interesting, current non-fiction. They have a wonderful Art of the Novella series that republishes classic shorter works, sometimes for the first time in English as with this fall's The Lemoine Affair by Marcel Proust, translated by Charlotte Mandell. A companion series is The Contemporary Art of the Novella which celebrates current international writers. I recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteurtre as a prime example. And the book I am most excited about is coming out next spring - Hans Fallada's Every Man Dies Alone, which Primo Levi called, "The greatest book ever written about German resistance to the Nazis. " It'll be part of a Fallada revival as his previous work, The Drinker and Little Man, What Now? will also be reissued. Their famous blog MobyLives was also resurrected this year after quite a hiatus.

New Directions. I'm always excited to see what is coming next from this publisher. They consistently discover new and long-forgotten innovative writers from around the world and their book jackets are always edgy and cool - especially their black and white covers. This year I bought The Way It Wasn't - an autobiography (of sorts) by the founder James Laughlin. I also have many books by Javier Marias sitting on my shelves that I just haven't found the time to read yet. I do have one tiny beef with them - they have a great website for alerting readers to new books and events, but their online backlist catalogue gives no descriptions of the books and since many of their authors are not recognizable names, I think they are losing a lot of potential sales here.

New York Review of Books. Just a perennial favourite. I've enjoyed several of their new books this year, most notably Unforgiving Years by Victor Serge, The Queue by Vladimir Sorokin, The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig. I can honestly say that I've never picked up an NYRB classic and regretted the time I spent reading it. Impeccable editorial eye. Plus they also re-released one of the funniest children's books ever - The 13 Clocks by James Thurber.

Open Letter. This is a fairly new publisher out of the University of Rochester devoted to literature in translation and I love that their books are boldly designed hardcovers with no dust jackets. One of their unique marketing ideas is to offer a monthly subscription so that you can receive a new book in the mail each month. You can choose between a six or twelve month subscription and start with any book you like. The website only allows for U.S. orders, but if you e-mail them directly, they will set up an account for you to ship anywhere in the world (they will re-calculate shipping costs). A great idea and I'm rooting for this press big-time. One of their new releases this month is Marguerite Duras's The Sailor From Gibraltar, translated by Barbara Bray. Do also check out their terrific blog Three Percent.

Other Press. This press is great at publishing contemporary international fiction and two of my favourite reads of 2008 came courtesy of their editorial eye. The Open Door by Elizabeth Maguire is a fictional account of the life of bestselling American author Constance Fenimore Woolson, including an interesting take on her relationship with Henry James that becomes more fascinating if you've also read (as I have), Colm Toibin's The Master and David Lodge's Author, Author. I was also introduced this year to Chilean writer Elizabeth Subercaseaux with her moving novel A Week In October.

Persephone Books. Another favourite and a press that I collect . I'm always intrigued by what gem they will discover next. And they publish the most beautiful catalogues and newsletters - collectibles on their own. I feel my bookcases straightening their spines and holding themselves just a little more proudly whenever I add a new Persephone to their shelves. This year I was thrilled that they republished The Crowded Street by Winifred Holtby and A Very Great Profession by founder Nicola Beauman.

There's been a lot of doom and gloom about the publishing industry lately and the economic downturn is definitely going to affect the larger publishers and chain stores. But readers needn't feel depressed - there are still a lot of exciting new authors to discover. Buy lots of books this season for your loved ones and support your independent bookstores!


Rose City Reader said...

What an inspirational list! Thank you for taking the time to write this!

I found your blog because you and I are among a small handful of bloggers who list A Dance to the Music of Time as a favorite book. Now that I have looked at your blog, I can see why Powell's opus would appeal to you.

It looks like you and I have very similar taste in literature. Books from the first half of the 20th Century are probably my favorites -- most likely because I focused on them as an undergraduate and acquired a taste. Many of the "list" books I read are from this Golden Age.

I am going to add your blog to my roll. But I have enjoyed browsing it so much, I will also post a plug for you as well as soon as I get a minute.

Blithe Spirit said...

Hi Rose City Reader - thanks so much for your comments. I see you are from Portland - home of the Great Powells - definitely on my list of bookstores to visit one day!

_lethe_ said...

What a great post! I must admit I only knew of Persephone Books and the NYRB, and that only since a few months.

I'll definitely be checking out some of the others (being Dutch I'm not that interested in English translations, I prefer to read the Dutch translation instead).

Stewart said...

"A companion series is The Contemporary Art of the Novella which celebrates current international writers. I recommend Customer Service by Benoît Duteurtre as a prime example."

I would point you in the direction of Gilbert Adair's The Death Of The Author from that same series. A wonderful, amusing, and playfully erudite novella.

Blithe Spirit said...

Yes, I've just discovered their Contemporary Novella series and think they are just the perfect commuter reads for me (I have to take an hour long bus ride to work). I'll definitely give those two suggestions a try.