David R. Godine, Publisher is in the midst of a transformation that includes 75-year-old David R. Godine stepping down as publisher at year’s end from the press that he founded five decades ago. His retirement is the final piece in a four-year transition during which DRG president William Thorndike, founding partner of Housatonic Partners, a private equity investment firm, assumed majority control of the Boston-based literary press.
Known for its beautifully published and carefully selected books, DRG has had two Nobel laureates on its backlist in the past decade: Patrick Modiano (Desert and The Prospector) and J.M.G. Le Clézio (Honeymoon and Missing Person) were awarded the prize in literature. In addition, DRG has had its publishing program affirmed by its outsize presence in Jim Mustich’s 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die, which features more than three dozen titles from the company’s roughly 650-book backlist.
The sale of DRG almost didn’t happen. In 2011, when the late Allen Kornblum, another well-respected literary publisher, initiated a succession plan at Coffee House Press, Godine told PW that DRG would die with him. George Gibson, executive editor of Grove Atlantic—one of a number of DRG alums, whose ranks include Michael Pietsch, CEO of Hachette Book Group, and Sue Ramin, director of Brandeis University Press—persuaded Godine to change his mind. And it was Gibson who introduced Godine to Thorndike.
“So far this has not only been a happy marriage but I’ve learned from Thorndike,” Godine said. “What I believe is, if we had signed with any New York publisher, we would have disappeared.” He appreciates the infusion of cash that Thorndike has provided DRG, which will enable it to be financially sound and to give advances to authors. Under the transition plan, Thornike is actively involved in DRG, and Godine will continue contributing to the press, primarily by shepherding and editing books that he previously signed. He will also remain on the board with Thorndike and Gibson.
Another former DRG staffer, David Allender, who dropped out of college to work at the press 40 years ago, returned in July as part of the management team. Allender, who served as senior v-p at Scholastic Book Clubs, is currently managing director of DRG but will become publisher on January 1. Working with him is editorial director Joshua Bodwell, who edited DRG’s three-volume collection of Andre Dubus’s short stories and novellas, which was published last year.
Going forward, Allender, Bodwell, and Thorndike want to make DRG into a boutique publisher of 30–40 new books per year—up from 25, including reprints, under Godine—with the same quality, breadth, and elegance long associated with the press. At the same time, they want to ensure that books come out on time, which hasn’t always happened in the past, and that the list includes more diverse and underrepresented authors. “We are very excited to preserve DRG’s legacy of excellence,” Thorndike said.
The press—which publishes fiction, nonfiction, children’s, and illustrated books—will add more narrative nonfiction. In addition to physical books, Bodwell is planning to add more audio and e-book offerings; currently, DRG has just a handful.
Allender and Bodwell have cut back on the number of titles DRG will release in fall 2019 to focus on the transition. Eleven books are slated for spring 2020. They range from a revised edition of Harvey Kaiser’s Great Camps of the Adirondacks, the first full-color book published by DRG in 1982, to a history of picture books from antiquarian children’s bookseller Chris Loker, titled Shimmer of Joy. Other titles include Wicked Enchantment, a collection of Wanda Coleman’s poetry, selected and introduced by Terrence Hayes for the Black Sparrow imprint, which is being revived.
If these titles aren’t sufficient to meet Allender’s goal “to make noise,” the press’s signing with Two Rivers for distribution, beginning with the spring list in March 2020, should help. Previously, Godine personally called on accounts and handled distribution out of DRG’s warehouse in Jaffrey, N.H. Two Rivers director Nick Parker called DRG a “cult classic” because of the quality of the books, and he’s confident that Two Rivers can boost Godine’s sales, beginning with moving DRG from nonreturnable to returnable.
As for Thorndike, he’s confident in DRG’s future. “There’s no push to grow the company,” he said. Instead, he plans to continue implementing changes and adding staff thoughtfully as he transforms DRG, which will turn 50 next year, into a 21st-century press. One of Thorndike’s goals it to take advantage of the press’s independence to encourage authors to stay with DRG. “We’ll always keep the press small and nimble,” he said.