Nude Erections was the rather purple homophone favored by Ezra Pound to refer to the publishing house he goaded into existence in 1936. Having agreed to meet the American James Laughlin, a wealthy heir to a steel fortune, Pound first savaged the young man's verse, and then asked, "Why don't you take up something useful?" Laughlin, still at Harvard, took EP's advice, and literary high modernism was set in motion. He became a publisher.

The first book, New Directions in Prose and Poetry, edited by Laughlin, contained the work of, among others, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Bishop and Henry Miller. Seventy years later, New Directions has long outlived its founder (Laughlin died in 1997), yet lives healthily on its well-earned reputation—and backlist. With so many giants of 20th-century literature in its stable—Tennessee Williams, Hermann Hesse, Jorge Luis Borges, Octavio Paz—the house can rely on steady sales, which last year topped $2.5 million. "We break even, at least," says editor-in-chief Barbara Epler." Some years we do better, and we plow back into the company."

In the 1960s and '70s, a New Directions book had a signature look. Writer Eliot Weinberger said, on the occasion of Laughlin's death, "The black-and-white covers of N.D. books were unmistakable on the bookstore shelves, and I would buy any of them, knowing that if N.D. published it, it was something that had to be read." Mitchell Kaplan, owner of Books & Books in Florida, says, "New Directions books are what got me into bookselling. Their authors were enormously influential to me."

"Our backlist is kind of our frontlist," says Epler. Nabokov's Laughter in the Dark, first published in English in 1938, is the lead title for this fall and features a new introduction by John Banville. Also on this fall's list are reissues of Djuna Barnes's classic Nightwood, with a new preface by Jeanette Winterson, and John Gardner's The Sunlight Dialogues, introduced by Charles Johnson.

Epler admits that modernism "has fallen out of fashion in certain circles." So the house is ramping up its efforts to remind booksellers of the New Direction treasures. "This year, we decided to offer larger discounts to booksellers who buy three copies of each of five books from a list of 10."

This year, surrounding the 70th anniversary, there will be further reminders of the New Directions tradition: the Poetry Society of America is hosting a large public event at the New School in Manhattan in December and a smaller, invitation-only gathering will take place at Housing Works in November. The longer testament to Laughlin and his publishing house occurs, appropriately, between book covers, when New Directions publishes The Way It Wasn't, a handsome book of notes, poems, correspondence and photographs culled from Laughlin's files.

The Way It Wasn't—edgy, clear-eyed and not always flattering—is filled with oddities (snapshots of nude women), colorful letters (impressing Dylan Thomas with his misogyny) and brutal salvos at authors who had left the house. When poet Anne Carson left after one book, Laughlin appealed to his editor-in-chief at the time, Griselda Ohannessian. "Dear G... Anne Carson is flirting with some lady at Knopf.... How serious do you think she is about this move?"

Laughlin's instincts were right—to want to keep Carson, who has gone on, at Knopf, edited first by Amy Schiebe, then Robin Desser, to reap numerous awards. "He fell in love a little with Anne," says Epler. "Being rich himself, he couldn't hear that Anne really needed the money. He wanted to be loved for himself, not for his money."

This fall, Laughlin will be fondly remembered for himself, and for what he did with his money.

Top 10 Bestsellers
Backlist carries the house. Year to year, these are the best performers at New Directions. The Glass Menagerie and Siddhartha are also the top two all-time for the house.
The Glass Menagerie, Tennessee Williams, $10.95 (2 million copies to date) Siddhartha, Hermann Hesse, $8.95 (1 million) A Streetcar Named Desire, Tennessee Williams, $9.95 Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre, $12.95 Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges, $13.95 Miss Lonelyhearts, Nathanael West, $11.95 New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton, $13.95 The Captain's Verses, Pablo Neruda, $12.95 The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald, $15.95 Selected Poems, Dylan Thomas, $14.95