As it nears its 40th anniversary, David R. Godine Publishers has even more reason to celebrate. Last fall the eponymous Boston house, founded by Godine in 1970, was one of several small presses to benefit when Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio received the Nobel Prize in literature. Now it has its first PBS tie-in, a rebroadcast of the 10-part BBC miniseries based on Flora Thompson's trilogy of autobiographical novels chronicling her girlhood in Oxfordshire, Lark Rise to Candleford, which published last month under Godine's Nonpareil imprint. Between January and June more than 30 PBS stations will air the series. And PBS could sign on for the Christmas special as well as an additional 10 episodes.
Asked about the timing for both the Le Clézio and Thompson, Godine responds, “Luck,” and warns this writer not to make him sound too smart. “We bought Lark Rise to Candleford [by arrangement with Penguin Books, London] a year ago and had no idea it was going to be a miniseries,” he says. “There's no ulterior motive or external knowledge. I love these books. I had them in an old Oxford University Press edition. We've bought a lot of great British books lately: Gerald Durrell's Fillets of Plaice and Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie.” Quoting English novelist and critic Frank Swinnerton, he adds, “We publish what we love and do our crying in private.”
If Godine wept over sales for Le Clézio's The Prospector when he originally published it in 1993 to launch the Verba Mundi international literature imprint, he has little reason now. The paperback edition, released in November, is selling briskly, and in June he will publish the first English translation of Le Clézio's 1980 novel, Desert, which the Swedish academy cited as his breakthrough book. “This work,” the Nobel academy said, “contains magnificent images of a lost culture in the North African desert, contrasted with a depiction of Europe seen through the eyes of unwanted immigrants.”
Godine's edition of the Lark trilogy includes “As seen on PBS” as part of its cover art, and according to publicist Sue Ramin, the publisher will be working with local PBS stations on promotions.
For those who follow Godine's list, it's not surprising that it should contain award winners. He's been among the first to publish the early works of writers like John Banville, who went on to receive the Man Booker. “These things keep popping up on his list,” says Carole Horne, general manager of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass. “Nobel winners, Booker Prize winners. I think David's wonderful, and his books are stunningly beautiful.” She's not alone. Both Paul Yamazaki, head buyer at City Lights in San Francisco, and Jack Cella, general manager of the Seminary Co-op Bookstores, in Chicago, consider Godine to be a “great” publisher. “He has very strong ideas on what he should publish and how it should look,” notes Cella.
George Gibson, publishing director at Bloomsbury USA, argues that Godine, who keeps a letter press in his barn in Milton, Mass., and worked with typographer and printmaker Leonard Baskin, has had an outsized impact on the way books look today. “David was very heavily responsible for an improvement in the production quality of the industry. He really was a designer and printer before he was an editor,” says Gibson, adding that a significant percentage of what he himself knows about publishing comes from his 11 years at Godine. In fact, he's not the only head of house to have absorbed Godine's view that books should also be well-made. Michael Pietsch, executive v-p at Hachette Book Group; Ellen Faran, director of the MIT Press; and Mark Polizzotti, director of MFA Publications, all passed through Godine.
Part of what makes the press work is that Godine keeps track of everything—from shipping to collections, editorial to manufacturing—except marketing. As he notes on the godine.com Web site, “marketing still means shopping at the grocery store.” While Godine may not market per se, he does a lot of hand-selling throughout New England and as far West as Chicago. Even booksellers he doesn't usually call on, like City Lights' Yamazaki, feel compelled to drop off backorders at BEA. And he's one of the few publishers to still write orders at the regional shows.
The house that Godine built may be a bit old-fashioned, but that's all to the good as far as buyers like Yamazaki are concerned. Part of it comes from Godine's reverence for what he publishes. “Let the books speak for themselves,” he says. In the meantime, even he must feel a little glow from the dual success of Le Clézio and Thompson. Of course, this is not the first time a Godine work has gone to the screen. Todd Field's 2001 Oscar-nominated film, In the Bedroom, was based on the short story “Killings” by Andre Dubus, another writer Godine had faith in from the very beginning.