How David Godine Got Started

“I really got started at Dartmouth because Ray Nash (a legendary teacher there) was giving his courses on ‘Books and Bookmaking’ and ‘Prints and Printmaking.’ These were unusual (at least for Dartmouth) in that they combined serious study of the subject, looking firsthand at the objects involved and finally (and probably most importantly) actually setting type, printing it, and doing the same for prints.

"So you not only had the theoretical background and the history, but also some practical knowledge based on actual experience My senior year I was awarded a Senior Fellowship which absolved me of formal course work and allowed me to travel in Europe to visit the great libraries and also print my first book entirely handset ad printed on a Vandercook proof press. 112 pages, printed in fours in an edition of (gulp) 500 copies. Very few sold, but that’s another story.

"So when we began, we really had our roots in printing and design, not publishing (about which we knew nothing). But most of the early books were still issued in relatively large quantities and at very low prices. We did not think of ourselves as a ‘private press’ in any sense, and we did a lot of work for others to survive in those first years.”


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Indie Groundbreaking Publisher

David R. Godine, Publisher

The Traditional Book Lives On

In this day and age, you may not consider sticking to print “groundbreaking,” but David R. Godine, Publisher has a dedication to the physical book that we at Independent Publisher deeply admire. Undaunted by the advance of digital technology, Godine sticks to their guns and continues to produce their beautiful print books each year.

Founded in 1970 by David Godine (a Dartmouth and Harvard grad), the Boston-based house has been printing specialty books since those early years. According to their website, the very first books were “printed on [David Godine’s] own presses, were nearly all letterpress, limited editions printed on high-quality rag or handmade paper.” From children’s books to photography to translated works, Godine has mastered the art of print.

“I stick with books because I know how to make them,” David Godine told me, “and I still think they exist independently as physical objects, and in some cases, highly attractive physical objects. They are, at root, articles of convenience; they have to work. But they can, in the right hands, also exist independently as works of art. Also, they are something I understand. If I had been born in your generation, I might well be taking an entirely different approach.”

David was another of my favorite Yale Book Publishing Course speakers, and although his methods are, well, highly orthodox, his approach to preserving the print book resonated with many people at the course. During his presentation, he referred to publishers as being “the gate keepers of culture” (pat yourselves on the back), but how will this role change as digitization takes hold?

“It could change completely,” David predicted, “because everyone will have access to the technology involved in printing and distributing a book. You no longer require the layers of distribution apparatus (warehouses, sales outlets, sales reps, invoicing equipment, etc.) it took to get a book out into the marketplace. It can be done completely online with no physical book even produced.”

A bit of a bleak future outlook, isn’t it? Enter the importance of the print book, and of a hardworking publisher. David pointed out that when personal computers became commonplace 20 years ago, everyone had the ability to write and compose a book, but they did not have the ability to publish. They needed a publisher to fix up manuscripts, print the book and do the marketing. People also needed the credibility of a legitimate publisher’s imprint for notice, reviews and sales. Luckily, those last bits still hold true. While folks can use the Internet to bypass a publisher and create the book themselves, very few of those books will be successful without the “brand” a good publisher offers, nor will they have been privy to important publisher services like editing and design.

The Godine house has experimented with going online, though certainly not to the extent of many other publishers. You could chalk it up to old-fashioned ways, but the heart of the matter is that these books, produced on gorgeous papers with unparalleled illustrations and typography (and, of course, content), are as much a tactile experience as a visual one. Books like that can lose a lot in the transition from print to digital.

“We basically ally ourselves with Google,” David said. “I think that Amazon is really out to put publishers out of business and that Google sees themselves as partners rather than adversaries. Also, a number of our former interns work there and I tend to trust them. I don't think that we will ever be ‘competitive’ in the digital world; people will buy our books for what they are -- well made artifacts, and a system of information retrieval that everyone understands and can easily use.”

What does he mean by that? Well, people know how to operate a book; we all know where to find table of contents, we know how to turn pages and save places and open and close a book without losing anything -- books have never required a users’ manual. (For a great video on this topic, check out this link.) In his talk at Yale, David reminded us that it’s unlikely people remember how to use technology from five years ago, and predicted that we won’t know how to use eReaders that we have now in ten years.

So never fear, there are steps we can take to ensure the survival of both publishers and print. We’re needed for our names and services, and the book’s utility will far outlive that of any eReader, iPad or computer. David is aware of the severity of the battle between print and digital, but, in the end, is still optimistic. “This threat is serious; it will take away some print business, maybe quite a bit of it. But it isn't going to put the book out of business. Over the centuries it has evolved a form perfectly suited to its use, much like the gondola and the violin.”

The bottom line? You don’t need to worry about books becoming obsolete until orchestras no longer use violins or Venice does away with gondolas (if Venice sinks, it doesn’t count). Look at the wonderful David R. Godine books below, and rest assured that print isn’t going anywhere.

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Animal Fables from Aesop adapted and illustrated by Barbara McClintock

Celebrating the twentieth anniversary of this classic depiction of Aesop on stage, here, in all their wisdom and humor, are the best of these timeless fables, selected and adapted by Barbara McClintock and illustrated in her inimitable nineteenth-century anthropomorphic style.


A Cottage Garden Alphabet by Andrea Wisnewski

This charming book of hand-colored papercuts is guaranteed to delight gardeners young and old, active and armchair. It is a delicious garden alphabet, a convention as old as the sixteenth century, but one that seems to lend itself especially well to the advantages of high relief, gaily-colored papercuts.


Wood Engraving: The Art of Wood Engraving and Relief Engraving by Barry Moser photographs by Cara Moser, foreword by Martin Antonetti

From the artist whom Nicholas Basbanes calls "the most important book illustrator working in America today" comes a primer on the art of wood engraving, a pursuit which one can "learn" in less than an hour but which one can master only through years of persistence, dedication, and indefatigable energy.


Snapshots: 20th Century Mother-Daughter Fiction edited by Joyce Carol Oates and Janet Berliner

The stories in this volume are literary snapshots from the pens of some of the century's best women writers: Isabel Allende, Margaret Atwood, Mary Gordon, Jamaica Kincaid, Gloria Naylor, Alice Walker, and Joyce Carol Oates, among others. All seventeen stories deal with a single, central, and vital theme: the relationship of mothers to daughters and daughters to mothers, and it is the interplay of this dynamic that provides the focus of these wonderfully felt and beautifully told stories. The permutations and variations on this theme are marvelously intricate and diverse: the loss of a mother to madness; the loss of a daughter to drugs; the mother who feels she has sacrificed her life to an ungrateful child; the daughter who finally sees her mother as a person in her own right. They all, in the words of Janet Berliner, “present motherhood in microcosm and affirm the truth that, while we do not all like being daughters or like our mothers, women are inextricably bonded by something that neither ethnicity nor age nor stage of life can remove. Thus, those of us who call ourselves writers inevitably turn to exploring, in words, the mother-daughter relationship.”

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Jillian Bergsma is a writer and contributing editor for Independent Publisher. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in English. She welcomes any questions or comments on her articles at jbergsma (at)