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August 11, 1985|JACK MILES | Times Book Editor

A benefactor who provides a college campus with a new gymnasium often enough gives a name with the money. A bronze plaque near the entrance or letters carved in the stone remind the users whom they have to thank.

There are other kinds of benefaction, of course, but these are sometimes honored in the same way. Thus the John Wooden Athletic Building at UCLA is not so named because John Wooden donated the money to build it but because he was a peerless basketball coach.

A similar sort of division obtains in book publishing. On the title page of a book, there may be, in addition to the basic publishing information, an imprint honoring another sort of contribution to the book than the author's or the publisher's. Thus one group of books published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich bears the imprint "A Kurt and Helen Wolff Book." HBJ has required over the years (to put it mildly) no financial assistance from Helen Wolff or her late husband. Their names on the books honor rather their astuteness in finding important new books, often in Europe, and drawing them to the attention of the American audience. Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose" was a Kurt and Helen Wolff book.

This form of the book imprint is by far the more common one. The other form--an imprint honoring a monetary contribution to a book or set of books--does exist. To find examples of it, however, one has to look to public publishing.

The phrase "public publishing" rings a bit strange. We are used to "public television" and "public radio" by now, and we are used as well to the notion that our art museums and concert halls rely on public support. Books are expected, by and large, to pay their own way; and by and large they do.

The principal exception to this rule is university publishing. University presses are supported always by tax exemption, sometimes by outright tax support, and increasingly by private largess.

Loosely, public publishing in the university press manner differs from commercial publishing as public television differs from commercial television. University press books may often be for scholars, but they are by no means always for scholars. Their common denominator is not the schoolroom but the public interest. University press books are for the few, and it is of course for that reason that they are not commercially viable. University publishing exists because it is sometimes in the public interest that the few have the book they need.

Over the decades, this truth about book publishing has prompted a few acts of publishing philanthropy analogous to the gift of a concert hall or research laboratory to a university. The Clarendon Press, a distinguished imprint at Oxford University Press, is the result of one such act of philanthropy. In the late '50s, the Clarendon example inspired Waldron Phoenix Belknap Jr., a Harvard alumnus and the heir to a fortune, to endow an imprint in his family name at Harvard University Press. The terms of the bequest made the antecedents clear: "The relationship of the Belknap Press to Harvard University Press must be as nearly analogous as possible to that of the Clarendon Press to Oxford University Press."

In practice, Harvard University Press reports, "this requirement has led to the application of one or more of the following criteria: 1)a Belknap Press book must always promise to be a distinguished work of outstanding scholarly merit or of genuine importance as a synthesis of knowledge in a given field; 2)it may also be a work which will benefit from special and costly attention to format and promotion; and 3)finally it may be so expensive a work to manufacture that the transfer of the financial burden to the Belknap Press Fund appears advisable to Press management. The governing issue, however, is that of distinction . . ."

To date, no Californian inspired by the example of Clarendon and Belknap has endowed an imprint in his or her family name at the University of California Press. However, on a few occasions in the recent past, that press has successfully raised money for a book that required special production or was costly in other ways.

The most recent such effort benefited the book reviewed today on page one of The Book Review, Tom Albright's "Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980, An Illustrated History." A consortium of San Franciscans devoted alike to the art of their city and to the memory of Albright, the late art critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, raised more than $50,000 to underwrite the cost of this book's many color illustrations and other production features, not to speak of the special effort the University of California Press has put into distributing the book.

Fifty thousand dollars does not create a Belknap Press or a Clarendon Press for California, but it is a start: This particular gift, as it happens, was not made in quite so ad hoc a fashion as earlier such gifts to the University of California Press. It came as part of an organized effort at the Press to continue in California the tradition begun at Oxford and continued at Harvard. Other gifts are said to be arriving. If the effort works, some fine moments may lie ahead in California publishing history.

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