Books must stop being a sideshow to mass media

Indie publisher Andre Schiffrin argued that books are becoming 'mere adjuncts' to the corporatized media world

December 22, 2013 6:00AM ET
Andre Schiffrin, a founder of the New Press, died on Dec. 1. He was a critic of what he saw as a publishing industry increasingly driven by profitability targets.
James Keyser/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

An influential editor at Pantheon Books and later a founder of the New Press, Andre Schiffrin was an outspoken critic of the corporatization of publishing, which he saw as an attack on freedom of speech. With his death on Dec. 1 at 78, we lost one of the great publishing figures of the 20th century.

But his arguments still live — and they must. The merger between Penguin and Random House this year has created a giant company that will control 25 percent of the global book trade. The big five U.S. publishers — Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster — control roughly two-thirds of the U.S. consumer book publishing market. This narrowing of the industry to a few megapublishers threatens to marginalize novel ideas and place the world of books under corporate control.

In setting up the New Press and its public-interest mandate — to publish underrepresented voices and simultaneously reach out to an audience “intellectually red-lined” by commercial publishers — Schiffrin became a trailblazer for not-for-profit publishing.

Schiffrin also argued that books are a crucial (according to him, “just about the only”) venue for nonmainstream expression in the face of an increasingly corporate-owned press. He was the first, for example, to translate and publish Michel Foucault in the U.S. — way back in 1964, before Foucault had even made his mark on French theory. In doing so, he introduced a key moral quotient to the fight to keep book publishing independent.

Today the book trade would do well to pay heed to Schiffrin’s analyses of its decline. At stake is not only an alternative model for publishing but also a framework for continued free expression. 

What is $3 million worth?

Schiffrin was not always outside the mainstream. A year after starting at Pantheon as a junior editor in 1962, he edited Gunter Grass’ “The Tin Drum,” which became a best-seller worldwide. This marked the beginning of a stellar career, during which he uncompromisingly published books of cultural, social and political significance by the world’s leading left-wing writers and intellectuals, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky, Kurt Vonnegut, E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Art Spiegelman.

By 1990, Schiffrin had become the publisher of Pantheon Books, which Random House bought in 1960. The chief executive at Random House, Alberto Vitale, was tasked by billionaire owner S.I. Newhouse with streamlining what had become a multinational corporation. Vitale imposed cutbacks and set profitability targets; the aim was to maximize profits within each imprint.

Schiffrin refused to compromise and resigned. His departure prompted demonstrations and resignations among colleagues, a protest march spearheaded by Vonnegut and Terkel and a letter of protest signed by 300 prominent writers, including Arthur Miller and William Styron. (Vitale and Random House counterattacked, claiming that Pantheon’s losses in Schiffrin’s final year reached $3 million — a claim that Schiffrin would always dispute, arguing that Vitale and his team grossly inflated the figure to justify their profit-driven reforms.)

His departure from Pantheon under these circumstances demonstrated that the traditional publishing model, in which commercial books paid for the more-serious ones that do not widely sell, was in danger. Whereas before, the average annual profit for a publishing house stood around 3 to 4 percent, now every imprint in a publishing house had to turn 10 to 15 percent profit per year or face closure. This pressure to meet targets, Schiffrin believed, “profoundly altered the output of the major publishing houses.”

Literature in translation, for example, has moved to the margins. Three percent of all books published each year in the U.S. are translated. By contrast, 50 percent of the not-for-profit Dalkey Archive Press’ books are translations. “Dalkey Archive publishes or reprints books that 30 years ago would have been done by commercial publishers,” said Dalkey co-founder John O’Brien in a 2004 interview. “This is a radical shift in the publishing scene, a shift that has occurred so gradually that it is not easily detected.” 

More than an editor, Schiffrin became the conscience of an increasingly capitalist publishing industry.

‘Intellectually red-lined’

The New Press, which Schiffrin founded in 1992 with a former Pantheon editor, Diane Wachtell, was to be “a major alternative to the large, commercial publishers.” The New Press’ editorial program had three aims, outlined on its website:

to broaden the audience for serious intellectual work, especially by reaching out to audiences intellectually red-lined by commercial publishers; to bring out the work of traditionally underrepresented voices; and to address the problems of a society in transition, highlighting attempts at reform and innovation in a wide range of fields

With Schiffrin at its helm for more than a decade, the New Press carried on in much the same vein that Pantheon originally did. Terkel followed his editor, who also continued to publish French authors deemed unpublishable by the large U.S. houses. These included Nobel Prize for Literature laureate Claude Simon and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, whose influence on American academia is arguably reaching its apex now. In 2012 the New Press turned 20 and is still going strong, publishing 50 or so titles a year. It is also indubitable proof that a publishing house can operate editorially in the public interest. 

More than an editor, Schiffrin, after his acrimonious departure from Pantheon, became the conscience of an increasingly capitalist publishing industry. He penned biting critiques of the trade, arguing that democracy cannot exist without a free publishing industry. “Books are just about the only place you can express ideas that are not mainstream,” he said when I interviewed him for The White Review in 2010. This assessment rings true in an age when the majority of the press is also corporate-owned — although one could argue that online publishing has somewhat filled this void.

“Books today have become mere adjuncts to the world of mass media, offering light entertainment and reassurances that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds,” he wrote in his 2001 prophetic treatise on the trade, “The Business of Books.” “The resulting control on the spread of ideas is stricter than anyone would have thought possible in a free society.”

The viability of alternatives

Schiffrin’s touch is evident across the independent publishing spectrum. Melville House Press, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., is a brilliant example of what can be achieved with the small, independent publishing model, with its combined focus on political nonfiction, little-published forms like the novella and first-time writers such as Tao Lin and Lars Iyer (who have since garnered much critical acclaim). At Melville House, as at the New Press, all profits are pumped back into the publishing house. “Like a literary collective,” as the novelist Stuart Evers described the model, with each writer contributing to keeping the house afloat.

Dennis Johnson, a Melville House co-founder, credits “The Business of Books” with inspiring him to start a publishing house. “No one did so much … to define the term ‘independent publisher’ in the 21st century,” he wrote of Schiffrin on his passing.

And Schiffrin continued to seek out alternative models. In one chapter of “Words and Money,” his last book, he drew attention to Norway, whose government each year purchases 1,000 copies of 220 titles in fiction and poetry and 1,000 copies of 70 nonfiction titles for the country’s public libraries. This guarantees a minimum amount of sales for publishers and goes a long way toward covering production costs. It also guarantees authors 20 to 22.5 percent royalties (compared with the standard 10 to 15 percent in the Anglo-Saxon publishing world), ensuring that publishers can continue to publish in fields they might otherwise have abandoned.

In a country of 4 million inhabitants, the cost of this program in 2009 was 11.3 million euros ($15.5 million today), which does not seem like a big price for the state to pay for a healthy and diverse publishing culture. And with serious books selling in Norway, the policy seems to be working: Karl Ove Knausgaard’s critically acclaimed “My Struggle,” a sequence of six autobiographical novels published from 2009 to 2011 and equal in length to Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time,” has sold more than 450,000 copies. Imagine Jonathan Franzen selling an equivalent 35 million copies of “Freedom” in the U.S.

Schiffrin’s career proves that even in the U.S., one can carve out the space to be a different sort of editor, focused on publishing important and sometimes difficult books that contribute deeply to intellectual life and debate. “Madness and Civilization,” the first of Michel Foucault’s books that Schiffrin translated and published, in 1964, may not have sold very many copies in its first three years of publication, but Foucault’s importance in Western intellectual life thereafter is immeasurable. Those books must continue to be published. With the New Press and in his own writings, Schiffrin has shown us how, even in the age of corporate publishing, they might continue to be. 

Editor's note: A previous version of this essay mistakenly claimed that Melville House Press is a non-profit business. We regret the error.

Jacques Testard is a founding editor of The White Review. He has written for the Guardian, New Statesman, Times Literary Supplement, Paris Review Daily and the Sunday Times.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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