The Ethical Culture Review of Books



The Business of Books by André Schiffrin

Reviewed by Meredith Sue Willis

The Business of Books
André Schiffrin
Verso, New York. 2000
175 pp. $23.00
ISBN 1-85984-763-3

Late in this trenchant little book about the publishing industry, André Schiffrin relates the story of how big American bakery monopolies ran small bakeries out of business in the early twentieth century. National brands like Tip Top and Wonder undercut the small bakeries’ prices and offered big discounts to grocery stores to get shelf space for their products. The smaller producers were driven into bankruptcy, and Americans were left with “plastic-wrapped and plastic tasting bread that was more expensive than the locally produced loaves it replaced.” Many years later, Schiffrin points out, specialty bakeries have begun to flourish again in urban centers with delicious but expensive breads, affordable by relatively few.
This, in a nutshell, is also the unfortunate story of publishing according to Schiffrin. Of course there is a lot more in the book, which begins with a survey of publishing in general– how both in Europe and the U.S. publishing has always been a business that prided itself on balancing “the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books.” He moves on to the specific stories of his father’s and his own lives in publishing. Schiffrin’s father was a French Jew driven out of the publishing business in France just before the Second World War, eventually relocating to the U.S. The elder Schiffrin joined the newly formed Pantheon Press, which was publishing the work of Europeans like Gide, Camus, Maritain, Hermann Broch, and others. The younger Schiffrin, after some false starts, came to work for Pantheon too, now owned by Random House. He worked there for thirty years, publishing E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Eugene Genovese, Staughton Lynd, and F.R. Leavis. Many of Pantheon’s authors in the 1950's and 60's were victims of red-baiting; others were at the cutting edge of new ideas in psychology and other fields.
Schiffrin’s story of Pantheon and its projects has great intrinsic interest, but the heart of his book is the comparison between the way the old Pantheon acquired books and the changes that began in earnest in the 1980's. This is the period when diversified corporations (that is, corporations whose business included many products besides books) took over more and more publishing houses, and even relatively benign large houses like Random, owner of Pantheon, began increasingly to act like the large corporations. The rules, says Schiffrin, were changed, “and each book was expected to make a sufficient contribution both to overhead and to profit.” That doesn’t sound unreasonable at first hearing, but Schiffrin reminds us that back lists and popular books have historically been used in part to subsidize books that are less popular, or slower to become popular. He says that the Free Marketplace of Ideas “does not refer to the market value of each idea. On the contrary, what it means is that ideas of all sorts should have a chance to be put to the public, to be expressed and argued fully.” Thus, slow-selling books often, over time, make their mark either directly in slow but growing sales or indirectly, by affecting other ideas in the great agora of human thought.
Under the rule of the giant, diversified corporations, every single book is evaluated strictly for its likely profitability. Every book is supposed to contribute not only to its own editing, production, and publicity, but also to contribute to the furnishings of corporate headquarters and to the bloated salaries of CEO’s. The old publishers had certainly been wealthy men, but they never expected the kind of profits from books that the new masters demanded. Senior people were let go to save money, and the bright and hard working young people who remained did not know that publishing had ever been different. The new head of Random House even expected the different divisions within Random House to compete with each other to acquire profitable books. This, of course, drove up costs, which had to be borne by each division and each book within each division. Random House and most of the other publishers thus began to bring out only books that could be sold to the broadest base of customers.
While the mind set of maximizing profit above all else may be acceptable among manufacturers of toilet tissue, it is extremely frightening in the arena of ideas and expression. One immediate result of the pre-eminence of the huge, diversified corporations has been the loss of political content in books. “Censorship,” says Schiffrin, “used to come from company bosses who were intolerant toward dissenting opinions. Today, while individual owners are still very concerned with imposing their own views, overall corporate interests have become far more important in controlling the circulation of ideas."
When Schiffrin and his colleagues were forced out of Pantheon, they did something extremely unusual, which was to orchestrate a protest against the policies of the parent company. Schiffrin has now formed a small nonprofit publishing company, The New Press. The story of this new venture and the possibility of other small, worthy institutions, is Schiffrin’s hope for the future of books. He is not, however, sanguine about these small presses or about new technologies and media, which he thinks will likely be controlled soon by corporations just as book publishing is.
One can only hope that he is wrong in this final conclusion.

Meredith Sue Willis's trilogy of novels about coming of age in the nineteen sixties includes Higher Ground, Only Great Changes, and Trespassers.