Words’ worth

American publishing & the troubling shape of things to come.

Nov 22, 2000 at 12:00 am

Some things are timeless, or so we think. The scene of reading — in a cozy armchair, on a park bench, in a café, on a train — requires only a mind and a book for this age-old process to occur. But how will we do our reading in this new century, and what will we find to read after all?

These seem like fairly simple questions with obvious answers: Why, we’ll just go down to our local bookseller and pick something interesting off the shelves. But what is interesting? How does “interesting” get produced? And how do we choose what we read? The answers to these questions open into dark corridors that lead to even murkier boardroom scenarios.

One of the most troubling of these involves the business of books, explains editor-publisher André Schiffrin, a man whose involvement with publishing runs in his blood.

Schiffrin’s father, a Russian-French-Jewish publisher, sought refuge from World War II in the United States in 1941, became an important member of the émigré intellectual community in New York City and founded Pantheon, one of America’s premier publishing houses from the ’50s through the ’90s. In 1961, the younger Schiffrin, fresh out of college and with just two years of experience at New American Library, was asked to succeed his late father at Pantheon. He soon became managing director of this adventurous house and stayed on for 30 years of some of the most innovative publishing of the 20th century.

From Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum and R.D. Laing’s The Politics of Experience to Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and Studs Terkel’s Working — from Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed to Mark Green’s Reagan’s Reign of Error, Pantheon proceeded to make friends (and enemies) and influence people, while adding works of political and historical analysis to its literary list. But it’s precisely the movement of politics and history that turns Schiffrin’s tale of literary success into one of engulfing conflict.

Beginning as early as 1965, Schiffrin watched as more and more independent publishers (Harper’s, Simon & Schuster, McGraw-Hill, Knopf) got swallowed up by larger and larger (and fewer and fewer) international entities. From a small, independent house, which had used profits from high-quality, best-selling works to finance limited runs of important books with less than mass-market appeal, Pantheon found itself being transformed into a corporate drone like any other. The bottom line, once a modest but respectable margin of profitability, became the overriding reason for existence.

The catalyst for The Business of Books — which is simultaneously a personal memoir, a history of postwar publishing and a profound critique of the forces shaping the international literary marketplace — was Schiffrin’s decision to resign from Pantheon in 1990. It was a choice he made reluctantly, but one which became unavoidable in the wake of successive takeovers of the house by ever more profit-driven, ruthless parent companies. Pantheon’s original practice of financing low-volume titles with best-sellers was junked in favor of a policy in which only books which paid for themselves and generated profit got published.

“The books that had raised questions about broader social issues vanished, as did the more demanding intellectual and cultural titles. One of the lead titles published under the Pantheon imprint in the fall of 1998 was a collection of photographs of Barbie dolls,” writes Schiffrin in a key chapter called “Fixing the Bottom Line.”

However, he immediately found a way to continue his commitment to publishing books of integrity, books that mattered. In an alternative project, called The New Press, Schiffrin was joined by former colleagues from the publishing wars, also disenchanted with the overriding greed of the corporate approach. The New Press is a not-for-profit house, launched with foundation grants and university support, and dedicated to principles that the original Pantheon promoted. It publishes roughly 50 titles a year.

But can the growing independent press movement (including larger houses such as W.W. Norton which have managed to keep control of their operations; small literary presses such as Coffee House Press and Sun & Moon, which are solidly in the old City Lights-Grove Press-New Directions cutting-edge tradition; and the venerable university presses) compete with the giant conglomerates? Schiffrin, on the phone from New York, is under no illusions: “With the five largest companies controlling 80 percent and the 20 largest controlling 93 percent of sales, the independents are not really going to challenge them on the commercial front. All together we don’t amount to 1 percent of sales. On an intellectual front, however, we are publishing increasingly the books that they should have published and the books that reviewers feel ought to be reviewed, and a lot of their authors are coming over to all of us. It’s interesting that the new Kurt Vonnegut is being published by Seven Stories rather than by Bertelsmann, so in that respect it is a challenge and I think it’s a very important one. But it’s not what the real challenge to the monopolies would be, (which is) antitrust action.”

Then there’s the Internet, with e-publishing projects such as Cybereditions proliferating by the dozens, everybody and his sister launching niche sites, and more and more information being made available by the minute. Can downloadable books and publishing on demand make a dent in the corporate edifice?

Says Schiffrin, “There are going to be more and more of these Internet publications, and the same problems are really going to be there. The question is, how do you tell people a book is there? — and having a lot of money helps. Random House is starting something called Ex Libris, which they say will publish 100,000 manuscripts a year. That’s one-and-a-half times more than all the books being published in the U.S. The question is, once you have 200,000 books a year instead of 100,000, how are people going to know what’s being published?”

Bertelsmann, Random House, Time Warner, etc. — the transnational media giants moving toward complete control of what we read, watch and listen to (what we find “interesting”) — make Schiffrin’s The Business of Books a must read for more than just critics and industry observers. In chapters titled “Market Censorship” and “Self-Censorship and the Alternatives,” he maps out the unsavory consequences of doing intellectual business with but one goal — maximum profit — in mind.

Schiffrin’s is a disturbing but still hopeful look around the launching pads of ideas, in a landscape that in the last decade has never seen such intense activity. Things are definitely changing.

Check out the New Press Web site at www.thenewpress.com and visit www.feedmag.com/dialog/di402lofi.html for a André Schiffrin’s discussion of the state of publishing, sponsored by Feed Magazine.

George Tysh is Metro Times arts editor. E-mail him at [email protected].