The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read

Overview

Post-war American publishing has been ruthlessly transformed since André Schiffrin joined its ranks in 1956. Gone is a plethora of small but prestigious houses that often put ideas before profit in their publishing decisions, sometimes even deliberately. Now six behemoths share 80% of the market and profit margin is all.

André Schiffrin can write about these changes with authority because he witnessed them from inside a conglomerate, as head of Pantheon, co-founded by his ...

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Overview

Post-war American publishing has been ruthlessly transformed since André Schiffrin joined its ranks in 1956. Gone is a plethora of small but prestigious houses that often put ideas before profit in their publishing decisions, sometimes even deliberately. Now six behemoths share 80% of the market and profit margin is all.

André Schiffrin can write about these changes with authority because he witnessed them from inside a conglomerate, as head of Pantheon, co-founded by his father, bought (and sold) by Random House. And he can write about them with candor because he is no longer on the inside, having quit corporate publishing in disgust to set up a flourishing independent house, The New Press. Schiffrin’s evident affection for his authors sparkles throughout a story woven around publishing the work of those such as Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Juliet Mitchell, R. D. Laing, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P.Thompson.

Part-memoir, part-history, here is an account of the collapsing standards of contemporary publishing that is irascible, acute and passionate. An engaging counterpoint to recent, celebratory memoirs of the industry written by those with more stock options and fewer scruples than Schiffrin, The Business of Books warns of the danger to adventurous, intelligent publishing in the bullring of today’s marketplace.

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Editorial Reviews

Business Week
“Forceful evidence that corporate insistence on higher profits has been cultural and business folly.”
The Nation
“Newsworthy and important, eloquent, smart, thoughtful, and well-presented.”
Financial Times
“An absorbing account of the revolution in publishing during the last decade.”
Nouvel Observateur
“André Schiffrin presents a somber portrait of American publishing where the pursuit of profit has strangled all creativity.”
The Times [London]
“Andre Schiffrin is an old-fashioned New York publisher, the sort that loves and believes in books. Not just best-sellers, but little books with big ideas.”
From the Publisher
“Andre Schiffrin is an old-fashioned New York publisher, the sort that loves and believes in books. Not just best-sellers, but little books with big ideas.”—The Times [London]

“André Schiffrin presents a somber portrait of American publishing where the pursuit of profit has strangled all creativity.”—Nouvel Observateur

“Newsworthy and important, eloquent, smart, thoughtful, and well-presented.”—The Nation

“An absorbing account of the revolution in publishing during the last decade.”—Financial Times

“Forceful evidence that corporate insistence on higher profits has been cultural and business folly.”—Business Week

Business Week
[A]n absorbing memoir of Schiffrin's fascinating life.
Time Out New York
In this slim and gutsy book, the esteemed publishing veteran tracks the grim trajectory of publishing.
Sunday Telegraph
An elegantly written and not over-rancorous account of one man's career as a publisher.
Times [London]
Schiffrin is an old-fashioned New York publisher; the sort that loves and believes in books.
Nouvel Observateur
Andre Schiffrin presents a sombre portrait of American publishing where the pursuit of profit has strangled all creavitity.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The descendant of a distinguished publishing family, Schiffrin has been the gadfly of American publishing ever since he quit his post as head of Random House's Pantheon imprint in a blaze of publicity 10 years ago, complaining that the publisher's new management wanted to trim his list severely, removing from it many of the socially conscious titles he was proud to publish. He went on to found and run the New Press, which, with strong foundation support, has continued to do many of the kinds of books that Schiffrin insists should be published, but which he claims have increasingly been abandoned by big commercial houses. In this brief but pithy treatise, some of which has already appeared in Europe, Schiffrin forcefully argues that publishing only for immediate commercial return is not only economically shortsighted but culturally disastrous. Without being unduly nostalgic for the "good old days," he insists that big American publishers used to offer lists that were much better balanced between popular entertainment and necessary social and political commentary than they are today. He further argues that the attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste, which has, he says, led network television and movies in such depressing directions, has dumbed down publishing to an alarming degree, robbing it of much of its standing as a vehicle for the expression of significant ideas and outlooks that may not have instant appeal. Whether the increasing use of the Internet for publishing will prove to expand this more enlightened mission remains to be seen, but based on past experience with the urgencies of the profit motive, Schiffrin is not optimistic. His book is a salutary and sensibly written reminder of the ideals that drew so many into publishing, and that, if he is right, are so seldom reflected in it today. (Oct.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Schiffrin's well-written memoir of his 44-year publishing career is a testament to the vitality of independent houses and a powerful indictment of the oligopolies that have swallowed them up. In 1961, the author joined Pantheon Books, which his father had cofounded in 1942 and which had just been purchased by Random House. Schiffrin cultivated a stable of authors, including Michel Foucault, Studs Turkel, Noam Chomsky, and E.P. Thompson, whose work, though unlikely to yield immediate financial returns, was bold and, ultimately, influential. Pantheon's reputation grew with that of its authors, yet with the sales of Random House (in 1965 to RCA and in 1980 to S.I. Newhouse) the "logic of the profit center" became paramount. Five media conglomerates currently account for 80 percent of U.S. book sales, and the author, who left Pantheon to found the nonprofit New Press in 1992, details how they sacrifice editorial diversity for profit margins. Less anecdotal than Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Michael Korda's Another Life (LJ 5/1/99), Schiffrin's memoir is far more pessimistic about the future of commercial publishing and its impact on American intellectual life. Highly recommended for academic, business, and literary collections. (Index not seen.)--Richard Koss, "Library Journal" Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\
Business Week
An absorbing memoir of Schiffrin's fascinating life.
Village Voice
A brief, incisive social history of post-war publishing in America ... a riveting chronicle of the rise and fall of the American reader.
Green
The Business of Books provides an absorbing memoir of Schiffrin's fascinating life.
Business Week
From the Publisher
“A brief, incisive social history of post-war publishing in America ... a riveting chronicle of the rise and fall of the American reader.”—Village Voice

“An absorbing account of the revolution in publishing during the last decade.”—Financial Times

“Forceful evidence that corporate insistence on higher profits has been cultural and business folly. Moreover, while arguing this position, The Business of Books provides an absorbing memoir of Schiffrin’s fascinating life.”—Business Week

“Impassioned ... a fascinating account of the post-World War II publishing scene.”—USA Today

“Newsworthy and important ... eloquent and anguished ... impassioned and filled with righteous, if quiet, indignation ... smart, thoughtful and well-presented, News told truthfully and with loving care can always bring some hope.”—The Nation

“Schiffrin takes apart the publishing industry in a detached, careful manner, as if deboning a trout. He is impressively thorough and logical.”—Rocky Mountain News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781859843628
  • Publisher: Verso Books
  • Publication date: 10/1/1901
  • Pages: 194
  • Sales rank: 1,278,024
  • Product dimensions: 5.25 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.45 (d)

Meet the Author

André Schiffrin was, for thirty years, the publisher of Pantheon Books. In 1990 Schiffrin left Pantheon to found The New Press. He is the author of The Business of Books, Words and Money, A Political Education, and Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of America’s Leading Comic Artists. He divides his time between Paris and New York.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments
Preface to the Paperback Edition
Introduction 1
1 Good Reading for the Few and for the Millions 15
2 Pantheon's Second Generation 33
3 Fixing the Bottom Line 73
4 Market Censorship 103
5 Self-Censorship and the Alternatives 129
6 The New Press 155
Notes 173
Index 175
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Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2000

    A Must for Those Who Care about New Ideas and Reading!

    Mr. Schiffrin has used the benefit of 40 years of publishing experience to develop a powerful argument that society is being denied access to important new ideas through books. This is occurring because of changes in ownership (and management philosophies) in the publishing industry, and similar effects in book retailing. Along the way in telling this story, you will read many interesting stories about publishing now-famous authors like Gunnar Myrdal (later winner of the Novel Prize) and Studs Terkel. The former economic concept of a publisher was to earn an adequate income overall, and to operate as frugally as possible. Editors were paid like academics, and physical plant was modest. Profits above what was absolutely needed could be plowed back into books that presented important ideas, but might not earn their keep, and books that would require time to develop an audience. Books that challenged the conventional wisdom were often best sellers in this environment. That kind of public opinion shift seldom happens today through books. Mr. Schiffrin uses his own publishing experiences as a microcosm of these issues. Pantheon, which his father founded, was sold to Random House in 1961, and mr. Schiffrin joined to work in marketing. After Random House was bought by RCA, financial discipline was brought in to require that each book seek to earn a profit from its own activities in the near term. That began a process of trimming and redirecting lists. Later, Random House was sold again, this time to S.I. Newhouse. Plans were soon afoot to greatly reduce Pantheon, and the staff eventually resigned en masse to protest just as the ax started to fall. Mr. Schiffrin left, also, and began a search for funding to start a new publishing house, The New Press. He was able to launch this independent publisher with the help of several foundation grants and W.W. Norton being willing to distribute the books. Random House, meanwhile, did not grow its profits very much and was sold to Bertelsmann in 1998. During these intervening years, Newhouse actually lost lots of money seeking to improve profits in book publishing. Enormous losses occurred in unearned advances in seeking blockbusters. Overhead costs soared as salaries, marketing, and expense accounts were expanded enormously. By seeking ever higher near-term profits, publishers have established a market test for new books that makes it more attractive to publish an offshoot of a new Hollywood movie than a book challenging the political orthodoxy. Books like the former have swelled while the latter have dwindled. Many publishers and imprints now publish in very few categories, with limited types of books in those remaining categories. The industry has also become very concentrated. Ten publishers accounted for 75 percent of U.S. book sales in 1999. The publishing operations themselves are now small parts of large media conglomerates. Some of these publishing conglomerates seem to use book publishing as a way to curry favor for other parts of their businesses. Rupert Murdoch appeared to have done so in publishing a certain work while not publishing others, in a way that would be most appealing to Chinese politicians while trying to get permission to take Sky Broadcasting into mainland China. Even university presses are under tighter budgets. This means that about 1 percent of the book publishing resources are available through independent, university, and religious-organization-connected presses to open the doors to unpopular ideas. He argues that this is a challenge to our very concept of a free society. I agree wholeheartedly. The main countervailing force is the Internet. No one knows how this will play out, but it could change the economics of book publishing to allow independent publishers and self-publishing to flourish. If electronic publishing becomes more mainstream, fewer authors may feel that they need the traditional publishers. Stephen King's now-f

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