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Andre Schiffrin, founder of the independent publishing house The New Press. Prior to that he spent 3

Andre Schiffrin on 50 Years in Publishing World, From Corporate Consolidation to Founding Independent Non-Profit

Wednesday, March 28th, 2007

Andre Schiffrin has been a leading figure in the book publishing world for nearly 50 years. As head of Pantheon books Andre Schiffrin edited titles by Jean-Paul Sartre, Studs Terkel, Art Spiegelman, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault. In 1990 he resigned and set up the non-profit publishing house The New Press. Schiffrin has also written several of his own books including, his new memoir, "A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York." [rush transcript included]



  • Andre Schiffrin, founder of the independent publishing house The New Press. Prior to that he spent 30 years as the publisher of Pantheon Books. He is author of the new book "A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York."

AMY GOODMAN: Well, our next guest has been a leading figure in the book publishing world for nearly half a century. As head of Pantheon Books, Andre Schiffrin edited the titles by Jean-Paul Sartre, Studs Terkel, Art Spiegelman, Noam Chompsky, Michel Foucault.

In 1990, he resigned Pantheon and set up the nonprofit publishing house, The New Press. Andre Schiffrin has also written several of his own books, including The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Change the Way We Read. He's just written a new memoir, it's called A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York. Andre Schiffrin joins us now in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, usually I know it’s -- just delve into the book you just published, but in your work and in that first book, where you talked about these multinational conglomerates, explain how publishing works. Who owns the publishing houses?

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, publishing used to be what you could call artisanal. It was family firms that were many in number and had a wide choice of books and so on. And in the US and, in fact, in Europe, made about 3% or 4% a year in the way of profit, which was enough to keep going, but not enough to make a huge amount of money.

In recent years, through a long process which I described in the Business of Books, large media conglomerates have begun to buy more and more of publishing. People who own radio, television, cable, magazines, newspapers and so on, and they-the five largest conglomerates now control 80% of the books that are published in the US, for the general reader.

AMY GOODMAN: Give us some examples.

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, Bertelsmann is the most notorious and which owns --

AMY GOODMAN: This is a German company.

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: The German company which owns -- well, a lot of them are foreigners, which is interesting, which owns Random House group and so on. Holtzbrinck, another German conglomerate, owns Farrar Strauss and Macmillan and other firms that are very distinguished. Murdoch, of course, owns Harper Collins and has made it part of his empire.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say Murdoch, of course, owns Harper Collins, I don't think most people -- same way when you go into a grocery store and it looks like there are a lot of choices, and then you learn that all of these food companies, many of them are owned by the same company, the same in publishing, because they have different names. The imprints are different, people assume that they're competitors.

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Right. People have maintained that illusion, and, of course, it's useful for them not to say, you know, you had another book published, brought to you by Rupert Murdoch, and so they keep the names of the old imprints. And the same thing happens in the bookstore. When you go into a grocery store and see a pile of Nabisco crackers, you don't think it’s a staff pick -- but when you go into a bookstore, you see a pile of books next to the cash register, and you don't know that that's been paid for, that the chains get a great deal of money from the publishers to highlight their books at the end of each counter or in front of the cashier's desk.

And of course, the whole point of that is to stress the bestseller and to cut back on the choice that people have had. So that makes an enormous difference. It makes a difference in what's available and what's being published and also in the politics. One of the things that struck me the most on Iraq is that during the first two years of the Bush administration, the crucial years, not a single large publisher, none of the conglomerates, published a book critical of what Bush was doing and what was going on in Iraq.

That was because they had other interests that went beyond the book market. They were interested, as Kucinich was saying, in what the FCC might do for them. They had all sorts of other irons in the fire. So this is something that's very dangerous.

The newspapers as we know can make up to 26% as an average a year profit. The book publishers were making 3% or 4%. The solution is not to lower the profits of the newspaper, it' was to try and raise the profits of the publishing houses, and that has meant a complete transformation of what's available from the larger houses. Whole areas that used to be basic to their trade have disappeared. And though there are still good publishers doing the best they can under the profit pressures, it's enormously changed the choice that Americans have.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened to you at Pantheon. You were there for 30 years. When you first came, who was it owned by, and what happened by the end?

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Right, well, it was owned by Random House when I got there, and it had been a small, independent firm before, and Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer had bought Knopf at the time.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is Bennett Cerf?

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Bennett Cerf was the well-known television personality, but also a great publisher who was head of Random House, as well as his partner, Donald Klopfer. And they ran a very good, old-fashioned, American publishing house featuring mostly American writers, like O’Hara and Faulkner and so on.

They then bought Alfred Knopf's firm, which had been the most distinguished publisher of books from abroad, books from Japan, books from Europe and so on. And then for dessert they bought Pantheon. And one of the things that we tend to forget is that American law is against the family firm, because everyone dies and everyone has to pay inheritance taxes. The corporation is immortal.

And so there is always a pressure on a publishing house to sell out, which is what happened to Bennett Cerf and Random House. They sold out to RCA at the time when all the electronics giants, Raytheon and others were trying to buy up publishing houses. That was the time of wall street's believing in synergy, which turned out, is as the case with many things, that wall street believes in to be mythical.

And so after that, they sold -- RCA got out, they sold a firm to Conde Nast, owned by Sy Newhouse, who owns Vogue and a lot of television and radio and so on. When he came in, he said he didn’t want change anything in what we were doing, but it became very clear very soon that he wasn't happy, both with the quality of the material, which was too high, not too low, and also with the politics. And so after a few years --

AMY GOODMAN: How did it become clear?

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, in 1990, and I describe this in the book, the man he put in charge of the firm, a former banker called Alberto Vitali, came to us and said we'd like to you cut out 2/3 of your list of all the books that would have been, the Foucaults and the others that were not sure bestsellers. And --

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Michel Foucault is.

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, he was one of the many important French philosophical figures that we published, and he still is a great influence and probably, after Sartre, the most important of the French philosophers of the last century.

But also, he was very unhappy with what we were publishing politically, with the Chompsky’s and the others that we had published over the years, and Vitali said, why can't you publish more books on the right rather than on the left?

It was clear to us at that point that we were in a situation where there was no compromise, no solution. So all of my colleagues and I resigned at the same time, which is something that normally doesn't happen in publishing. When there's a new owner, everybody says, well, let's see maybe we can work it out, we don't want to leave our corner offices, and so on. But we did leave all together.

AMY GOODMAN: How many of you?

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, there were six who left altogether, the editorial left, and there was a big picket line outside Random House. There was a lot of noise about it, protests from all over Europe and so on. And it was clear that people saw that as a sea change, a moment when the conglomerates would really try to alter, as they had been doing what was published.

And so because it was such a famous incident, I was able to start a not-for-profit house based on the idea of NPR, PBS called The New Press, which is now celebrating its 15th anniversary. We had the manuscripts, we had our best-selling authors, like Studs Terkel and others who stayed loyal to us, very courageously, and we --

AMY GOODMAN: Mean leaving Pantheon and joining you.

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Right. Of all the hundreds, if not thousands of authors I had published at Pantheon over the thirty years only two stayed behind.

AMY GOODMAN: Who stayed behind?

ANDRE SCHIFFRIN: Well, it don't want to embarrass them. And one of them because they had an agent who wanted them to stay behind.

But most of the authors understood that this was a major crisis and a major change in American publishing, and even in another firms, it you've seen people like Kurt Vonnegut leaving the Bertelsmann group with his famous novels and going to a tiny publisher called Seven Stories. Increasingly, there are other alternatives. There are small houses, some of them formerly de facto, not for profit as we are, sorry -- some de jury, not de facto, not making a lot of money, but there is an attempt, both here and in Europe, to have an alternative to the conglomerates.

AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Andre Schiffrin. He’s written a new book about his own life, A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York.

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