Kafka’s first book sold 600 copies; Beckett sold three

Kafka’s first book sold 600 copies; Beckett sold three
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First Published: Sat, Nov 05 2011. 02 33 PM IST

In power: Schiffrin says he has nothing against technology in the publishing industry, but what matters is who controls it
In power: Schiffrin says he has nothing against technology in the publishing industry, but what matters is who controls it
Updated: Sat, Nov 05 2011. 02 33 PM IST
New Delhi: As the director of publishing at Pantheon Books for nearly 30 years, he edited titles by Jean-Paul Sartre, Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault.
André Schiffrin, 76, a leading figure in the New York book publishing world, quit Pantheon in 1990 to establish a not-for-profit independent publishing house, The New Press, explaining that economic trends prevented him from publishing serious books.
In power: Schiffrin says he has nothing against technology in the publishing industry, but what matters is who controls it
Schiffrin describes the crisis in Western publishing in his 2011 book, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read. In 2010, in Words and Money, he commented on the role of conglomerates in the newspaper and film business.
Schiffrin was in India for the launch of a joint edition of these two books—The Business of Words, which is being published by Delhi-based independent publishing house Navayana. While the two books have been published in more than 25 countries, this is the first joint edition to be published in English.
Schiffrin spoke in an interview about his “loss of innocence” at Pantheon, the success of The New Press, a proposal for “Google tax”, and how India could learn from the landslides in European and American publishing. Edited excerpts:
What took you 30 years at Pantheon to realize something was wrong with the direction in which the publishing industry was headed?
As Russian Jews during World War II, my family fled to New York when I was six. My father, who used to run his own publishing house in Paris, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, joined forces with Kurt Wolff, a German publisher who had just launched Pantheon Books.
I hadn’t really thought I would join publishing, but I was drawn to the idea. After my father’s death, in 1961, Wolff’s successors invited me to join Pantheon, which had just been bought by Random House. I was 26 and arrived at the Pantheon offices with a great deal of anticipation. I believed what everybody then believed about publishing: that your job was to enlighten people. In 1965, Random House was bought over by the electronics empire RCA. In 1970, Penguin was bought by Pearson, a major British conglomerate with properties ranging from the Financial Times to the Buenos Aires Water Company. These things changed the way publishing worked forever. It went from being an artisanal, family-owned enterprise to an industrial process owned by conglomerates.
I realized after a while that I wasn’t dealing with a pragmatic system; I was dealing with an ideology, one that says you have to make a certain amount of money over a certain period of time. I have recounted this loss of innocence in my autobiography (A Political Education: Coming of Age in Paris and New York, Melville House, 2007).
You mention in your book that the conglomerates didn’t make the sort of money they’d hoped they would…
RCA, which took over Random House, expected to make 10% profits from the 1-2% that was the norm in publishing then. They believed they could make profits by eliminating areas that they thought were unprofitable. Like, when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. bought Collins in 1989, they threw out poetry and philosophy.
All of this was happening because the new market leaders wanted the same kind of profits in publishing that they got from their newspaper and entertainment ventures—this did not happen. I’m not against big business, but if you have to guarantee that you’re going to make money on everything, then you cannot take risks; you cannot publish books that will change the way the world thinks.
Why didn’t corporates back away when they realized publishing was not really profitable?
Yes, they did. Publishing houses were sold and resold— RCA sold Random House to S.I. Newhouse in 1980. But what they were “backing away” from was wreckage and it’s not easy to rebuild decades of editorial acumen, backlists and relationships with authors. Soon there was nothing left of the original spirit to take over and restore. I set up The New Press as a non-profit so that no one could take it over.
And has The New Press succeeded in what it set out to do?
Yes, we’ve published over 1,000 books so far. Several books have sold well, often surprising us. I’d say 95% of them wouldn’t have been touched by a large publishing house. For instance, this recent one, A Plague of Prisons by Ernest Drucker, on the segregation of African-Americans in the US through the prison system.
In ‘The Business of Books’, you write that it is impossible to have a democracy without a free press, which includes the media and books. Please comment on the Indian context.
Each country has its own pattern. It depends on whether the government is a right-wing or left-wing one, on the federal system, etc. In Norway, the government buys books from independent publishers for the public libraries, supporting both at once. I understand that in India, the problem is not so much in what books are being published, but what books people are reading—literacy is low and public libraries are virtually absent.
The Norwegian government also supports the second largest newspaper at any given time to stem monopoly. There are so many different things to be done to direct what people are reading; what they’re absorbing, legislation is essential, anti-monopoly laws are essential, as are fixed-price laws. These are political issues and need to be dealt with at a policy level.
You argue for “bibliodiversity”. Tell us what it means.
For most parts of the world, it means cultural diversity applied to the world of publishing. A large number of independent publishers as opposed to four or five publishing giants can make this possible. In India, there is the linguistic issue, too, so bibliodiversity—a term coined by Chilean publishers in the late 1990s—is that much more crucial. You are fighting against language and large corporate domination.
But how are book publishers and newspapers to remain independent if they’re receiving government support? In ‘Words and Money’, you’re very critical of the 2009 report published by Columbia University’s Journalism School, ‘The Reconstruction of American Journalism’, which argues against government funding.
There are ways to have sources of income that do not come directly from the government. UK’s national broadcaster, BBC, runs off taxes that are paid on television sets; it is the same in France. Well-structured, autonomous grant-making bodies need to be set up. Yes, it will be difficult in India. But then it has been difficult anywhere in the world.
There can be a Google tax. Google makes a good amount of money aggregating information from different news sites, which in turn is leading to the decline of print media. Google can be taxed, and that money could fund independent newspapers.
How are Amazon and ebooks changing the publishing industry?
I have a chart in my book. In 1945, there were 333 book stores in New York. Now there are 30, including independent book stores and chains. The chains killed the independents and now Amazon is killing the chains—Barnes and Noble shut their biggest outlet in New York City recently.
In England, for instance, when the new Harry Potter was out for £20 (around Rs.1,575 today), a department store was selling it for £1. How can independent book stores, which are the best avenues for independent publishers, survive in such a scenario?
Let’s be clear that I have nothing against the technology. It’s simply wonderful. But what matters is who controls the technology and how they use it. Whether it is Google or Amazon, they want to establish a monopoly, so their first step is to wipe out book stores, wipe out the publishers. But take a step back and think: if the publishers are gone, where will they get their content from?
A publisher is not just a printer—he brings his filters, his projections and his skills to the table. Kafka’s first book sold 600 copies; Beckett’s sold three. But we believed in them and continued to publish them. There’s an editorial process. In the last few years, Amazon started publishing their own books, but it is a tiny fraction of what’s being published and certainly a 0% of books of any interest.
Talking about editorial process: two of our books were part of the The New York Times’ “10 best books of the year” list last year. Both were commissioned 25 years ago. That’s what it takes.
Are university presses the last bastion of hope?
Well, even they’re being asked to make profits now. I joke that university presses not only have subsidies from the state, they even have money from god: The Oxford University Press has a monopoly on the Bible, which will never stop selling. But even Oxford has to rake in profits now. Some years ago, they cancelled their poetry lists. It was a sad day for publishing.
You write that there was a time when publishers read the books they were publishing. Is it no longer true?
There was a time at the Frankfurt Book Fair when we would rush back to our hotel rooms in the evening to read manuscripts. Now, it all works with a two-page outline. A publisher reads two pages and writes a $100,000 (around Rs.50 lakh) cheque. It’s about investments. The editor has become a banker.
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First Published: Sat, Nov 05 2011. 02 33 PM IST