The curse of commerce

The Business of Books
September 29, 2000

Must good books make money? Lucy Heller considers a dilemma

In the late 1950s, Frederick Warburg, the co-founder of Secker and Warburg, met Israel Sieff, head of Marks and Spencer, at a cocktail party. As they were being introduced, somebody explained that Warburg was a publisher. So, asked Sieff, genuinely curious, "is that an occupation for gentlemen or is it a real business?" Publishers themselves have long been divided on the question, as this book makes clear. Part memoir, part history, it traces the rise and fall of Pantheon, the New York publishing company that brought much of the best European writing to the United States. André Schiffrin uses the story of the com-pany founded by his father, Jacques (and later headed by Schiffrin himself), as a case study of how American publishing has changed in the past 50 years.

The book opens in August 1941 with the Schiffrin family arriving in New York as refugees from occupied France. Jacques Schiffrin, André's father, was a Russian émigré who, with André Gide, co-founded the famous Pleiade editions of the classics. At the time of the occupation, he was employed by Gallimard, the leading French publisher. The Nazis, having decided that Gallimard was one of three key institutions in France (the banking system and the Communist party being the others), embarked on an immediate campaign of Aryanisation: two days after the French defeat in 1940, Schiffrin's father, the only well-known Jew working for Gallimard, received a two-line letter from the company telling him that he was no longer employed. Within months of arriving in New York he was publishing again, and in 1942 he joined forces with Kurt Wolff at Pantheon.

Ten years after the death of his father, Schiffrin was approached by Random House to join Pantheon, which it had just acquired. A series of unexpected departures left him as head of the company at the age of just 26. He was to remain there for 28 years until a series of bitter disputes with Si Newhouse, the new owner of Random House, led to his abrupt departure in 1990.

It is a great story, so it is frustrating that Schiffrin's undoubted skill as an editor is not matched by his talent for prose. He can be a stodgy list-maker as a writer; there are some pages of what amount to little more than chronological name checks. Still, when the names are as good as the Schiffrin names were, even a list has a certain resonance: Malraux, Camus, Gide, Jung, Pasternak and Lampedusa ( pére ), E. P. Thompson, Hobsbawm, R. D. Laing, Foucault, Sartre and Leavis ( fils ) were all Pantheon authors.

Memoir gives way in the second half of the book to a gloomy assessment of the current state of US publishing. The basic thrust is given by the subtitle, "How international conglomerates took over publishing and changed the way we read". In the past, Schiffrin argues, publishers "prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books". The new masters of publishing are concerned only with money, and their ruthless and single-minded pursuit of short-term profit has led to a narrowing of our cultural life: "The standards of the entertainment industry are apparent in the content of the bestseller lists, an ever narrower range of books based on lifestyle and celebrity with little intellectual and artistic merit."

The growing corporatisation of publishing has indeed been accompanied by some unhappy results: more homogenised, safer lists, fewer translations and generally lower editing standards. (Even this elegantly produced book is not immune: its slightly eccentric index has wrongly numbered page references and a number of omissions, most notably Studs Terkel, a key Pantheon author.) As a former publisher, I had under-estimated the extent of these changes until I spent some time looking through this year's catalogues and was taken aback by the airy trivia that filled the list of what were once serious publishers.

But one does not need to believe that the current publishing scene is flawless to feel that Schiffrin's case is weakened by his grand disdain for grubby commerce. The book's title is in fact something of a misnomer since Schiffrin appears to have next to no interest in the business of books. He is faintly offended by the notion that his shareholders expect the company to monitor the profitability of individual titles: in the old days, he says, "it was understood that entire categories of books... were bound to lose money". He seems to take it as a given that shareholders should accept little or no return on their investment on the grounds that this is the appropriate tribute of commerce to art. (Schiffrin tells the nice story of his father's first meeting with Mary Mellon, a rich patron who was interested in subsidising a Pantheon edition of the collected works of Jung. When she was shown into Jacques Schiffrin's small office overlooking Washington Square, "he was signing a letter and briefly looked up to say, 'Please have a seat'. After he kept her waiting for a few minutes longer, presumably on purpose, Mary cleared her throat and said: 'Perhaps you don't realise who I am. I'm Mary Mellon.' Whereupon my father answered, 'Oh, I'm terribly sorry; please take two seats.'")

His snooty attitude to his proprietors was doubtless intensely aggravating and may explain why Schiffrin's Random House colleagues found his editorial team, as he bemusedly reports, "distant and different"; but more important is his failure to acknowledge that profit, however unsatisfactorily, might be a useful measure of a publisher's skill. No one supposes that sales alone are a measure of quality, but Schiffrin seems in danger of falling for the reverse proposition: that low sales can be taken as a badge of seriousness. Pace Sieff, Schiffrin would clearly rather be a gent than in business. With somewhat exhausting naivety, he remains both surprised and outraged by the fact that capitalist tycoons want to make money. His assertion that, unlike the gentleman publishers of old, the new breed of owners want only to make money is undermined by his account of what actually happened when Pantheon was sold by RCA. Si Newhouse's misadventures with Random House and his other media acquisitions would seem to indicate either that he was extremely inept or that his motives were more than simply to make money; the huge unearned advances to the conservative rich and famous, the substantial and continuing subsidy of The New Yorker and the extravagant funding lavished on the glamorous Condé Nast magazine group all indicate that Newhouse, like others before him, looked to his publishing ventures for kudos as well as cash. It is a mistake to assume that because a billionaire does not share your taste for high art, he is interested only in profit.

The irony is that even the most hard-headed conglomerates are likely to be disappointed - as the swift, pass-the-parcel round of publishing acquisitions and disposals suggests. Each successive owner's optimism tends to fade to disillusion once the wrappings are off; Random House has changed hands three times in as many decades and many of Britain's publishing houses have suffered a similar fate. Trade publishing is a relatively high-risk, low-margin business; it always has been and is likely to remain so. What other business has to contend with the absurd business of returns? - a system whereby your customers can (and do) opt to send back as much of their purchases as they want, months after the original sale was made.

Schiffrin argues that increasing concentration in the publishing industry is dangerous because it limits the free market in ideas by imposing too-rigid profit requirements upon books, but he does not succeed in proving his case. Regardless of the trend towards consolidation, new publishing companies continue to sprout (there were 3,735 publishers in the UK in 1999, up from 3,083 in 1995) and a small, brave band of independent publishers continues to battle against the corporatist tide. Schiffrin is now one of this number; he ends the book having triumphantly reinvented himself as an independent publisher by founding the New Press, funded by a raft of foundations rather than rapacious shareholders. The university presses, too, play an important role in ensuring that serious writing is not entirely swamped by Barbie memorabilia though, as Schiffrin rightly points out, they are increasingly subject to the chill wind of financial constraints as they come under pressure to deliver returns to their academic owners. He quotes a recent US study showing that the 49 university presses surveyed had seen their annual subsidy from the university drop by an average of 8 per cent in real terms over the past four years. Many presses now receive what the head of the American Association of University Presses elegantly describes as "negative support" from their parent institution, as the depressingly commercial quality of their lists testify. Schiffrin notes without comment that the University of California Press now features Antonia Fraser's History of the British Monarchy among its titles.

The number of books produced also continues to rise: in 1999, 108,744 titles were published in the UK, up 5 per cent from the previous year. Yes, many of them will have a shelf life somewhere between yogurt and a pint of milk, but that may say more about the parlous state of book distribution than about publishing. (The rise of the discount book chains, which Schiffrin touches on briefly in chapter four, is far more worrying in its impact on our reading habits, but that's another story.) What we do not know is whether there has been any reduction in the number of serious titles published; the book's evidence on this is fragmentary and anecdotal, and one longs for a more rigorous examination of changes in the composition of publishing output. Similarly, it would be interesting to see detailed work on changes in reading habits; tantalising snippets in the preface about 19th-century reading habits leave room for speculation that it is we who have changed: that it is today's less patient, less serious readers who are shaping the publishing industry rather than the other way round.

The Business of Books is both fascinating and maddening; it left me wishing that Schiffrin had stuck to his memoirs and written a longer, more personal account. The history of contemporary publishing awaits a more detached and rigorous observer.

Lucy Heller is managing director, TSL Education, and former executive chairman of the independent book publishers Verso.

 

The Business of Books

Author - André Schiffrin
ISBN - 1 85984 763 3
Publisher - Verso
Price - £16.00
Pages - 181

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