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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

The Business of Books

André Schiffrin

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To purchase The Business of Books

Title: The Business of Books
Author: André Schiffrin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2000
Length: 172 pages
Availability: The Business of Books - US
The Business of Books - UK
The Business of Books - Canada
L'édition sans éditeurs - France
Verlage ohne Verleger - Deutschland
  • How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read
  • This book is based on the French version, L'édition sans éditeurs, first published 1999
  • The paperback edition comes with a new Preface by the author -- and a much-improved index

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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting account of Schiffrin's career, with some insights into the wacky world of publishing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Prospect . 29/1/2001 Scott Stossel
Brill's Content . 2/2001 James Atlas
Business Week . 18/9/2000 Hardy Green
Daily Telegraph . 16/10/2000 .
The Economist . 9/9/2000 .
The Guardian A- 5/1/2002 Nicholas Lezard
Harper's . 4/2001 Michael Korda
The LA Times D 25/2/2001 Richard Seaver
The Nation A 25/12/2000 Daniel Simon
The NY Observer . 8/1/2001 André Bernard
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/12/2000 David D. Kirkpatrick
Reason . 1/2001 Brian Doherty
USA Today . 15/11/2000 Bruce Rosenstein
The Village Voice A 19/9/2001 Kera Bolonik
Wall St. Journal . 11/1/2001 Elizabeth Bukowski

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus, with some very enthusiastic and others decidedly not. All agree that it is polemical.

  Note that many of the reviews also consider Jason Epstein's Book Business (see our review) at the same time

  See also The Business of the Book Business: Reactions to Schiffrin and Epstein, at the complete review Quarterly

  From the Reviews:
  • "His book is a fierce jeremiad. It aims to right wrongs and settle old scores." - Scott Stossel, The American Prospect

  • "Schiffrin isn't quite so optimistic; like a lot of old-timers in just about any business, he's convinced that publishing is over because he's over." - James Atlas, Brill's Content

  • "Although at times Schiffrin overstates his case, he gives 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." - Hardy Green, Business Week

  • "The Business of Books is an elegantly written and not over-rancorous account of one man's career as a publisher. If the reader seeks gossip, stories about writers' private lives, a flashy overview of the publishing game, he or she will be disappointed. (...) André Schiffrin has given us a modern morality tale, in which greed destroys virtue. It is not a pretty story." - Daily Telegraph

  • "(H)e is too honest to give in to gloom completely." - The Economist

  • "Schiffrin makes a very good case for the proposal that concentrating on numbers and profit margins at the expense of quality is doing literally incalculable damage to the culture. (...) For what it's worth, he has changed my way of thinking in this respect, even if he comes across at times as a little shrill and hardly plagued by self-doubt. He cares deeply about his business, and for all the right reasons." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "Schiffrin's The Business of Books is at once a lament for what he sees as a lost era and a fiercely partisan defense of his own career, written with a combination of ruefulness and anger." - Michael Korda, Harper's

  • "Caveat emptor, then: the potential reader should be forewarned that what he or she is getting is not a balanced view of publishing today but a polemic intended to demonstrate the decline of quality publishing over the last two or three decades -- due, says Schiffrin, to the overwhelming greed of the behemoths. (...) (T)oo biased and self-serving to be truly insightful." - Richard Seaver, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Schiffrin's indictment is impassioned and filled with righteous, if quiet, indignation. (...) The book is smart, thoughtful and well presented." - Daniel Simon, The Nation

  • "Mr. Schiffrin's account of his torture and eventual forced resignation is riveting. Still angry today, he slashes at the notion of publishing for the business department alone, of relegating smart books to the dumpster if their initial sales are low, of chasing after pseudo-books of little lasting value that themselves fail spectacularly to perform financially or in any other way." - André Bernard, The New York Observer

  • "In his polemical memoir, The Business of Books, he argues that book publishing has gone to pot, thanks mainly to the control of big media conglomerates. (...) The most compelling strand of The Business of Books is not his argument but his autobiography." - David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In The Business of Books, Schiffrin pushes a popular leftist trope, that "market ideology" has come to rule the world since the bleak days of Thatcher and Reagan, that all decisions, even cultural ones, are now made by grim bean counters who will only green-light projects with massive sales potential. Yet he himself presents the evidence that the policies he decries -- throwing huge advances at celebrities, ignoring the midlist, ballooning executive salaries, general crassness -- are not rewarded by the market." - Brian Doherty, Reason

  • "(W)hat makes it most worth reading is a memoir of his career as the longtime leader of Pantheon Books, until he was effectively forced out by corporate parent Random House a decade ago. No matter what you may think of his views on the subject, he opens a window onto the world of mid-20th century publishing with a description of his early career at Pantheon and, before that, as an editor at New American Library." - Bruce Rosenstein, USA Today

  • "Schiffrin's memoir is a brief, incisive social history of postwar publishing in America (...). It is at once a riveting chronicle of the qualitative rise and fall of the American reader and a very personal book -- a rant against the changing climate at Random House over three decades." - Kera Bolonik, The Village Voice

  • "Mr. Schiffrin's text is full of the fruits of his extensive research. (...) It's easy to read his argument as an exercise in self-defense." - Elizabeth Bukowski, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       André Schiffrin has a fine publishing pedigree: dad Jacques founded French publishing house Pléiade, and continued to direct it when he (and Pléiade) joined Gallimard. During World War II the Schiffrin family came to the US, and Jacques continued his publishing efforts, eventually joining Pantheon.
       André Schiffrin also went into publishing, and happened to wind up at Pantheon as well (no nepotism there: dad died when André was only fifteen). It was 1962, and Random House had just bought Pantheon: young Schiffrin (only twenty-six) was the only full-time editor. The Business of Books focusses on Schiffrin's career: the evolution of Pantheon into a leading publisher of socially, politically, and intellectually significant literature (mainly non-fiction, apparently) during his many years there, Schiffrin's dramatic departure after S.I.Newhouse's purchase of Random House and the installation of Alberto Vitale as head of it, and Schiffrin's next venture, the non-profit publishing house, The New Press.
       There is, incidentally, a great deal about publishing in general. But Schiffrin's own experiences dominate. His career is not uninteresting. He can recount with justified pride how he helped shape Pantheon into a publisher of many fine and important works, and the autobiographical details are certainly interesting.
       Adjusting to the marketplace -- and looking to invigorate the marketplace of ideas -- Schiffrin came to publish many important works. In particular, he looked abroad, trying to make the American literary scene more cosmopolitan. He lists quite a few of his successes (and some failures), though the focus is almost completely on non-fiction: other than a few mentions of Cortázar, and one of Grass, fiction is strikingly absent. Many of the non-fiction titles listed were important in their time, but the names no longer ring that many bells (and many -- if not most -- are out of print).
       This is, however, also a book about the "business of books", and while Schiffrin keeps that in mind throughout, the focus is certainly on recent times. "It is safe to say that publishing has changed more in the last ten years than in the entirety of the previous century", Schiffrin believes and he is particularly concerned with these recent, radical changes. Note also the subtitle: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read.

       Publishing is a very odd business. Schiffrin laments the loss of the tie between author and publisher, which allowed a publisher to nurture young talent and then reap some of the benefits. He is justifiably dismayed by the decimation of backlists, which bring in a steady income but don't offer the sexy, fast rate of return modern industry demands. He is shocked that now even university presses (such as Oxford UP) demand that their editors bring in titles generating a certain amount of revenue annually ("discouraging the acquisition of smaller, more challenging titles"). And -- hallelujah ! -- he complains about the ridiculous large-sized trade-paperbacks (as opposed to the vaguely pocket sized format -- now generally only used for so-called mass-market paperbacks), one of the worst things ever to happen in publishing. This jumbo-size allows publishers to make more profit per book: "the idea that a book ought to be inexpensive in order to reach as broad a public as possible was being replaced by accounting decisions that looked only at cash totals." (Publishers have a much higher per-unit profit on these larger paperbacks (i.e. they can get away with overcharging consumers by a lot more) than on normal sized paperbacks, meaning they don't have to sell as many to make as much money.)
       (As far as reaching a mass audience by making books cheaply available Andy doesn't quite practice what he preaches: the petite hardcover (smaller than the average trade-paperback) New Press edition of Marie Darrieussecq's 151-page Pig Tales (see our review) had a list price -- in 1997 ! -- of an unconscionable 18 dollars, for example (though we shouldn't complain too much -- we got our remainder copy for under four dollars). We haven't encountered any nice, cheap New Press paperbacks either -- though we have seen quite a few oversized (and overpriced) trade paperbacks (including Jaan Kross' novels, etc.). Non-profit the New Press may be, but their prices can certainly compete with best (or rather: the worst) of the conglomerate-owned profit oriented publishers, with barely a nod to the consumer.)
       The main danger Schiffrin sees is in the transformation of the culture of publishing at the most influential level. While he acknowledges that vibrant independent, non-profit, and university presses that publish important works do exist, he continuously emphasizes the fact that they are essentially only a drop in the pond. The conglomerates that dominate publishing wield enormous clout -- with booksellers, especially -- and there is a great deal of difference between a major publisher publishing a book, and an independent/non-profit/university press publishing the same text. (Just check out the shelves -- and especially the prominent displays -- at your local Barnes & Noble and see which publishers bring out the books that are brought to your attention.)
       Conglomerates do dominate American publishing, and Schiffrin is right with his basic thesis that this does effect what we can and do read. Good and controversial books are still published -- even (in fact: often) by the conglomerate-owned publishers -- but other factors dominate and many important books are now only published by smaller publishers -- often prestigious firms (including university presses), but ones which are generally unable to reach a large audience as easily as the heavy hitters in the industry. The marketplace of ideas is, indeed, impoverished.

       One of the remarkable things about contemporary publishing is the lack of success that the conglomerates have had in publishing. Consolidation and market power have made for some success -- but in terms of pure financial gain the results are far from impressive. Schiffrin spends a great deal of space on the Pantheon saga, insisting that, while not a gold mine, it was profitable (unlike, for example, Crown, which Random House also purchased). The finances are murky here, and unfortunately Schiffrin doesn't bother with much detailed documentation (S.I.Newhouse and cohorts tell a different story, for example), but the cutbacks at Pantheon certainly look to have been an unwise business decision. More tangible cases of lack of success are evident elsewhere: as Schiffrin notes, in 1997 Random House wrote off a staggering 80 million dollars "of unearnable advances" -- though that figure is dwarfed by HarperCollins 270 million dollar write-off at about the same time.
       The Schiffrin model of publishing (as he practiced it at Pantheon) is not very sexy, but seems to have been modestly successful. The S.I.Newhouse (and Rupert Murdoch, owner of HarperCollins) model -- widely imitated -- of focussing on blockbusters, and not even considering titles that look to be slow sellers seems to fare particularly poorly. There are some synergistic benefits to be reaped: as Schiffrin mentions, Murdoch's kowtowing to mainland China by publishing (with much fanfare and a heavy investment in marketing) Deng Maomao's biography of her father, Deng Xiaoping, -- a book Schiffrin says has "no perceptible merit" -- and his decision not to publish Chris Patten's critical book on China no doubt helped smooth relations with China, where there is big money to be made in the real media (in Murdoch's case: television, especially). The benefits to the consumer are more dubious.
       Of course, corporate (and private) owners can pretty much do as they please with the companies they own. Public companies are accountable to shareholders, but their interest is basically the bottom line. And private owners -- like Newhouse -- can do as they damn well please. Unfortunately, this leaves consumers with little recourse -- especially, as Schiffrin harps on, when so few companies so completely dominate the marketplace.
       Schiffrin begins his book with the 1960 acquisition of Alfred A. Knopf by Random House, noting that the Attorney General called Random House head Bennett Cerf, asking about the antitrust implications. With a combined market share of less than 1 percent there were, in fact, no antitrust issues to worry about. Nowadays the situation is different -- but while the Herfindahl measure is worrisomely high there seems unlikely to be any trust-busting going on soon. For one, the barriers to entry in publishing remain low, competition is -- theoretically -- everywhere. Schiffrin fairly convincingly finds the power of the conglomerates close to market-abusing standards, but antitrust enforcement ain't what it used to be. In a country where TimeWarner, for example, can be both a cable provider and a content provider -- and is allowed to essentially have a monopoly in many of its cable-providing areas -- there isn't going to be much fuss about a few big publishers dominating the niche market of book-publishing.

       The final chapter discusses Schiffrin's most recent venture, The New Press, established in 1990 and still run by him. As it says in their books, "a nonprofit publisher, The Press is operated editorially in the public interest, rather than for private gain". The bizarre American institution of non-profitability of course is a whole other can of worms. For one thing -- though few people care to point this out -- it is also an anti-competitive practice, as it provides advantages not available to for-profit enterprises. In the publishing industry, with its thin margins, this can represent an enormous advantage. (The counterargument is that it is in the public interest to give institutions that (supposedly) serve the public this type of break -- a curious idea in a society that professes to embrace capitalist ideals, especially given that the tax advantages enjoyed by non-profits -- and, even more outrageously, those who "donate" to them -- make it a perverse form of government subsidy (since the tax revenue lost here must be recouped elsewhere).)
       The New Press certainly has published some worthy titles, including some that might not otherwise have found a publisher. It has also had some impressive (and often unlikely) successes -- both critically as well as financially. Along with many other small players in the marketplace, it offers some hope for the future of publishing.
       Despite his criticism and bad experiences Schiffrin is cautiously (very cautiously) optimistic. He does believe publishers are here to stay -- sometimes for reasons of startling naïvete. He actually believes that publishers can be considered reliable (where sources on the Internet, for example, are unlikely to be): "By putting their name to writers' work, they provide a guarantee and guide to the reader." We would be hard pressed to name a publisher whom we would still consider "reliable" (the unreliability of publishers being a situation that has admittedly gotten much worse in the past few years), while we would suggest that an Internet site such as the complete review, while in and of itself as subjective and opinionated as any other, is, due to its linked nature and willingness to present users with any and every opinion about the books under review, extremely reliable. (Note, that this is, of course just our opinion; we recognize (as should you) that we may be deluding ourselves.)

       Part of the fun of The Business of Books is how personal Schiffrin takes these matters. He loves books, and he even loves publishing. But there is also a considerable amount of whining. They probably done him wrong at Pantheon, but parts of his account read too much like an attempt to square accounts. Unfortunately, he does not provide readers with nearly enough information to judge whether or not he was wronged or he was wrong. It is all terribly vague, and so reads a bit like sour grapes.
       Schiffrin's veneration of the book also gets in the way of some of his arguments. He believes that publishing is something special -- bless his heart -- but he has contempt for those who aren't true believers:

Editors and publishers have come to expect the comforts of corporate life, expensive restaurants, limousines waiting at their doors, and other status symbols. Rather than taking their reward in books they can be proud of, they look on such luxuries as appropriate recognition.
       Perhaps pride in their product should be reward enough (though, given what many publishers are producing nowadays, it's hard to see how some of them could find any pride in it). As a man whose publishing house is well-subsidized and enjoys the benefits of its non-profit status -- and who therefore doesn't have to worry about the bottom line quite so much --, Schiffrin perhaps shouldn't be bitching about the motivation and expectations of others in the publishing industry. Surely, people should find their reward wherever they damn well please, without others making value judgements about what is right and what is wrong. (Yes, the world would probably be a better place if people were as idealistic as Schiffrin implies they should be, but that's not the way things are right now.)
       Schiffrin writes that at The New Press: "Books are admitted according to merit, not for their potential contribution to the bottom line." Can he be this insouciant ? Even The New Press considers the bottom line with each book it contracts. And he actually dares write: "books are admitted" ? As though The New Press doesn't do anything as vulgar as commission or buy or even accept a book: no, it admits them, like at a select country club or college. (And, indeed, he also speaks of the financial support The New Press receives (i.e. the tax-deductible donations and foundation grants given to the publisher) as "the publishing equivalent of old-style scholarships in higher education".)

       The Business of Books is an interesting enough read, and Schiffrin does make some interesting points. Certainly, his own career is a fascinating one, and well worth reading about. But The Business of Books is not a full-fledged (or even half-fledged) study of the business of books. Schiffrin makes some good points, and lists many interesting examples (including his own Pantheon-nightmare), but too much remains obscure, unsaid, and undocumented.

       Regrettably, the book has not been carefully edited -- an unfortunate display of carelessness, given Schiffrin's alleged attentiveness to quality. Mistakes abound -- spelling mistakes, names gotten wrong, facts slightly (or very) confused. Schiffrin, for example, notes how the Dalkey Archive Press has succeeded, acknowledging that:
The house has developed one of the more interesting lists in American literary publishing, making available a wide range of important works, both in translation and in English. In addition to Flann O'Brien, Dalkey has published the novellas of Arno Schmidt and the novels of Leonard Mosley, which, though demanding, have become unexpected commercial successes.
       The good folks at Dalkey will surely be surprised to learn that they are publishing (and finding commercial success) with the novels of Leonard Mosley, as it is the fiction of Nicholas Mosley that they purvey. Leonard is, in fact, a published author too, but it is Nicholas -- the infamous Oswald's son -- who is the semi-popular British fiction writer. (Dalkey's success with Mr.Mosley must, clearly, be limited, if not even literary types such as Schiffrin or the various editors and readers at Verso picked up on this slip.)
       The mistakes in the text, however, pale beside those in the index. Particular note must be made of it: if not the worst we have ever encountered it is certainly the worst we have come across in many years. It is, essentially, useless. The page-references drift apart as the book goes on, so that the references are correct for about the first 35 pages, but then deviate by first one, then two, then more pages -- until finally the last chapter (about The New Press), which covers pp. 155-172 in the text is said, in the index, to cover pp. 151-167.
       Clearly the pages the indexer was working with and the final layout of the book differed -- but that is merely an explanation, not an excuse. Someone should have picked up on that.
       If this were the only problem with the index one could, perhaps tolerate it, as it at least points in the general vicinity of the sought references. Unfortunately, it is also a shoddy index per se, ignoring a vast number of people and publishers -- and listing only some of the references for others.
       Most bizarrely, there are actually index entries for people who do not appear in the book itself: we're still looking for Carol Janeway and "Elizabeth" Sifton, who, according to the index, appear on page 93 (meaning they should be found somewhere on page 95 or 96). Adding insult to injury, Ms. Sifton's name is misspelt in the index -- no doubt Schiffrin means former colleague Elisabeth, not Elizabeth. This particular slip (of including the names in the index, but not the text -- not the spelling mistake) again can presumably be explained by the fact that the index was completed before the final edit of the book. It is still miserable editing not to have adjusted the index accordingly. (In this case it seems pretty clear where Ms. Janeway's and Ms. Sifton's names were excised: we feel fairly confident in guessing they are what is now referred to only as the "two senior Knopf editors" who liked to call their friends (a transformation one imagines the legal department had a hand in).)
       (Note: the paperback edition (first published in the fall of 2001) does offer an improved index.)

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The Business of Books: Reviews: The New Press: Other books by André Schiffrin under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       André Schiffrin founded The New Press, and is currently its director.

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