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the Complete Review
the complete review - publishing

Words and Money

André Schiffrin

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To purchase Words and Money

Title: Words and Money
Author: André Schiffrin
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2010
Length: 125 pages
Availability: Words and Money - US
Words and Money - UK
Words and Money - Canada
L'argent et les mots - Canada
L'argent et les mots - France
  • Although written in English, a French version, L'argent et les mots, was published first (also in 2010)

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Our Assessment:

B- : fine, cursory tour of the issues, and thoughts about some steps that can be taken

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 9/4/2010 Alain Beuve-Méry
Télérama . 16/5/2010 Thierry Leclère

  From the Reviews:
  • "Cette fois-ci, poursuivant sa réflexion avec L’Argent et les Mots, il ne se contente pas de livrer une oraison funèbre. Il pourrait le faire, tant la tendance à la concentration, en France comme aux Etats-unis, s’est renforcée et a fragilisé l’édition indépendante. Mais André Schiffrin qui ne désespère pas d’ouvrir le débat et de réveiller les consciences de chacun d’entre nous et préfère ouvrir des pistes, proposer des solutions alternatives." - Thierry Leclère, Télérama

  • "There's a lot that's passionate and useful in Schiffrin's anguished analysis. He is right to identify a healthy market as the key to a vital culture and vigorous democracy. His heart is certainly in the right place, but strangely, for a book entitled Words and Money, he never fully addresses the thorny question of "free", as articulated by Anderson, James Boyle (The Public Domain) and Lawrence Lessig (Free Culture). I wish he had because this goes to the heart of the crisis faced by print at the moment." - Robert McCrum, The Observer (19/9/2010)

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:

       Words and Money comes a decade after Schiffrin wrote on The Business of Books, and he's expanded his ambit here to print in general, considering especially also the current plight of newspapers. He argues that the same root cause that wreaked such havoc in the book business -- conglomerates buying up publishers, and expecting profits far above the 3 or 4 per cent return that he believes is the realistic industry standard -- has now also overtaken the print media sector (newspapers and other periodicals). Compounded by the migration of both readers (especially young ones) and advertisers to the internet, the situation is dire -- and he wonders what can be done about it.
       Schiffrin tosses a very large number of numbers and statistics around, and he does so just a bit too carelessly, as quite a few are misleading as presented or downright wrong. So, for example, he notes that French movie ticket sales peaked in 1957, and even after a rebound were barely half that total in 2008 -- yet then claims the US has had "record ticket sales in recent years" when, by the same measure (tickets sold, not box office gross) the American story is similar to the French: ticket sales peaked in 1946 at over four billion, compared to recent years where 1.5 billion is considered a lot. As to the number of bookshops currently found in New York, he maintains there are: "fewer than 30, including the chain stores" ; possibly there are some definitional issues here -- I suspect Schiffrin means Manhattan when he writes New York ... -- but any list (or phone book listing) of even just Manhattan bookstores yields considerably more that thirty.
       Some numbers are more interesting -- such as his point that even Japanese newspapers (never mind Chinese and Indian ones, with their growing -- and increasingly literate -- populations) have apparently managed to keep circulation up. He notes Western media haven't bothered to look into this phenomenon much -- despite the fact that whatever the Japanese secret is might also apply to home-markets -- but then he doesn't bother much doing so either; that, unfortunately, is far too typical of the entire book.
       One understands why he likes to fling numbers and statistics around so much: for the most part they are horrifying and should be alarming. As he correctly notes, financial speculation and especially the indebtedness of many media-concerns is a big part of the problem. Debt is absolutely crippling for any organization that historically yields such low returns, and the preferred method of prettying up the numbers -- slashing payroll and expenses -- amounts to disemboweling news organizations: without the journalists (and foreign offices, etc.) the coverage is no longer as extensive and interesting, and readers will jump ship. (The competition from the internet -- including in how material is presented (concisely, and cheaply -- generally freely), and what is presented, of course further complicates matters.)
       Schiffrin offers a solid tour of many of the horror stories and what's wrong with the industry/ies, usefully also including some discussion of similar problems elsewhere, especially in France. (Of course, things move quickly, and Le Monde's situation, among others, has already again changed markedly (it was bought out in the fall of 2010, in yet another controversial media deal).) Schiffrin also refers to and discusses many of the recent articles and books published in recent years (many of the articles are freely accessible on the interent; see links below); indeed, Words and Money is a convenient digest of the debates as they stood in early 2010.
       [Schiffrin does consider some technological advances, from Google's book scanning efforts (and the legal challenges to these) to e-readers, though it proves even harder here to stay up-to-date. Amusingly he notes that e-readers will obviously play a significant role in the future, but wonders how widespread (and how soon) these "expensive machines ($300-400)" will be ... (even as, of course, the flood of cheap devices has already started). He also takes an opportunity to bash the unnamed Espresso Book Machine®: -- Book Business' Jason Epstein's baby --, referring to the "widely hailed attempt at placing printing facilities in bookstores", but maintaining: "this failed completely"]
       What Schiffrin's position amounts to is his conviction that:

There is no such thing as a free market in the fields of culture. The key decisions are political, whether at the national or local level.
       He thinks it's obvious that publishing -- serious and civic-minded (i.e. providing information, not just entertainment) periodicals and books, and bookstores (and cinemas, etc. too) -- can't survive in the modern free market: the deck is stacked too much against them. Among the alternatives Schiffrin considers to keep publishing viable are the forms of state subsidies that many countries have long provided (curiously enough, often much more focused on the film industry), which he certainly seems to approve of, as well as the idea of going the non-profit/foundation route, transforming say even newspapers into well-endowed non-profits. (As he notes, a robust news industry is vital in order to have an informed population -- one that might have been better equipped to avoid some of the public policy mistakes of recent years.)
       Schiffrin tosses a lot of interesting ideas and examples into the mix, but doesn't do very much with them -- and notably doesn't address many of the difficulties (and, indeed, consequences) of their implementation or, most significantly, the political hurdles they would face specifically in the United States. Sure, the FCC (to cite only a minor example) could be utilized to improve things -- but given the American political climate he has to make a much stronger case than he does. And when Schiffrin observes that universities could play a much larger role, especially in supporting book publishing (as they did by providing his own The New Press with free housing, or more generally at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Dalkey Archive Press) or the University of Rochester (Open Letter Books)) he should maybe wonder why: "For whatever reasons, there has been little progress in this area". (The (American version of) the 'free market' extends to much of university-life too, and university presses generally haven't proven very useful for the bottom line; university support tends to be grudging and limited.)
       A modestly useful starting point in the discussion of the current condition of publishing and the media, Words and Money offers a lot of food for thought -- but for the most part readers just get a whiff of it, not a chance to really chew it over. These are important issues, but there are more factors involved than Schiffrin touches upon (much less delves into), and this serves little more than a cursory introduction to the complex policy debate that we should be having.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 October 2010

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Words and Money: Reviews: 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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