The Business of Books
Schiffrin’s book is both memoir and anecdotal criticism of the publishing industry. Starting at the New American Library of World Literature (a Penguin clone) in the 1950s, he moved on to Pantheon which was then acquired by Random House, then S.I. Newhouse, and finally Bertelsmann. He became increasingly unhappy in the corporate environment, primarily because of:
- the focus on increasing profit within the corporate culture; it wasn’t enough for imprints to simply cover their costs, they had to show increased profits. This was made worse by imprints owned by the same firm having to bid against each other for new material, rather than cooperating, thus inflating the costs of questionable books (e.g. Nancy Reagan’s memoirs).
- the alienation of backlist income from the imprints: even if the imprint’s backlist was profitable (or enough to cover the costs of publishing ‘daring’ or ‘innovative’ books), this was not longer reflected in the balance sheet of the imprint – i.e., the imprint no longer received credit for good decisions it had made in the past.
- the increasing tendency to publish books by, about, and for the ideologically conservative the imprint’s list needed to reflect the beliefs of its owners, rather than what could promote critical discourse about the issues of the day. This ultimately led to the mass resignation of Pantheon staff, including Schiffrin.
After Schiffrin left Pantheon, he started The New Press, which clearly addresses some of the concerns he felt with the big five (then six). He is cautiously optimistic about digital publishing (in 2000), but dubious about the future of publishing as a social/cultural enterprise. Overall, it’s a thought-provoking and aggravating account of the state of the business in the late twentieth century.