André Schiffrin on the future of the press and publishing


For thirty years André Schiffrin was the publisher of Pantheon Books. Over those three decades, he observed the conglomeration of the book industry, a process he analysed in The Business of Books. In 1990 he left Pantheon to develop a new, non-profit model of book publishing, founding The New Press. Last year, Verso published Words and Money, in which Schiffrin turns his eye to media corporatisation and consolidation, describing the crisis and evaluating the alternatives.

The White Review—itself an example of non-profit media—spoke to Schiffrin about his own groundbreaking publishing history and what might be the way forward, out of the current, dire state of books and news.

On publishers and editors being politically engaged, he says:

Sadly, now, publishing is almost entirely a matter of profitability, meaning that if you want to publish something that is immediately profitable, it's very rare that it will turn out to be predicated on strong ideas, or dissident ideas.

That's a big problem. It has considerably reduced the amount of good books published, even though now there are small independent publishing houses who are publishing whatever they want to.

My German editor, who wrote a fantastic biography of Kafka, says that without a free publishing industry, there can be no democracy. And that is particularly the case in France, where most of the newspapers belong to people who manufacture weapons, and books are just about the only place where you can express ideas that are not mainstream.

He finds some hope for the media in Wikileaks:

I think it's been really important, and I think for too long there has been an open censorship. The Bush administration kept the Iraqi stories under wraps for a very long time, and even before the invasion of Afghanistan, Condoleeza Rice called the heads of all the TV networks in the US and said, ‘I don't want to see any wounded civilians on your screens', because they knew that's how opposition to the Vietnam War took off. This is still going on today, even under Obama.

Happily, in the UK, the Guardian has gone against the trends, but if that goes down the tube ... We really need legislative reform to ensure the survival of an independent press, otherwise we are going to be in trouble.

And suggests what concerned readers, reviewers and authors can do for publishing:

Individuals can go to independent bookshops. If you're an author, go to an independent publisher, like Kurt Vonnegut who left Bertelsmann to go to the Seven Stories Press and kept them going for years. The fact that people like Studs Terkel stayed with us at The New Press made all the difference, and we couldn't have survived without them.

Authors can do things, and reviewers can pay much more attention to books that are independent-oriented. I've been trying to persuade the New York Times to let me do an annual column on the books that they didn't talk about. That would help, but it's hard to get people to admit that they are making mistakes.

Read the interview in full at The White Review.