An unsentimental look at the corrupting influence of money on book publishing.
For 30 years Schiffrin was the publisher of Pantheon, a press founded by his Russian émigré father in 1942 and sold to Random House, then America’s largest publisher, in 1961. In recounting his tenure under the Random House umbrella, the author describes the systematic decline in support he received for publishing the kinds of “difficult” titles (foreign translations, political histories, and European social tracts) on which Pantheon built its reputation. He makes explicit what everyone already assumes: publishers in this new millennium are under tremendous pressure to generate larger and larger profits for the corporations that own them. In turn, more demanding titles that command smaller audiences are passed over in favor of publishing-industry lottery tickets: potential blockbusters that are purchased for astronomical advances in the hope that the press generated by the huge sum will help push the title to the top of the bestseller lists. In this atmosphere of “market censorship,” editors are forced to “self-censor” and refuse titles that do not have potential to reach a level of profit pre-ordained by the conglomerates. Schiffrin believes many of the 75,000 books published each year address the lowest common denominator—a phenomenon that he portrays as socially irresponsible. His personal conviction that the publishing industry should do more to foster cultural and political debate, rather than pandering to the establishment or mass market, can sound naïve or nostalgic. But he explains how he has acted on what he believes. After leaving Pantheon in disappointment in 1990, serendipity coupled with the financial support of various foundations allowed Schiffrin to found The New Press to once again pursue what he sees as the original mission of publishing: the edification, rather than exploitation, of the masses.
This is a jolting reminder what has been lost and what was once possible in publishing—and an important story for anyone interested in the future of reading.