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André Schiffrin

      . . . book publisher. For 28 years, Mr. Schiffrin was Pantheon's publisher at Random House. Reflecting massive changes in the book world, he left to found, The New Press, along with Diane Wachtel. It is a foundation-based, non-profit publishing house which published its first book in 1992. Mr. Schiffin's book, The Business of Books, describes current book publishing's ever-increasing concentrations of power and lust for exaggerated profits. He contributes a regular column on publishing to the "Chronicle of Higher Education."

Excerpts4:33 secs [This Program was recorded January 23, 2000 in New York City, US.]

      Our freedom to rule ourselves is threatened, according to long-time publisher André Schiffrin. He observes new ideas are having an increasingly difficult time surfacing in today's profit-obsessed publishing world. The book business, Mr. Schiffrin reports in The Business of Books, now reflects and promotes a society driven by extravagant profits and an increasingly Right-wing political agenda. Mr. Schiffrin wants us all to share his concern that what's good for a shrinking number of increasingly rich and powerful individuals and corporations is a hazard for a democratic society.

      Mr. Schiffrin left Random House after almost 30 years to found The New Press. Random House's former owner, S.I. Newhouse, had ordered a dramatic shift in content to the Right and, like other publishers, was requiring ever-greater profits. Vitally important books were being squeezed out. For Mr. Schiffrin, The New Press is a return home to publishing's traditional roots: Keeping ideas alive. Invigorating debate in a free society. Returning profitability to it's former -- and, Mr. Schiffrin argues, appropriate -- supporting role.

      Based on Mr. Schiffrin's lifetime in publishing, he poses a critical question: How do we keep a democracy going if -- and when -- new ideas are silenced and censored by publishers demanding bloated profits? The "marketplace of ideas," he says, is no longer about ideas. It's now all about money. Much as self-censorship across all of today's mass media concerns Mr. Schiffrin, he worries more about "market censorship." That's his term for today's situation in which every decision to publish (or not publish) a book is based solely on its potential profitability. In this state, new ideas, however vital, lose. By definition, they have no track record. Mr. Schiffrin has vivid examples of ideas that would have been forever lost had this criterion reigned supreme in bygone days.

      How big is the change? Publishers once were proud of a 3 or 4% annual gain, Mr. Schiffrin remembers. The rest was plowed into books which might not sell a lot but contained ideas which enriched the public discourse. A handful of the large firms now control 80% of book sales and typically demand an annual return of 12 to 15%. Where once people entered publishing to nurture ideas and were satisfied with a comfortable living, Mr. Schiffrin observes that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish publishing from entertainment, the fabulous lifestyles of celebrities from mass media's owners and top management.

      People of all political persuasions should take note, warns Mr. Schiffrin. If we are to rule themselves, we must be well informed. The alternative? To be ruled by a wealthy elite who control what we know, who entertain us into submission. This Orwellian vision is an increasing reality, observes Mr. Schiffrin. He believes a democratic society requires that we all have ready access to what he calls "counter-cyclical" ideas -- ideas which often do not serve the purposes of the status quo which now includes media moguls. The Internet? Mr. Schiffrin says it's important, but no panacea. It too is increasingly dominated by those corporate entities most able to put large advertising budgets behind their sites.

      Why bother with books that sell few copies but harbor bright new ideas? Mr. Schiffrin quotes his more outspoken German publisher. "Without new ideas, a democracy will die."

Conversation 1

André Schiffrin warns Paula Gordon and Bill Russell about the dangers from today's increasingly concentrated and homogenized mass media. He compares loyalty oaths in 1990s businesses to the McCarthy era. Using book publishing as his example -- fewer firms controlling more market share, shifting book content dramatically to the political Right -- Mr. Schiffrin articulates the largely unreported dangers of narrowly profit-driven mass media owned by ever-fewer people with ever-increasing power.


Conversation 2

Resisting the suggestion that intellectuals somehow relish problems, Mr. Schiffrin warns of the dangers of turning difficult subjects or the publishing business into entertainment. He reminds us of and revivifies George Orwell and Aldous Huxley's dire warnings in the 1940's. Mr. Schiffrin describes the historical context of a creeping change away from ordinary people substantively engaging in important issues. He describes how publishing both reflects and shapes changes. He describes Republicans using Joseph McCarthy to undermine the New Deal, halting progressive elements following World War Two, achieving success under Reagan. He describes publishing as a microcosm of America's intellectual and political history. Mr. Schiffrin shows how McCarthy's spirit is alive and well today.


Conversation 3

Reminding us that "progress" is not a given, Mr. Schiffrin explains his deep concerns about today's publishing and media worlds, concerned that democracy requires a continuing debate now endangered. He elaborates. Mr. Schiffrin points to a series of problems resulting from the idea that the market can serve as a proxy for democracy. He describes the real and present danger of "market censorship." Mr. Schiffrin compares publishing new ideas to a corporation's R&D. He describes the radical change in publishers' profit expectations, the threats of increased cross-media ownership and the current distorted economics of publishing.


Conversation 4

With personal examples, Mr. Schiffrin shows the hazards of willfully or unwittingly suppressing "counter-cyclical" ideas, which he describes and applies. He remembers when Random House's former owner, S.I. Newhouse, ordered his publishers to make a dramatic content shift to the Right and the results. Mr. Schiffrin elaborates on this and other (unreported) examples of censorship, questioning how willing America is and has been to debate. He describes publishers' and mass media's self-censorship. He quotes Studs Terkel's observation of the multiple ways this story is a metaphor for America's. Mr. Schiffrin gives chilling examples from his Yale Reunion. The dominance of economics and the marketplace is explored, with a consideration of ways to break out of today's mindset, threatened by growing polarization. He reiterates the importance of counter-cyclical ideas being available.


Conversation 5

Mr. Schiffrin uses a New Press book to show how a seemingly unrelated societal issue directly impacted America's Presidential election in 2000. He reminds us of how ill-served our complex society is when sound-bites are our source of information about important issues. He describes The New Press (modeled on PBS and NPR as they were originally conceived, minus the federal funding) and compares it to other publishers. He explains how The New Press has returned to the traditional model for publishing, rejecting today's dominant entertainment model. He describes the promising results along with a cautionary note.


Conversation 6

Mr. Schiffrin summarizes the importance of the struggle to keep ideas and discourse alive. He offers some encouragement that young people have a growing realization that market-driven mass media are not providing what's needed to function in an increasingly complicated world. He describes expanded uses for new technologies.


Acknowledgements

We were welcomed at The New Press by Mr. Schiffrin and his entire staff. They are practicing what they preach and their enthusiasm is as infectious as their surroundings are inspiring -- low overhead, high standards for the preservation and protection of Ideas. We thank them individually and collectively, especially Mr. Schiffrin's able assistant, Shomial Ahmad.

We also thank Gavin and Niels at Mr. Schiffin's publisher, Verso/New Left Books, who helped us prepare for this program.

Related Links:
Visit The New Press website. In the United States, The New Press' books are distributed to bookstores nationwide by the distinguished independent publisher, W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.. Mr. Schiffrin's book, The Business of Books is published by Verso.


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