For a Kinder, Gentler Society
Reading Books Only for the Bottom Line

By Hardy Green

Review of Andre Schiffrin's

How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read

During a discussion with his editor, a famous journalist was asked if he had a topic in mind for his next book—or so the story goes. “Yes,” the writer responded, “I’ve been thinking about doing an expose of the book publishing industry.” “Great idea,” responded the editor. “I even have a title. You could call it My Last Book.”

Will such banishment befall Andre Schiffrin for writing The Business of Books? Not likely—because Schiffrin is already an exile, having departed his job as managing director of Pantheon Books in 1990, after a rancorous dispute over profit goals with executives of the house’s parent company, Random House Inc. Today, Schiffrin heads The New Press, a foundation-backed independent publisher.

The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read offers an indictment of recent trends in U.S. publishing, where “five major conglomerates control 80% of American book sales.” Although at times Schiffrin overstates his case, he gives forceful evidence that corporate insistence on higher profits has been cultural and business folly. Moreover, while arguing this position, The Business of Books provides an absorbing memoir of Schiffrin’s fascinating life.

Pantheon, he tells us, was built in the 1940s by émigrés…. But a falling out … led to the company’s sale in 1961, to Random House. Later that same year, Andre, a young editor at a rival publisher, was invited to come to Pantheon, where he quickly became editorial director. His Pantheon continued to find success by publishing writers from overseas, including novelist Gunter Grass and philosopher Michel Foucault. But the house’s list came to include many Americans, too, from foreign-policy maven George F. Kennan to Chicago radio host Studs Terkel. “By 1990, Pantheon sales would be nearly $20 million annually,” says the author.

Publishing, he adds, had never been just about lucre, though: Until recently, “it was understood that entire categories of books...were bound to lose money.”

Random House, meanwhile, was sold twice—in 1965 to RCA and in 1980 to the Newhouse empire. Corporate ownership, says Schiffrin, meant an ever-greater focus on the bottom line and profit goals that Pantheon struggled to meet. Under the Newhouse regime, he asserts, the publisher began demanding that each book make money, that no title could subsidize another. Finally, in 1990 Random House’s new CEO, Alberto Vitale, suggested slashing Pantheon’s staff and book list by two-thirds. The company “either wanted to cut Pantheon as a prelude to closing it, or to discourage my colleagues and me so completely that we would leave of our own accord,” Schiffrin writes. (Feelings about all this still run high. Vitale, no longer a Random House executive himself since the company’s 1998 purchase by Bertelsmann, terms the assertion that each book was required to make money “preposterously wrong” and says Pantheon was losing millions each year.)

The dramatic doings created a big stir. The imprint’s staff resigned en masse, and authors such as Kurt Vonnegut demonstrated outside Random House offices. But much of the experience, the author insists, is far from unique. Profit demands of 12% to 15%—“three to four times what publishing houses have made in the past”—are now the norm. At many houses, a “market censorship” favors celebrity bios and movie tie-ins over more substantive books. Nor has this approach paid off: In the late 1990s, both Random House and HarperCollins Publishers were forced to write off tens of millions worth of unearned advances. Random changed owners once again, while other publishers have spun off units and are regularly rumored to be on the block.

Much of Schiffrin’s indictment is accurate. Questions of quality are, of course, highly subjective, but to this reviewer, it seems that some publishers have indeed lowered standards without much improving the business picture. Sometimes, though, Schiffrin exaggerates, as with the assertion that in the Presidential election year of 1996, “virtually no books were published for the general reader which dealt with the big issues facing American citizens.” In that year, BUSINESS WEEK reviewed volumes on media influence over elections, deforestation, immigration, campaign funding, health care, and more. Schiffrin also says there’s diminishing support for unknown writers. Yet this year, various Random House imprints are publishing about 60 first novels.

Does Schiffrin see any outlet for the quality books that he feels are being neglected? University presses, he finds, are also now subject to commercial pressures. He admires several independent houses, such as W.W. Norton & Co. and Perseus Books Group, but notes their disadvantage given conglomerates’ ties to other media. And Schiffrin pooh-poohs the notion, advanced by New York Review of Books co-founder Jason Epstein, that the e-book could facilitate a return of publishing to its low-margin, cottage-industry roots. Instead, Schiffrin seems to feel that either foundation or government aid is a must if the trends he describes are to be reversed. But he’s not holding his breath.

Green is Books Editor t BusinessWeek.