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The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read [Paperback]

Andre Schiffrin
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Nov. 17 2001
Post-war American publishing has been ruthlessly transformed since André Schiffrin joined its ranks in 1956. Gone is a plethora of small but prestigious houses that often put ideas before profit in their publishing decisions, sometimes even deliberately. Now six behemoths share 80% of the market and profit margin is all.

André Schiffrin can write about these changes with authority because he witnessed them from inside a conglomerate, as head of Pantheon, co-founded by his father, bought (and sold) by Random House. And he can write about them with candor because he is no longer on the inside, having quit corporate publishing in disgust to set up a flourishing independent house, The New Press. Schiffrin’s evident affection for his authors sparkles throughout a story woven around publishing the work of those such as Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Juliet Mitchell, R. D. Laing, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P.Thompson.

Part-memoir, part-history, here is an account of the collapsing standards of contemporary publishing that is irascible, acute and passionate. An engaging counterpoint to recent, celebratory memoirs of the industry written by those with more stock options and fewer scruples than Schiffrin, The Business of Books warns of the danger to adventurous, intelligent publishing in the bullring of today’s marketplace.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

The descendant of a distinguished publishing family, Schiffrin has been the gadfly of American publishing ever since he quit his post as head of Random House's Pantheon imprint in a blaze of publicity 10 years ago, complaining that the publisher's new management wanted to trim his list severely, removing from it many of the socially conscious titles he was proud to publish. He went on to found and run the New Press, which, with strong foundation support, has continued to do many of the kinds of books that Schiffrin insists should be published, but which he claims have increasingly been abandoned by big commercial houses. In this brief but pithy treatise, some of which has already appeared in Europe, Schiffrin forcefully argues that publishing only for immediate commercial return is not only economically shortsighted but culturally disastrous. Without being unduly nostalgic for the "good old days," he insists that big American publishers used to offer lists that were much better balanced between popular entertainment and necessary social and political commentary than they are today. He further argues that the attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator of taste, which has, he says, led network television and movies in such depressing directions, has dumbed down publishing to an alarming degree, robbing it of much of its standing as a vehicle for the expression of significant ideas and outlooks that may not have instant appeal. Whether the increasing use of the Internet for publishing will prove to expand this more enlightened mission remains to be seen, but based on past experience with the urgencies of the profit motive, Schiffrin is not optimistic. His book is a salutary and sensibly written reminder of the ideals that drew so many into publishing, and that, if he is right, are so seldom reflected in it today. (Oct.)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


“Andre Schiffrin is an old-fashioned New York publisher, the sort that loves and believes in books. Not just best-sellers, but little books with big ideas.”—The Times [London]

“André Schiffrin presents a somber portrait of American publishing where the pursuit of profit has strangled all creativity.”—Nouvel Observateur

“Newsworthy and important, eloquent, smart, thoughtful, and well-presented.”—The Nation

“An absorbing account of the revolution in publishing during the last decade.”—Financial Times

“Forceful evidence that corporate insistence on higher profits has been cultural and business folly.”—Business Week

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Well written and insightfull Nov. 9 2002
By G Seath
I enjoyed the book very much. The story telling was enjoyable. As to the "whine", I work in a completly different industry that suffers from the money only direction of the country. It is sad that no one is allowed to be in any vocation in this country for its own sake. Even if you make money, you have to make the most money, good is not good enough, only best will do.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Bottom Line: Buy it Oct. 28 2002
At least from a writer's perspective, all of Schiffrin's assertions about the publishing industry are stunningly true. In fact, my agent quit the business some years ago after attending a lecture by a revoltingly wealthy and revoltingly arrogant agent who assured her and the rest of the audience that yes, money is indeed the bottom line.
As Mr. Schiffrin points out, publishers are simply not interested in authors anymore, they are interested only in the book being submitted. That is to say, there is no attempt-as in the days of Max Perkins, the legendary Scribner's editor of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe-to invest in an author whose first book may not be a great seller, nor even her second but who will nonetheless write books the house can be proud of and may some day turn produce that most marvelous of beasts, the literary bestseller (a la Gabriel Garcia Marquez, John Updike, Toni Morrison).
In a smooth, flowing voice that, while it may lack bells and whistles, is exceptionally lucid, Schiffrin tells the story of how publishing houses went from being, for the most part, "family owned and small, content with the modest profits that came from a business that still saw itself as linked to intellectual and cultural life" to an industry in which some of the executives, such as Alberto Vitale at Random House, freely admit they are too busy to read a book! I was riveted almost from the opening page.
Some of the reviewers have accused Schiffrin of being elitist-maybe because he lives on the Upper West Side or because he believes editors should have some say-beyond profitability--in what is being published. They find him distressingly left wing. The fact is, Schiffrin is arguing for all editors, EVERYwhere to get behind authors of their choice.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Strong views on publishing Sept. 10 2002
Schiffrin's book is provocative and well written. There is a little too much "And then I published...." along with a lot of name dropping. But there are also eye-opening insights into changes that the last 30 years have brought to publishing, as well as some good behind-the-scenes stories. Schiffrin clearly has an axe to grind, but he also has a point of view worth hearing. Reviewers who suggest this is a "whine" or a leftist diatribe would seem to have axes of their own that they are working on.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Look to the underground. Sept. 1 2002
By A Customer
I think that all reviewers have some points here.
The book is a bit whiny. There isn't any documented research. But I think to discount what this book is saying would be denial. The facts that conglomerations own the majority of publishing is bound to inhibit the selection of books they produce or seek out. What this book gave to me is that I should seek out smaller publishers, whether at amazon.com or the library and see what they have to offer instead of assuming that the books in the prime POS spots at the bookstore or on the Best Of Lists are the only books worth seeking out.
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4.0 out of 5 stars BusinessWeek Agrees with Much of this Book Jan. 16 2002
Many of the other reviewers have done a fine job pointing out the merits and flaws of this book, so I will only add a quote that I find significant from Hardy Green, Business Week's Books Editor: "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." With such a pro-business authority as Business Week seconding Schiffrin's concerns, Schriffin's claims appear stronger - and, sadly, those of the publishing industry's to quality and good sense appear that much weaker.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A superb book! Oct. 11 2001
I learned a lot from this book. Everyone concerned about consolidation in the publishing industry should read this book. Andre provides a lot of information found nowhere else.
A whine? Give me a break! His critique of bottom-line censorship and book publishing applies to all forms of media: radio, TV, and print media alike. These are vitally important issues!
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1.0 out of 5 stars An Arrogant Whine Feb. 27 2001
By A Customer
Schiffrin's arrogance annoyed not only the rightwing reviewers whose reviews appear below, but also this reader who is an ex- 60s left-wing hippie who has authored a bestselling book and now runs a successful publishing house.
He speaks with the voice of privilege and the assumption that important books are the books he likes. These turn out to be books promoting the now discredited Freudian world view and Marxist tomes authored by those tenured professors who live in $400,000 homes in trendy university communities, whine if they have to teach more than one course a semester, and somehow imagine that they are the voice of the workers.
Schiffrin makes such a to-do about what a brilliant editor he is that one is surprised at how badly he writes. At least Korda, the other "kiss and tell ex-big house editor" whom Schiffrin insults here, knows how to write a gripping book. (Or if you want to be really cynical, at least Korda knows how to hire a good ghostwriter.) But Schiffrin violates the primary rule of good writing: show, don't tell. There was almost no actual data in this book to support his claims about what is going on in the publishing world and even fewer meaty anecdotes--which are what readers look for in a celebrity memoir.
Schiffrin's main whine seems to be that he is no longer allowed to be the arbiter of what is intellectually important. He deplores the lack of gatekeepers on the Net, were scum like me can post their reviews right next to those of his friends at Publisher's Weekly!
After losing his job at Pantheon, Schiffrin managed to continue his expensive Upper West Side lifestyle by getting friends at rich foundations to subsidize his new publishing house and by getting other friends at an established publiishing house to take over the actual work of distributing his books. Nice work if you can get it. But people looking for information about publishing for those without intense ruling-class connections should look elsewhere.
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