- Hardcover: 190 pages
- Publisher: Verso (Sept. 17 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1859847633
- ISBN-13: 978-1859847633
- Product Dimensions: 14.6 x 2.5 x 19.7 cm
- Shipping Weight: 367 g
- Average Customer Review: 12 customer reviews
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #943,659 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read Hardcover – Sep 17 2000
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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.
“A brief, incisive social history of post-war publishing in America ... a riveting chronicle of the rise and fall of the American reader.”—Village Voice
“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. Moreover, while arguing this position, The Business of Books provides an absorbing memoir of Schiffrin’s fascinating life.”—Business Week
“Impassioned ... a fascinating account of the post-World War II publishing scene.”—USA Today
“Newsworthy and important ... eloquent and anguished ... impassioned and filled with righteous, if quiet, indignation ... smart, thoughtful and well-presented, News told truthfully and with loving care can always bring some hope.”—The Nation
“Schiffrin takes apart the publishing industry in a detached, careful manner, as if deboning a trout. He is impressively thorough and logical.”—Rocky Mountain News
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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.
Along the way in telling this story, you will read many interesting stories about publishing now-famous authors like Gunnar Myrdal (later winner of the Novel Prize) and Studs Terkel.
The former economic concept of a publisher was to earn an adequate income overall, and to operate as frugally as possible. Editors were paid like academics, and physical plant was modest. Profits above what was absolutely needed could be plowed back into books that presented important ideas, but might not earn their keep, and books that would require time to develop an audience.
Books that challenged the conventional wisdom were often best sellers in this environment. That kind of public opinion shift seldom happens today through books.
Mr. Schiffrin uses his own publishing experiences as a microcosm of these issues. Pantheon, which his father founded, was sold to Random House in 1961, and mr. Schiffrin joined to work in marketing. After Random House was bought by RCA, financial discipline was brought in to require that each book seek to earn a profit from its own activities in the near term. That began a process of trimming and redirecting lists.
Later, Random House was sold again, this time to S.I. Newhouse. Plans were soon afoot to greatly reduce Pantheon, and the staff eventually resigned en masse to protest just as the ax started to fall. Mr. Schiffrin left, also, and began a search for funding to start a new publishing house, The New Press. He was able to launch this independent publisher with the help of several foundation grants and W.W. Norton being willing to distribute the books. Random House, meanwhile, did not grow its profits very much and was sold to Bertelsmann in 1998.
During these intervening years, Newhouse actually lost lots of money seeking to improve profits in book publishing. Enormous losses occurred in unearned advances in seeking blockbusters. Overhead costs soared as salaries, marketing, and expense accounts were expanded enormously.
By seeking ever higher near-term profits, publishers have established a market test for new books that makes it more attractive to publish an offshoot of a new Hollywood movie than a book challenging the political orthodoxy. Books like the former have swelled while the latter have dwindled. Many publishers and imprints now publish in very few categories, with limited types of books in those remaining categories.
The industry has also become very concentrated. Ten publishers accounted for 75 percent of U.S. book sales in 1999. The publishing operations themselves are now small parts of large media conglomerates. Some of these publishing conglomerates seem to use book publishing as a way to curry favor for other parts of their businesses. Rupert Murdoch appeared to have done so in publishing a certain work while not publishing others, in a way that would be most appealing to Chinese politicians while trying to get permission to take Sky Broadcasting into mainland China.
Even university presses are under tighter budgets. This means that about 1 percent of the book publishing resources are available through independent, university, and religious-organization-connected presses to open the doors to unpopular ideas. He argues that this is a challenge to our very concept of a free society. I agree wholeheartedly.
The main countervailing force is the Internet. No one knows how this will play out, but it could change the economics of book publishing to allow independent publishers and self-publishing to flourish. If electronic publishing becomes more mainstream, fewer authors may feel that they need the traditional publishers. Stephen King's now-famous experiment of publishing his novella electronically is described. Time will tell how this will all turn out.
In the meantime, I have a suggestion for all readers. We should each take some sizeable percentage of our reading and dedicate it to reading works in subjects we would normally not consider, authors we do not know already and who are not well-known generally, and from publishers who are not in the top ten. This would encourage a greater diversity of ideas more than anything that publishers can do. I promise to be sure to do this with my reviews from now on to help you follow up on this idea and have successful reading experiences at the same time.
Overcome more stalled thinking through your reading!
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Most recent customer reviews
At least from a writer's perspective, all of Schiffrin's assertions about the publishing industry are stunningly true.Read more
The book is a bit whiny. There isn't any documented research.Read more