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The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read Paperback – 17 Nov 2001

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"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]"Andre 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"

About the Author

Andre Schiffrin was, for thirty years, the publisher of Pantheon Books. In 1990 Schiffrin left Pantheon to found The New Press. He is the author of "The Business of Books, Words and Money, A Political Education," and "Dr. Seuss & Co. Go to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of America's Leading Comic Artists." He divides his time between Paris and New York.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 16 reviews
49 of 55 people found the following review helpful
A Must for Those Who Care about New Ideas and Reading! 20 Sept. 2000
By Donald Mitchell - Published on
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Schiffrin has used the benefit of 40 years of publishing experience to develop a powerful argument that society is being denied access to important new ideas through books. This is occurring because of changes in ownership (and management philosophies) in the publishing industry, and similar effects in book retailing.
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!
14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
Bottom Line: Buy it 29 Oct. 2002
By Victor Cresskill - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
From a writer's perspective at least, 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 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 "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. Many small houses will present many diverse voices rather than 5 huge conglomerates chasing the same dollar with their celebrity memoirs and Tom Clancy thrillers. He argues for the freedom for editors and houses to express their tastes and to let the public decide whether that taste suits them or not. But if a book never sees the light of day because corporate executives, who often know nothing about books (Vitale, Schiffrin points out "did eventually agree to read the novels of Judith Krantz" published by his own company), decide it won't sell enough copies, then you have market censorship. When that happens on a large enough scale, it's not the end of democracy, but democracy is certainly weakened by a shrinking pool of ideas and opinions from which to draw. Schiffrin quotes the German publisher, Klaus Wagenbach: "If books with small print runs disappear, the future will die. Kafka's first book was published with a printing of 800 copies. Brecht's first work merited 600. What would have happened if someone had decided that was not worth it?" Somehow, advocating books with tiny print runs like this doesn't strike me as elitist.

If you are even slightly connected to the book business, if you are at all interested in books, if you give any thought at all to the future of the free exchange of ideas in this country and abroad, this is a must-read. I can't recommend it highly enough.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
A Voice Crying in the Wilderness 12 Oct. 2000
By Peter Kline - Published on
Format: Hardcover
One of the most important functions of publishers for the last 400 years has been to discover and develop new authors who have something important to say about their culture. The development of a truly democratic society depends upon the free exchange of new ideas, many of which may take a very long time to be accepted as valuable. Therefore the willingness of adventurous editors and publishers to take a chance on publishing and promoting new voices is one of the most important contributions to the development of society. At no time in the past has this been as important as it is today when the rate of social and technical change has speeded up so much that many of the old truths about how we need to conduct our lives have changed and new values need to be articulated at an ever-increasing rate. Schiffrin combines history and memoires, it is true, but so far I have found no other source of the information he provides, which tells the story of the dismantling of the capacity of Random House and the publishers it controls to discover and promote controversial new voices. Schiffrin also reveals how the story he has to tell was systematically kept out of the media with a kind of silent consorship that has truly horrifying implications. What emerges from his book is a first hand story of some of the most frightening vanadalism that has ever been inflicted on a social institution. What's most ironic about his story is that the quest for profits actually decreased the rate of the economic growth and profitability of the publishers involved. Schiffrin takes a dim view of the possibilities for recovering from the blow to the solar plexus that the current me-too capitalism of an ever less socially conscious electorate has dealt the publishing industry. I disagree with him about the capacity of the Internet to help publishing recover from this blow, and I agree to some extent with one reviewer's comment about Amazon as a symptom of the new kind of accessibility of books. That comment is beside Schiffrin's point, however, which is that many of the best authors need the championing of editors and publishers willing to see to it that their books get a hearing, and as such writers may not be very good at sales and marketing themselves, they may end up completely silenced. Hopefully, the Internet will be able to do more about this problem than Schiffrin thinks it can. That hasn't happened yet, though.
7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
BusinessWeek Agrees with Much of this Book 16 Jan. 2002
By Louisa H. Chiang - Published on
Format: Paperback
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.
17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
The Mindlessness of the market 27 Nov. 2000
By Richard A. Ellis - Published on
Format: Hardcover
If you seem to have fond memories of the well-stocked bookstores of twenty or twenty-five years ago, it may not be all false nostalgia or a curmudgeonly disgust with modern "culture." Schiffrin, the former head of Pantheon Books, lays out in detail the sad decline of American publishing. The chief culprits are the mega-mergered conglomerates that have established a virtual stranglehold on the book trade in this country and elsewhere. Schiffrin's experience at Pantheon is used as an example of the disastrous effects of the takeover of small independent publishers by large, bottom-line oriented corporations. One remembers the incredibly interesting books Pantheon itself used to publish, which, if similar offerings were to even see the light of day now, they would be taken on by a university press, if at all. Schiffrin's thesis that the short-term bottom-line oriented outlook of the major publishing conglomerates is the main culprit, and it is hard to dispute this. Although a lot of titles continue to be published in this country, there has been a marginalization of serious "challenging" books from the mainstream publishing houses, and there has been a rightward shift in the politics of those books that deal with social and political issues, to coincide with the politics of their publishers. Schiffrin's accounts of the mendacity of the often near-illiterate businesspeople in charge is funny and sad. Book publishing should not be totally dictated by short-term profits. The intellectual decline of this counrty will only accelerate if this trend is perpetuated. My only gripe with this book is that Schiffrin himself is in need of better editors, as there are some mistakes here that his publisher should have caught.
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