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The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read
By André Schiffrin
Verso
192 pages, $23


Perhaps more than any other product today, books show the contradictions of commodity under capitalism. Books offer something invaluable, especially when they challenge our ideas, and by extension contribute to changing people, institutions and even societies. But books are an object bought and sold for profit in a highly competitive market and increasingly, as André Schiffrin argues in The Business of Books, part of an industry driven by the bottom line.

Schiffrin, an editor and publisher who has made a unique contribution to independent

STEVE ANDERSON

and progressive publishing through his work at Pantheon Press since 1962 and, more recently, at The New Press, documents how the particular historical idiosyncrasies of the publishing industry have become harder to maintain against the market's relentless encroachment on the production of ideas.

Books used to be a "gentleman's business," which created its own forms of censorship and exclusivity. But publishers accepted overall rates of profit of less than a few percent, or just breaking even, and recognized that most of their books would actually lose money, with losses to be covered by the exceptional best-selling title. That best-seller provided the income for printing books editors considered important and worthy.

Schiffrin's report of how Pantheon's parent, Random House, was bought by the giant German conglomerate Bertelsmann in 1998 shows how outdated this model has become: "As soon as Bertelsmann had taken over Random House, they issued a press release saying they expected Random House to make a 15 percent profit in the next few years." For Bertelsmann, Pantheon could have been producing any widget for the market, as long as the money on their investment came back with an appreciable return. "Perhaps the most telling statistic about Bertelsmann," Schiffrin writes, "is that 4,000 accountants were reported to be working at its headquarters--many times the number of editors in all its holdings worldwide."

Bertelsmann's acquisition of Random House also meant that "the new combined corporation would be responsible for one out of every three trade books published in the United States." Today, Schiffrin notes, the top 20 firms publish 93 percent of books in the United States. The more than 100 university presses account for only 2 percent of book sales. The remaining 5 percent, Schiffrin notes, is "fought over" by other presses, including all of the independent and progressive publishers (like the one where I work, South End Press).

Schiffrin may have taken a while to see the writing on the wall when RCA sold Random House to media mogul S.I. Newhouse in 1980. But his fascinating and distinguished career at Pantheon--which included helping to introduce Maus, Marx for Beginners, Noam Chomsky and the Simpsons to the U.S. book market--was clearly seen more as a threat than an asset to his new bosses. The New Press was born in 1993 after Schiffrin and his colleagues collectively quit in protest over the direction the higher-ups at Random House were taking Pantheon.

Schiffrin recounts how Alberto Vitale, an Italian banker ("an illiterate businessman") who had been brought in by Newhouse to replace the respected Bob Bernstein as the chief editor at Random House, told the remaining Pantheon staff members that "Pantheon would no longer publish political works." A look at the recent lists from Pantheon, featuring such titles as How to Win at Golf ... Without Actually Playing Well, bears out this shift in Pantheon's output, continuing earlier trends.

In the most interesting chapter in The Business of Books, "Market Censorship," Schiffrin describes how the most pervasive exclusion of ideas from public debate is not the decree of the state censor but the "hidden hand" of the market, which determines what ideas will be distributed based on the very simple standard of profit. (Though he documents a number of instances when publishers pursuing their actual ideological agenda were quite willing to lose millions of dollars on worthless books by Nancy Reagan and other corporate friends; Newt Gingrich received a $4.5 million advance on his book for HarperCollins, which earned back only one-third this amount--but at the time Newt was in a position to influence legislation that impacted Rupert Murdoch's corporate empire.)

Most authors, and certainly radical ones, wouldn't stand a chance if they had to meet the standard now being set that each title must turn a profit and each editor's acquisitions must be "revenue centers" for the publisher. 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 they were not worth it?"

To Schiffrin's credit, he sees this trend in publishing as part of a much broader shift toward corporate domination of art, public space and workers' lives. "What we experienced [at Pantheon after Newhouse took over Random House] is standard procedure in many publishing houses. Millions of workers involved in plant closings have experienced something infinitely harder. ... Not only our belongings but our jobs and, indeed, our selves have become commodities to be bought and sold to the highest bidder."

No one will be overly surprised that Schiffrin offers The New Press as a positive example of resistance to these trends in publishing. The New Press' achievements are indeed notable, proving that there is still a large--and growing--audience for critical and radical ideas. And it would also be unfair to slight Schiffrin for his remarkable achievements as an editor--helping to develop an extensive list of authors, including Frances Fox Piven, Studs Terkel, James Macpherson and Moshe Lewin--or to begrudge him the fact that few of us in independent publishing could ever hope to command the kind of foundation support he has received for his new venture. (Schiffrin doesn't discuss the role that foundations, especially corporate ones, have played in introducing their own forms of market censorship, though some of the backers of The New Press would certainly be vulnerable to such criticism.)

Yet as enjoyable as his insider's narrative is, one has a nagging suspicion that the history is a bit more messy than Schiffrin presents it. It would have been valuable to learn more about the fights that went on behind the scenes to acquire certain books, the books that were rejected and defaulted to other publishers, the books passed over for political reasons (though Schiffrin does cite a few examples of this), and the compromises entered into to keep the business afloat. I found myself also wondering whether the junior staff at Pantheon would tell the story the same way as Schiffrin does.

More substantively, though, Schiffrin's argument would benefit from more analysis and documentation. The Business of Books is an engaging and pleasurable read, and is appropriately not weighted down with footnotes and statistics. But Schiffrin could have kept his style while backing up his case with evidence for the reader less familiar with the publishing business. A chart showing the current pattern of corporate ownership--and concentration--in the industry would have been an important addition (as would have a functional index, unlike the misnumbered and incomplete one in the current edition).

But Schiffrin has started a conversation that is taking on increasing urgency, especially as the number of independent bookstores continues to decline, the concentration of media grows even more dense, and the defunding of libraries and other public institutions make books less accessible. The slogan of French anticorporate protesters this past spring would make an appropriate conclusion to The Business of Books: "The world is not a commodity." Nor should be the word. But that's a struggle we still need to win.

Anthony Arnove is an editor at South End Press and International Socialist Review.

 

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