Allan Lefcowitz, the founder of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland, once made the following observation in the center’s newsletter. “Why do editors reject manuscripts?” he asked rhetorically. “Because,” he goes on, “they can.” His point is simple: Editors decide what to include in journals, or in the books they select for publication.
André Schiffrin, former editor of Pantheon Books, would no doubt suggest a corollary truism: Book publishers, whether trade or literary, exercise the same authority. Unfortunately, in Schiffrin’s view, during the last two decades of the twentieth century, an increasing number of publishers wielded that power ruthlessly, and in the process materially degraded the publishing industry.
Schiffrin is certainly qualified to make such a statement. He was born into a publishing family and spent his career in the trade. His father, Jacques Schiffrin, an émigré from Europe, started Pantheon Books and introduced many foreign writers to American audiences. André Schiffrin worked for the New American Library, a mass-market paperback company, before taking over Pantheon. Therefore, he has both the experience and credentials to take on the challenging task of deconstructing an industry that has been transformed in less than a century. The Business of Books is his analysis of the changes brought about in book publishing as a result of the merger of many small firms and the increasing dominance of the market by large conglomerates worried more about bottom-line profits than about the merits of the works they issue. Schiffrin tells readers he was motivated to write The Business of Books because he believes that “the story of publishing is much more than a list of sales figures.” His study of the industry not only “raises issues about the relationship of high culture to mass audiences” but also examines how “the book houses themselves [were] transformed,” and how those in the industry have been affected by the changes.
The Business of Books is as much a personal memoir as it is a study of an international industry. To illustrate the stark contrast between the publishing scene at the end of the twentieth century and its status in the past, Schiffrin traces the history of book publishing from the late nineteenth century to the end of the twentieth. Throughout, his focus is on his own experiences with editors, publishers, and owners. He writes lovingly about the time between the World Wars, when dozens of independent publishing houses operated on small profit margins but saw themselves as the champions of authors whose ideas, while sometimes unpopular, deserved an audience. Chief among his heroes is his father, who scraped together capital from a few friends and started Pantheon Books in 1942. Under its imprint or through the personal efforts of the elder Schiffrin, the works of important writers such as Carl Jung, Saint-John Perse, André Gide, Hermann Broch, André Malraux, Paul Valéry, and Miguel de Unamuno entered the American market. Jacques Schiffrin was not without commercial sense, either: Pantheon editions of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift from the Sea, (1955), Boris Pasternak’s Doktor Zhivago (1957; Doctor Zhivago, 1958), and Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard (1960) earned sizable profits for the firm. Eventually, when Random House, one of the United States’ most renowned publishing companies, bought Pantheon, the name was maintained and André Schiffrin was brought in to head the firm.
For nearly two decades, Schiffrin was successful in carrying on the business as his father had done before him. He landed popular authors such as historian Zoé Oldenbourg and historical novelist Mary Renault while maintaining his commitment to supporting writers with controversial ideas or difficult subjects. He credits his success to mentors such as Alfred Knopf, Donald Klopfer, and Bennett Cerf, all of whom understood the need for commercial success but nevertheless valued the quality of a work far above its commercial potential. Almost with bravado, Schiffrin records Knopf’s decision not to accept a diet book by his own physician, Herman Tarnower. Tarnower found another publisher, and his Scarsdale Diet (1978) became a best-seller. Nevertheless, there “was no question in Alfred’s mind that the book should not appear on the Knopf list.” Further, Schiffrin notes approvingly, the publisher’s decision “was not considered unusual or unwise then.” He cites with approval publishers brave...
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