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February 26, 2001

Book Review

The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (Verso Books, August 2000), by Andre Schiffrin

Reviewed by Mark Bauerlein, professor of English.

In 1962, 26-year-old Andre Schiffrin was offered an editor’s post at Pantheon Books, the small house founded by his father and noted for publishing serious European literature and politics. Pantheon had just been purchased by Random House, whose editor-in-chief, Bennett Cerf, wished to maintain the publisher’s standards even if it meant accepting projects of meager commercial value.

For the next 20 years, Schiffrin enjoyed a free hand in selecting adventurous works running against the grain of mass culture. He secured the rights to E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the Working Class.

A thesis on slavery by a contentious Marxist named Eugene Genovese impressed him despite the 12 rejections it had garnered from university presses. Browsing in a Paris bookstore, he spotted a curious study of the history of madness, which Pantheon published as Madness and Civilization by Michael Foucault. Books by Herb Gutman, Ira Berlin, R. D. Lang, Juliet Mitchell, Noam Chomsky, Gunnar Myrdal, Studs Terkel and Ralph Nader followed.

By the late 1980s, everything had changed. Random House was in the hands of S. I. Newhouse, a media mogul with no literary interests. Alberto Vitale, its president, was a “philistine businessman” who admitted he was “far too busy to read a book.”

“Publishers have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books,” Schiffrin writes. But under Vitale, only short-term sales prospects counted. Upper-management wanted blockbuster books by bestselling authors, screen celebrities and Washington scandalmongers. Accountants prevailed over editors. The advances authors received generated as much buzz as the books themselves (which often failed to recoup the advances). Within a few years, Schiffrin left Pantheon. The Business of Books recounts Schiffrin’s odyssey from one world to the other. It is a doleful reminiscence, regretful more than bitter, pressing its indictment by citing the noteworthy names of the past. His story, he believes, is a case study in the decline of intellectual publishing—the closing of independent bookstores, the avoidance of risky ideas, the rise of market values, the homogenization of catalogue lists.

Eighty percent of publishing is now in the hands of five conglomerates. Bookstore chains mandate that “if a book did not sell a certain number of copies per day during the first week on display, it would be moved to the back of the store and then returned.” Book clubs that employed distinguished critics to choose their monthly selections now function as nothing but mail-order houses. Editorial and “advertorial” boundaries are blurring., I learned yesterday, plans to start charging presses when an Amazon editor recommends their books to users.

For research universities, the market trend is most alarming in its incursions into scholarly publishing. “It was inevitable,” Schiffrin writes, “that corporate approaches would eventually hit the university presses.” Endowments are tightening, manuscripts are piling up, sales are shrinking. Presses face budget cuts of 8 to 10 percent, while books increasingly fail to sell more than the 300 or so standing library orders. Oxford Press has discontinued its contemporary poetry series. In 1986, the new head of Princeton University Press, Walter Lippincott, tried to dump the Bollingen series (the editorial board “recoiled at the suggestion,” according to Schiffrin). Few editors will consider critical studies of a single poet or novelist.

Some presses, Schriffin notes, have devised a “midlist” of books that reach a few customers beyond the academy. Others have hired hip insiders like Bill Germano, who promise to bring a market savvy to academic publishing.

Ambitious presses like Duke and Routledge have begun churning out volumes on topics like the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding episode, Barbie’s sexuality and cigarettes, hoping to secure a market niche outside the academy but overlooked by Simon & Schuster et al.

Whether this marketization is the only way academic presses can survive is yet to be decided. But it certainly poses a problem for academic departments. Because hiring and promotion depend upon scholarly publishing, departments need the intellectual values of editorial offices to match their own.

More and more, tenure and hiring committees rely on editors to judge the quality of a candidate’s work, as demonstrated by the “book-for-tenure” formula.

If presses accept manuscripts on the grounds of their topicality, not their rigor and clarity, departments will have to reconsider the meaning of publication in an academic record. If presses reject monographs, archival work, textual scholarship and other noncommercial projects, fledging scholars effectively commit professional suicide by pursuing them. Tenured faculty can no longer penalize junior faculty for failing to publish serious but “unmarketable” material.

This is a damaging fissure in the institution. With presses unlikely to reverse course, professors may decide to join the trend and make their work more market-sensitive, leaving older professors, raised on a different ethic, in the position of Schiffrin: lamenting a cultural turn they were powerless to stop.


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