Researcher and Writer in Washington, DC

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

Andre Schiffrin’s The Business of Books provides some interesting history on big publishing in New York.  For that alone it was worth reading. Schiffrin lead Pantheon Books for decades and founded the New Press in 1990, so he is a man of experience.

But Schiffrin does not analyze the changes to the publishing industry, he just rails at them.  His thesis is: Big corporations bought up publishing, dumbed down books in the mad dash for profits, and atrophied American democracy.  This is all a bit simplex and tendentious, to put it mildly, and Schiffrin offers zero evidence for these contentions.

Which is a pity—it would have been interesting to see, say, a comparison of the autumn 1970, autumn 1980, and autumn 1990 offerings by the major New York publishing houses.  Some simple tabulations might have  revealed shifts in the nature of what is getting published.

Still, the claim that the way we read has been changed would require a much larger analysis, one that considered media other than books. Schiffrin attempts no such thing.

Unfortunately for the reader, Schiffrin exudes an incredible sense of self-importance—the books he published (often by radical leftist writers from Europe) are spoken of with utter reverence.  They are important books.  Why?  Well, it is not clear.  Again, he does not provide any evidence, beyond the occasional sales figures or mentions of critical acclaim.  The possibility that the world could have gone on if the work of a radical anthropologist had not been translated and printed in the U.S.—well, that seems inconceivable to Schiffrin.  So critical are the Schiffrin sorts of books that that he declares either government or foundations should step up and fund them if the private sector will not produce them.

The blooming of the World Wide Web and the explosion of e-books makes Schiffrin’s book and argument anachronistic.  Every possible viewpoint on every possible issue can be found with a few clicks.  But Schiffrin appears little interested in viewpoints that are not on the left.  If he ever published a book by a conservative he does not say, and the book is spiked with sneers about Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and the like.

It is ironic—Schiffrin is a man who prides himself on being and editor writes a book that could have benefited from a tougher editor.


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