André Schiffrin founded non-profit publishing house The New Press in 1990 after an acrimonious split with Random House – the owner of Pantheon Books – where he had spent close to thirty years as an editor and publisher. Established as a ‘major alternative to the large, commercial publishers’, The New Press has been an important force in recent years, publishing around fifty titles every year – proof that a bookseller can operate ‘editorially in the public interest’.
In reinventing the industry, Schiffrin reinvented himself, becoming an outspoken critic of the press and publishing, and a champion of the non-profit model for these media. A lifelong editor, he has become a prolific writer over the last decade. His latest book, Words and Money (Verso, 2010), continues his denunciation of the profit-driven business of books.
We met André Schiffrin in the small Paris apartment he shares with his wife Maria Elena in the Marais, a few steps back from the rue de Rivoli in the direction of the Seine. Born in France in 1935, Schiffrin grew up in New York, where his family relocated with the help of Varian Fry after the Nazis forced them out of Paris in 1940. Subsequently, he maintained his ties with France, publishing the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Duras in translation, and has spent half of every year in the French capital since 2005.
Aware of Schiffrin’s bicultural background but expecting the interview to take place in the local idiom, I was surprised to have my French greeting ignored when I rang the intercom. ‘We’re on the fourth floor,’ he answered, in a softly spoken New York drawl. Four flights of stairs later – ‘The lift is a little temperamental,’ he explained, – we were ushered in by a slight, bearded and bespectacled figure. The interview took place over strong black coffee in a sparsely furnished wooden-floored living room, remarkably devoid of any books except his own.