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.
QThe White Review — Your father, Jacques Schiffrin, started the Éditions de la Pléiade in Paris in 1931, and joined Gallimard in 1933 to carry on that imprint. In 1940, a few months after the capitulation of France, you were forced to emigrate to New York.
AAndré Schiffrin — I’m not sure emigrate is quite the right word. The Germans came into Paris on my fifth birthday which was inconsiderate of them, and we had to leave shortly thereafter, because of the anti-Jewish laws. The German ambassador, Otto Abetz, had issued orders for the take-over of key French institutions. My father, one of two Jews in the firm, was dismissed on 20 August 1940, exactly a year to the day before we landed in New York City.
QThe White Review — And then he founded a new publishing house in New York?
AAndré Schiffrin — Yes, he started publishing the exiled French writers in French, including Saint-Exupéry. In 1944, he went to work with a German exile publisher called Kurt Wolff, who had been the first editor to publish and promote Kafka in Germany. Together, they started a firm called Pantheon Books, where my father worked until he died.
QThe White Review — You were very young when he died – just 15. Did you ever imagine that you would follow in his footsteps and get into publishing?
AAndré Schiffrin — No, on the contrary, I thought that I would never live up to what my father had been able to do, so it never occurred to me when I was young.
QThe White Review — What prompted you to go into publishing?
AAndré Schiffrin — I got a summer job when I was at Yale University working for a mass-market paperbackpublisher called the New American Library. I started off doing menial stuff, but I got a taste for it. Then, in 1962, to my surprise, the people at Pantheon asked me if I would join the firm as a junior editor – many years after my father had died – and of course I said yes.
QThe White Review — When you started off at Pantheon, you were given free rein to go looking for good authors and good books. That sounds ideal.
AAndré Schiffrin — Well, in those days, it wasn’t that odd. That’s what publishing was about, and Random House, which had bought Pantheon in 1960, was much smaller than it is, maybe two per cent of what it is now in the US, not to mention what it is in England.
Random has also just bought out Alfred Knopf that same year. Knopf was the leading publisher of European writers in America back then, but he was getting on in years. I think they felt, reasonably enough, that they wanted a new generation of editors to go in search of new authors, and to some degree, we succeeded.
QThe White Review — How did the process of looking for writers happen in those days?
AAndré Schiffrin — It was very simple. We just read the books. For example, when I was in Paris browsing the libraries I found a book called Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique (Madness and Civilisation). I didn’t know the author, I’d never heard of him, but it seemed to me like an interesting book, and we ended up translating every Michel Foucault book thereafter, and he became a friend. The French publishers would also tell me what they were publishing, and what was interesting. At the time, the editors still read the books that they were publishing, which is not really the case any more.
QThe White Review — What about Noam Chomsky – was he well known at the time you published him?
AAndré Schiffrin — No, Chomsky was well known as a linguist, but he wrote a series of articles on Vietnam in the New York Review of Books – beginning with ‘The Responsibility of Intellectuals’ in 1967 – that were a real breath of fresh air. After that, I asked him to write a book in 1968 which turned out to be American Power and the New Mandarins, which is still in print. After that, I must have published a dozen of his books.
QThe White Review — As Chomsky’s publisher, did you get involved in any anti-Vietnam War activism at the time?
AAndré Schiffrin — In so far as people were – yes. We marched at demonstrations, and started publishing publishers’ appeals kind of things, and we got our files later on and saw that the FBI was following what we were doing, but nothing too exciting really.
QThe White Review — Do you think that it is necessary for publishers and editors to be politically committed?
AAndré Schiffrin — No, but I do think it is useful. There are people – like François Maspero in France – who did a lot more than we did. Sadly, now, publishing is almost entirely a matter of profitability, meaning that if you want to publish something that is immediately profitable, it’s very rare that it will turn out to be predicated on strong ideas, or dissident ideas.
That’s a big problem. It has considerably reduced the amount of good books published, even though now there are small independent publishing houses who are publishing whatever they want to.
My German editor, who wrote a fantastic biography of Kafka, says that without a free publishing industry, there can be no democracy. And that is particularly the case in France, where most of the newspapers belong to people who manufacture weapons, and books are just about the only place where you can express ideas that are not mainstream.
QThe White Review — But in France there are still important houses like Gallimard who publish important books every year – much more so than in Britain or the United States.
AAndré Schiffrin — There is more of a publishing tradition in France, partly because there are no university presses, meaning that major publishers such as Gallimard feel that they are responsible for printing serious books. They are doing much less translation too, which is also the case in Britain. Over the years The New Press has published a number of Nobel Prize winners for whom we couldn’t get an English publisher, even though we’d already translated the book. The English situation is much, much worse in that respect.
QThe White Review — You have spoken in the past about the left-wing political influence that publishers like Pantheon and Penguin had in the mid-twentieth century. You even argued that Penguin, through its thoroughly anti-fascist Penguin Specials series of books, which often sold more than 100,000 copies per book, played a part in Attlee’s defeat of Churchill’s Conservative government in 1945. Do you think that this kind of influence is still possible today?
AAndré Schiffrin — Well, there were obviously a huge number of factors for the 1945 election results, it wasn’t just the Penguin Specials. I was reading Goebbels’s diaries recently, and, unsurprisingly, he was a very smart reader of the press. He was predicting Churchill’s defeat early on, so even he could tell that British opinion was going to switch. Penguin certainly helped, but there hasn’t been a Penguin Special in something like forty years.
Penguin has changed its mode of operation entirely, and its prices. When I was at Cambridge as a Mellon Fellow in the 1960s, the books were still cheap, but they’ve changed that entirely. A Penguin Classic now costs £8.99, so the whole concept of reaching out to a broader public and getting ideas across to people who might not normally have bought a book has disappeared.
QThe White Review — In Italy, hundreds of small presses have begun to appear in recent years. Why is that?
AAndré Schiffrin — I think the same reason that they’ve started here and elsewhere. The monopoly of three or four big companies, many of which are controlled by Berlusconi, is such that a lot of stuff just isn’t published any more in Italy.
There is a small independent bookstore in Rome that I know – there aren’t that many – and the books you see there are totally different to the books that you see in the big chain bookstores. If you had independent bookstores in London you might have the same phenomenon but the closest you can get is the import table at Waterstones.
QThe White Review — There are a few independent bookshops. What about Daunt Books?
AAndré Schiffrin — Yes, there is one in Hampstead but I haven’t seen much from small publishers there. They are doing well I’m told, though.
QThe White Review — So these books that you talk about that are not being published any longer – you mainly mean non-fiction?
AAndré Schiffrin — Yes. It’s always been difficult to get fiction published, but I think a really good novel will still be published whatever happens. A good translation isn’t, and a good book on politics or history and so on is even less likely to get in print.
QThe White Review — So fiction is still healthy as a genre?
AAndré Schiffrin — Relatively speaking, yes. But even Oxford University Press has cut back on its poetry series and reprints and all sorts of things that they used to be known for, and they are not only subsidised by the government but subsidised by God, because they have a monopoly on the Bible. You would have thought that they didn’t have to look for the same profit margins that other people do, but they do.
QThe White Review — The situation in Britain is pretty dire in terms of the conglomerates’ grasp on the publishing industry.
AAndré Schiffrin — Britain is pretty bad. I think you have to go a long way to find a press in such dire straits. I think America is probably marginally better than Britain in that the large groups control so much of British publishing. The last time I counted – I may be off by one or two – Random House UK had twenty-eight old independent publishing houses subsumed under its roof. And they’ll slap Chatto or Secker on whatever spine of the book they feel like, but it’s all one company. Those used to be major independent publishers that published important books but that doesn’t seem to matter anymore.
QThe White Review — Do you think that publishing and the press serve the same function as a fourth estate?
AAndré Schiffrin — They are both facing very similar crises. Some people will say it’s a question of who disappears first, but hopefully they will both ride it out, even if things don’t look too good.
QThe White Review — What about the emergence of Wikileaks in recent years – do you think that it has played a role in redressing the balance and restating the purpose, which has been somewhat lost, of journalism as a check for power and abuses?
AAndré Schiffrin — Yes, I think it’s been really important, and I think for too long there has been an open censorship. The Bush administration kept the Iraqi stories under wraps for a very long time, and even before the invasion of Afghanistan, Condoleeza Rice called the heads of all the TV networks in the US and said, ‘I don’t want to see any wounded civilians on your screens’, because they knew that’s how opposition to the Vietnam War took off. This is still going on today, even under Obama.
Happily, in the UK, the Guardian has gone against the trends, but if that goes down the tube… We really need legislative reform to ensure the survival of an independent press, otherwise we are going to be in trouble.
QThe White Review — Indeed. It seems shocking that the only thorough investigation of the phone-hacking scandal in Britain was done by the New York Times, and even they may have had an ulterior motive. Not even the Guardian probed the events in such depth. It just seems that people are happy with the status quo in the UK, and so-called independents such as the Guardian and the Independent are not being relentless enough in their coverage of the links between Murdoch’s empire and power. In fact, some people would argue that Murdoch’s papers have been king-making since the Thatcher years. What should people be doing to counter this kind of influence?
AAndré Schiffrin — Well, I think realistically speaking we won’t be able to change much. I think a lot of the problems can only be changed by legislation. In Norway they do things that most people have never heard about. Any not-for-profit paper gets a government help and the second biggest paper in every provincial city gets a subsidy too, whereas in Britain I don’t think there is a second paper in most cities. So that’s the way you are going to have to help – you have to give massive help to the independent press. Not buying the Sunday Times anymore doesn’t make that much of an impact.
I want people to talk about these possibilities and, I don’t know whether the Norwegian model would work in England, but when I wrote The Business of Books ten years ago, England was the only country where everybody said, ‘Oh, what you’re saying is crazy, everything is fine’. The book came out in twenty-six different countries, and in places like Japan or Russia, people said, ‘Yes, these are real issues for us’, but the English were in total denial. Whether that will change, I don’t know.
QThe White Review — Is the scope for change as dire in publishing?
AAndré Schiffrin — No. Individuals can go to independent bookshops. If you’re an author, go to an independent publisher, like Kurt Vonnegut who left Bertelsmann to go to the Seven Stories Press and kept them going for years. The fact that people like Studs Terkel stayed with us at The New Press made all the difference, and we couldn’t have survived without them.
Authors can do things, and reviewers can pay much more attention to books that are independent-oriented. I’ve been trying to persuade the New York Times to let me do an annual column on the books that they didn’t talk about. That would help, but it’s hard to get people to admit that they are making mistakes.
QThe White Review — You talk about cooperatives as a solution for the survival of independent publishers and newspapers.
AAndré Schiffrin — Yes, there are a lot of papers that are not-for-profit outside of the UK. In the UK it’s just the Guardian, but in Ireland there’s the Irish Times, and nearly all the papers in Denmark are not-for-profit. There are plenty of small independent presses in that category and it’s just a question of allowing the people who run the papers and the presses that are under pressure to share control. After the Second World War in Germany, that was the model – they gave the right to people in the press to share in the control of the papers. That would clearly make a difference.
QThe White Review — The New York Times have announced that they are launching a metered system on their website this year, meaning that after a certain number of articles you read you have to start paying. Are all the papers eventually going to go this way?
AAndré Schiffrin — Well they are certainly all watching to see what the New York Times does, and, of course, I think that’s not unreasonable. Murdoch has done it successfully with the Wall Street Journal, but then people put that on the office expenses account. I do think that something of this kind is going to have to be worked out.
QThe White Review — What then of websites like the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph? Will they be able to keep everything free?
AAndré Schiffrin — I’m impressed that they’ve been taking that stance. The Guardian has the best readership in England and that’s why they’ve tried that, and hopefully they’ll get ads to pay for it in the future. I look at the Guardian every day on the web and the number of ads are not overwhelming.
QThe White Review — The Guardian Media Group are losing tremendous amounts of money though – £90m in 2009. Can they pull it off in the long term?
AAndré Schiffrin — Well that’s the problem that I’ve raised in my books. Why do we have to accept the model that the press has to depend on advertising to work? Advertising is just a private tax. You still pay for the stuff, but only you pay for the higher price of the objects that are advertised, so I think there are better ways of dealing with this issue, and hopefully people will try to think about them.
QThe White Review — But in terms of getting legislation passed – are you sending your books and lobbying for regulation and changes in the realm of the media? Have you sent your books to Jeremy Hunt in the UK, or Frédéric Mitterrand in France?
AAndré Schiffrin — No, I’m hoping the press will talk about the issues and someone will show them a clipping laughs]… No, I think it’s unrealistic at this point – you’ve got conservative governments in power and they are not going to take the lead on this kind of reform, but hopefully in time the various opposition parties will begin to think about it. There’s an attempt to get the green idea of biodiversity to extend to ideas – they call it ‘bibliodiversity’. For instance, in Chile, around forty independent publishers got together under that label about ten years ago, and they have managed to preserve the necessary diversity of the editorial output available to readers over there.
QThe White Review — What do you think about the new trend for not-for-profit publications such as this one, emulating the likes of n+1 or Guernica in New York?
AAndré Schiffrin — I’m not that familiar with those magazines you mention, but I think it’s a great thing to try.
Jacques Testard and Gwénaël Pouliquen, October 2010