The Business of Books
Schiffrin was managing director at Pantheon for 30 years. He’s
now director of The New Press. He contributes a regular column on
publishing to the
on Higher Education
. He’s the author of
of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and
Changed the Way We Read
, published by Verso. Studs Terkel calls
him “the dean of intelligent independent publishing.”
In 1983, Ben Bagdikian wrote
published by Beacon, an independent press in Boston.
He traced the concentration of corporate media at that time and
he said there were about 50 corporations that controlled most of
the media in the United States. In subsequent editions that 50 became
28, 23, 14, 10, and in the latest edition it’s down to 6. What
are the implications of that kind of concentration?
SCHIFFRIN: It shows that you need to revise your books often. It’s
not simply a question of how concentrated the ownership is, but
who are the owners. Obviously, only a few firms control most of
publishing and the top five control 80 percent of American publishing
in terms of sales. They are all parts of international media conglomerates
for whom publishing is an ancillary activity, with the exception
of Bertelsmann, for whom it’s a principal one. So that if it
was Harvard University Press and the University of California and
so on who controlled most of American publishing, it would be somewhat
large conglomerates also own film, television, radio, magazines,
and newspapers. The profit margins for most of those are much, much
higher than they are for publishing. You can make 20 to 30 percent
in newspaper publishing per year. There are radio stations that
are supposed to make 40 or 50 percent or even more each year, while
publishing traditionally only makes 3 or 4 percent. That is publishing
over the whole of the 20th century and over the range of large and
mentioned Bertelsmann, the German-based conglomerate. The others
are AOL-Time Warner, Vivendi, Disney, Viacom, which publishes Simon
& Schuster, and News Corporation, which publishes HarperCollins.
You write that books differ in crucial ways from other media. Beyond
advertising, what are some of the other ways? There are no ads in
books per se.
course, that’s one of the reasons why they’re so much
less profitable. Even if you could put ads in books—and people
have tried to do that—the audience is too small in most cases
for it to be worthwhile. The whole point about book publishing over
the years is that it was relatively artisanal rather than industrial;
that is to say, you didn’t need a lot of money, you could do
it with just a handful of people. When the New Press started, over
a decade ago, there were five of us and we had a bestseller with
our very first book. So you don’t have to be huge to be successful.
The advantage of having a small setup, obviously, is that you can
take risks—you don’t have to have large shareholders who
are demanding more and more money—and with a relatively small
amount of money, as little as $20,000, you can publish a book nationally,
and indeed internationally, and say things that the mass media obviously
won’t be interested in trying out.
the structural, as well as the historical, tension of putting out
what is called “worthwhile” books and making money. Isn’t
there always going to be a problem there?
is, and that’s what publishing used to acknowledge as the basic
problem in publishing. Everyone talked about the cathedral and the
bank and how a publisher had to be able to go to each of those at
least once a week and see what they could do. The feeling used to
be that the more popular, commercial books would pay for the more
difficult books. Of course, you never knew in time what would end
up being profitable. A lot of the big books nowadays that are supposedly
going to be very profitable turn out to be huge losers. When you
look at the first printings on Brecht and Kafka, which were 600
and 800 copies, both of those have turned out to be pretty successful
in the long run. But we mustn’t assume that good books are
always successful commercially. Very often they’re not. That’s
part of what should have been the feeling of publishing responsibility.
just mentioned Brecht and Kafka. There is also the issue of experimentation
and discovery. In your book you cite Klaus Wagenbach, a German publisher,
who says that if books with small print runs disappear, the future
by the way, is the leading biographer of Kafka, so he knows whereof
he speaks. But also, Wagenbach has said not just the future, but
democracy will die. That’s, of course, an important aspect
of all of this, that you need to have dissenting voices. You need
to have people, either artistically, aesthetically, or politically,
who are going to do something that isn’t automatically a bestseller.
Not that television and newspapers and so on couldn’t play
that role, but on the whole they don’t. They already have to
assume that they’re going to get a mass audience for whatever
it is they do. Publishers could afford to take the risk and the
small publishers still do.
you look at the last year of the Bush administration, none of the
major houses have published books critical of what’s going
on. They’ve published books like Bob Woodward’s, which
are propaganda for the Administration deliberately. All the books
that are critical are coming from small, independent presses.
Bush at War,
published by Simon
& Schuster. There is the interesting case of Michael Moore’s
Stupid White Men,
which has been the
New York Times
bestseller, published by HarperCollins owned by Rupert Murdoch’s
News Corporation. They tried to prevent the publication of that
book after 9/11 and asked Moore to rewrite major sections of it
that were critical of the Bush administration, saying, “This
is not patriotic, We are at war,” etc. He refused to do that.
curious now is that we know that there is a very substantial audience
for books that are critical. The little pamphlet by Chomsky,
published by Seven Stories, has sold over a quarter of a million
copies. Our 400-page collection of Chomsky’s lectures,
, has sold over 50,000 copies without receiving a single
other books as well that have slipped through the cracks and are
selling. For example,
Nickel and Dimed
by Barbara Ehrenreich,
Fast Food Nation
by Eric Schlosser,
The Best Democracy
Money Can Buy
by Greg Palast have all appeared on the
bestseller list. There are almost parallel universes
is no question that there is and always has been a large audience
for books left of center as well as right of center. We know right-wing
books sell very well, because often they’re bought in bulk—Ann
Coulter and people like that. What’s interesting is that the
media, the so-called liberal media, on the whole are not giving
as much time to the books that are critical. Barbara Ehrenreich
has always done very well. She’s a well-established name and
a marvelous writer. Her book has now sold half a million in paperback,
which is a remarkable number. So clearly people are concerned about
the social issues that were there before Bush. They’re concerned
about the war.
mentioned that some of these right-wing publishers buy up a huge
number of copies of these books and drive them onto the bestseller
list, creating a kind of buzz. Then the authors appear on all the
not saying the publishers buy the books. But there are lots of organizations
that are willing to do that for them. So the books can become bestsellers.
If you take Michael Savage, he has been offered a major slot on
MSNBC, sponsored by Microsoft and GE. I was surprised at that because
large corporations, on the whole, try not to back controversial
stuff. They think people may get angry with them if they’re
identified with one of these two poles. The fact that these two
firms have decided to back this outrageously racist, person is
a curious development.
crucial is it for independent publishers to get on, for example,
NPR’s Terry Gross show, “Fresh Air” or the Diane
Rehm show or some of the commercial programs on television, on Fox
and CNN, and get the authors some visibility?
very important. Terry Gross is known as being the most effective
way of selling books. Our salespeople say it’s better than
a front page of the
New York Times
it better than “Oprah?”
is better than “Oprah.” If you have a book coming out
and you can’t get it on the major media and you have trouble
getting it into the newspapers, it’s going to be very hard
for people to know that it’s there. What is remarkable is that
all the books we’ve published in the last few months that were
very critical of what Bush was doing—whether it was David Cole’s
and the Constitution
, which is a very good
book on Ashcroft, or Gabriel Kolko’s
Another Century of
r, which is a critique of our foreign policy, or Lewis Lapham’s
Theater of War
—they have all been reprinted within
a few months of publication, in spite of the fact that in the first
two cases there were no reviews at all in the U.S.
and small publishers publish serious books, but lack the power to
produce and really promote them comparable to the larger houses
at a level that’s competitive and they lack equal access to
the global sales machinery. You have referred to this as a kind
of market censorship.
market censorship is obviously a very complicated process and it’s
partly the decision by large houses that they’re not going
to take on a book because they don’t think it will sell. By
definition, this process is inherently a conservative one. A new
idea does not have a track record. When we first published Chomsky’s
critique of the Vietnam War at Pantheon, if somebody had looked
in their computer to see how many books by Chomsky had sold, they
would have said, “Well, his book on linguistics has sold 300
copies. Obviously, we’re not going to take on this book,”
which became a major force for disagreement in the Vietnam years.
I look back at the thousands of books that we published over the
30 years I was at Pantheon, practically none of them would make
their way through the decision-making process of a large firm today.
Partly because the business people are the ones who increasingly
make the decisions, partly because the profit targets are so high,
as we’ve seen in the recent kafuffle over Random House, that
people won’t take on a book that isn’t going to have a
substantial first printing, 15-20,000 copies, whatever, and partly
because there is this built-in unwillingness to take any kind of
intellectual or political risk.
are the editors at these houses that are making the decisions? Are
they book people steeped in literature and interested in public
affairs or are they bean counters?
things are changing. There are still a lot of people who were in
publishing who were at Random House when I was there. They are gradually
leaving and being replaced by young people who have been taught
that the major purpose of their career is to make money. The Random
House story that made the
New York Times
front page, and
is still being debated, is a very indicative one, because here was
the best known name in American publishing—so well known that
Bertelsmann decided to use it for their publishing worldwide—where
a list that had some very commercial titles on it was deemed insufficiently
profitable. The people who were running it, Ann Godoff and others,
were fired and publicly humiliated.
A Chomsky book that had gone out of print,
and the New Mandarins
, has been reissued. There are other Chomsky
books that you’re bringing back,
For Reasons of State
Problems of Knowledge and Freedom.
That goes to the whole
issue of keeping books in print.
is part of the phenomenon that we’re talking about, which is
not only to make a lot of money, because you can make a lot of money
from your backlist—invariably in the past that was the way
you did make money—but the question of wanting to make a lot
of money on every book. When I was at Pantheon, we received a memo
saying every book that sold less than 2,000 copies a year should
be pulped, as if it had a contagion that would have infected the
other books in the warehouse. You can make a perfectly good profit
by publishing a book that sells 2,000 a year. In fact, most of the
books that are on people’s backlists don’t sell more than
that. But the idea was that every book should make as much money
as quickly as possible. So the very idea behind publishing, that
you could make half of your money each year from the books you had
published in the past, has been jeopardized and abandoned by many
lot of the big commercial houses have been dependent on blockbuster
bestsellers with their stable of stars who command millions of dollars
in advances. If you’re sucking out that amount of cash and
betting on one author, what does that leave in terms of your pool
of capital for lesser known or unknown authors?
is a polarization, but also, most people don’t want the lesser-known
author anyway, so that’s not that much of a problem. The problem,
in a way, is more the fact that everyone wants the same bestsellers,
so everyone is overpaying for them. You can overpay by several million
dollars and end up losing money .
the problem is that this has raised the threshold of what is needed
to publish a bestseller to the point where, in many cases, you can
practically guarantee that you will lose money on it and that you
have to take that out of everything else. In addition, there are
the problems of the amount of time being spent on the bestsellers
at the expense of the other books. I remember at Random House, at
one point before Christmas, noticing that none of our books were
being shipped from the warehouse, which is a crucial time of the
year to do that. I asked what was going on and they said, “Well,
the Nancy Reagan book had just been published and that had priority
over everything else.” Nancy Reagan was one of these cases
where many millions were paid that were never earned back. Not only
had that book lost money in its own right, but it had harmed the
sales of practically everything else on the list because of being
given this kind of priority. That, in a way, is a symbol of what
happens to large houses when all the eggs are put in this one basket.
1996 the Telecommunications Act was passed by Congress and signed
by an allegedly liberal Democratic, President Clinton. This enabled
Murdoch’s News Corporation and others to engineer a tsunami
of mergers and takeovers.
though I think it’s too simple to look only at money here.
What also matters is support. Murdoch supported Blair, for instance,
after having attacked him in the past. In one election the Murdoch
press in Britain managed to defeat what looked like a sure win on
the part of the Labor Party. The leading paper, the
had as a headline, “It’s Us What Did It.” Murdoch
was boasting of the fact that he had beaten Blair. The second time
around, Blair had learned his lesson and had conferred with Murdoch
as to what his interests were. One of the first things that Blair
did in foreign policy when he was elected was to go to Italy to
lobby Berlusconi on behalf of Murdoch’s press interests. That
may have been the beginning of the happy alliance that they’ve
created ever since, where Blair, theoretically a Labor Party leader,
has made a very close alliance with the two most right-wing prime
ministers in Europe, Berlusconi and Aznar in Spain. I’m not
saying Blair did this only to please Murdoch. I’m sure he had
other reasons. But the support of Murdoch was essential to winning
in England and he knew that.
Silvio Berlusconi is perhaps the first media titan to actually
achieve political power.
is the ideal press magnate, a very corrupt and dishonest press magnate,
who is able to control the media in Italy as well as the politics.
It is a new kind of right-wing government that Orwell thought might
be possible in the past, and Hearst as well, but we’ve never
seen it in that full flowering.
role does distribution play in getting books out?
is all part of the related phenomenon. One of the reasons the situation
in America is as bad as it is is that bookstores were conglomerated
at the same time as the publishers were. In other countries, for
instance, in Germany, two firms, Bertelsmann and Von Holtz- brinck,
control two-thirds of the publishing, but the bookstores are still
independent. There are no chains.
are thousands and thousands of independent bookstores that do a
very good job of selling books. This is something that no longer
exists here. Independent bookstores account for something like 17
percent of the sales each year and each year in recent years that
number has diminished. I think it may have now plateaued out and
not gone beyond that. But 17 percent is very little. So it means
that the chains can decide what books will become bestsellers.
do this in part by a system of, in effect, organized bribery, which
is called co-op advertising. That is, they say to the publishers,
if you want the book to be displayed prominently, then you have
to pay—usually an extra dollar or so a book. There have been
lawsuits about this in the past and in northern California the independent
bookstores won the lawsuit. But it means that the larger firms have
a great advantage because they have the money to pay this kind of
York is the center of the publishing industry in the United States.
Perhaps you can count the number of independent bookstores left
in the city on one hand?
1945, there were 350. There are now under 30, and most of the independent
stores are in museums and institutions. So you have very few stores
left. That’s partly because real estate is very expensive in
New York, but it’s also because the chains have driven out
many of the independent stores that were around for a very long
know the case of Midnight Special, which is on the Santa Monica
mall in California. On one side of the mall there is a Barnes &
Noble, on the other side there is a Borders. Midnight Special, which
has been a very successful, independently-owned bookstore, is being
forced to move not just by the pressure of those two stores being
in such close proximity, but also rents are going sky high.
been a clear policy on their part. Part of the problem is that we
don’t have any countermeasures. In France, the independent
publishers have created a small foundation to help small bookstores
survive. In the U.S., the very place where small bookstores should
be thriving, which is the university campuses, the universities
have for the most part sold out their bookstores to Barnes &
Noble or to another chain. So that even the Harvard Co-op and the
Yale Co-op, stores that for many years were important intellectual
centers on the campus, are now run as parts of the Barnes &
Noble chain. So the universities are in part responsible for this.
about the value of having someone in a store who knows the inventory
and who cares about literature, so when you ask about Neruda, for
example, they can refer you immediately to this book.
is a question of pay. Most of the people who work for the chains
are making as much as people who work at McDonald’s. So you
get fast thought, is what I call it, in addition to fast food. In
Germany, you need to have a diploma, not an MA or anything, but
a diploma that shows you’ve taken a course on how to be in
a bookstore and how to identify where the books are. Obviously,
if you’re paying people as little as the chains do—they’re
not quite as bad as Wal-Mart, but they’re certainly not much
better—then you’re going to get people who don’t
have a clue.
remember when we had published
Dr. Seuss Goes to War
was a very popular collection of Dr. Seuss’s cartoons of the
Second World War era. We were selling tens of thousands of copies.
I went into the main Barnes & Noble on Fifth Avenue to see where
they had the book. I asked the clerk at the reception desk where
it was. Not only had he not heard of the book, which is understandable
perhaps, but also he had never heard of Dr. Seuss, someone whose
work has sold in the tens of millions of copies over the years.
Amazon.com has been drowning in red ink over the years. It has
yet to turn a profit. Yet it has had an enormous influence on the
book publishing industry.
interesting thing about Amazon—and indeed it was true of Barnes
& Noble for many years—was that making money on the shares
was not the major intent. It was getting the stock prices as high
as possible. So the share prices on Amazon were high for a long
time, because people thought this was the wave of the future. They,
in turn, would spend tens of millions advertising the brand name
and getting everybody to think of them as the place where they could
get a book. In many cases Amazon doesn’t have the book, any
more than your local bookstore. They order it from the publisher
and will send it to you in a few days. Any bookstore in the country
could have done the same thing. What Amazon did was to use the vast
amount that was invested by their shareholders not to buy lots of
books, but to buy lots of ads. That was very successful, but it
was also successful at a very high cost.
wave of the future was E-books, electronic books, books online.
It was being heralded as the coming thing. The actual hard copy
of a book that you could leaf through was going to be obsolete.
That’s kind of regressed from that initial euphoria that greeted
has always been in American culture an assumption that there was
going to be a quick technological fix to any problem that we had.
The E-book thing lasted just for a year or two. But the problem
was that this really works in a negative way. In other words, if
the publishers don’t keep their backlist, if the stores don’t
keep the backlist anymore, then, of course, saying you can get an
E-book is the inexpensive way of doing that. But it also means that
no one is going to go into a bookstore and find a book that they
didn’t know they wanted. That’s, of course, one of the
services bookstores traditionally played.
Talk about the value of books in terms of transforming people.
Howard Zinn told me that he meets lots of people, and no one has
ever told him, for example, that this movie changed my life, but
many people have told him that this book has changed my life.
been one of the traditional roles that you expect of books, whether
it’s fiction or poetry or nonfiction. I think everyone can
think back on books that affected them, whether it was a book they
were made to read at university or school or which they discovered
on their own. The important thing is to maintain the possibility
to surprise people and to maintain in books the variety that makes
them interesting because, if they all end being the same book, obviously
people will stop turning to them.
of the successes you’ve had was a book by James Loewen, a historian,
Lies My Teacher Told Me
book was a marvelous examination of American history high school
textbooks. When we first published it, we thought it would have
a limited audience because only people involved in secondary education
would probably read it. We discovered that was far from the case.
The book has now sold over a quarter of a million copies in its
various editions. We’ve discovered that parents and students
are much more interested in what’s being taught in the schools
than people credited them with.
did a book called
Other People’s Children
by Lisa Delpit,
which was a marvelous discussion of what happens in classrooms where
the kids and the teachers come from different ethnic backgrounds.
It’s a book that no commercial publisher would have touched
and which has now sold well over 100,000 copies. When we published
May It Please the Court
, which was the recordings
of the major cases over the last 50 years in the Supreme Court,
everyone said this is highly technical stuff. Only lawyers and law
professors will want it. We sold 60,000 copies the first year.
systematic underestimation of the public has led people to think
there is no audience here and everyone assumes that you never lost
money underestimating the public. Obviously, the large houses have.
They have constantly turned down possibilities to do books on subjects
that are key to our history.
did two books of tapes of interviews and text, one called
, which were the recordings that had been in the Library
of Congress for the last 70 years. They were done under the New
Deal. They were the actual voices of the slaves being questioned
about their past. It’s interesting that no one bothered to
look at that stuff until we decided we would publish it with the
tapes and so on. Now Skip Gates has taken the idea and made a very
successful HBO series out of it.
it shows that there has always been—and this goes before the
conglomerates, obviously—a certain bias as to what people are
willing to read. That has elements of class bias in it, has elements
of racial prejudice in it. It assumes that there are no audiences
for certain areas, that all these black folks are not going to want
to read about their past in that way.
your book, you describe going to the Yale Club and speaking to a
group of your former classmates. You had some interesting conversations
was talking about what’s happened to publishing. At the end
of the talk, I was besieged by former classmates who said, “Oh,
you think you have it bad. You should see what it’s like to
be a lawyer, a doctor, or an architect.” It was clear, then,
in all of what we used to think of as the liberal professions—and
publishing was among those—money had taken over and people
no longer were able to make decisions of their own on the basis
of what they thought was needed, whether it was for a plaintiff
or for a patient or for someone who wanted to build a house. The
decisions were being made for them by the people who controlled
the money in those firms. Law firms and the like, which one used
to think of as being able to do cases pro bono and to have other
standards than money, were as much caught up in this as anywhere
what we hope and we see with the small, independent publishers that
there is a younger generation that is not going to buy into the
money culture and that has decided that some of these values still
matter to them.
is founder and director of Alternative Radio. He is the author of
Decline and Fall of Public Broadcasting
Propaganda and the Public Mind,
Chomsky. He is a regular contributor to
, and other publications.