the complete review Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 3   --   August, 2001

The Business of the Book Business
Reactions to Schiffrin and Epstein

       Publishing in the United States seems to be in a great state of turmoil. There has been a large-scale consolidation, leaving only a handful of major publishers -- several of which are owned by foreign conglomerates. First the megabooksellers, such as Barnes & Noble, and then Internet retailers such as have also had a profound effect on what is published and sold. Variations of print on demand have begun to make it possible for almost anyone to publish their work cheaply (including through companies such as Xlibris). New technologies look to supplant the printed book, and the Internet itself offers new opportunities for presenting content.
       Within a few months of each other two titles by renowned and respected American publishers have appeared: André Schiffrin (former editor of Pantheon and founder of The New Press) writing about The Business of Books (see our review) and Jason Epstein (former editorial director of Random House) writing about the Book Business (see our review). (Schiffrin's book was published in the fall of 2000, Epstein's in January, 2001.) Both men write from experience, recounting their own rise (and occasional falls) in the publishing industry, making particular note of the transformations publishing has undergone -- and wondering what is to come.

       It is a fairly popular subject, the authors are fairly well-known (they are certainly prominent in their field), and, not surprisingly, both titles attracted considerable interest. Both titles were widely reviewed, (with Epstein's apparently receiving a bit more coverage).
       Many of the reviews considered both books together. Several publications, however, only reviewed one or the other. Notable among these is The New York Review of Books' review of only Epstein's book (Epstein helped found The New York Review of Books, and former wife Barbara is one of its editors). Epstein generally seems to have attracted somewhat more mainstream attention, the apparently left-leaning Schiffrin (whose book was published by Verso (the imprint of New Left Books)) a bit more more fringe attention.
       A number of publications (beside the complete review itself, of course) published separate reviews of both titles, including The Nation, The New York Times Book Review and, somewhat surprisingly, Business Week, as well as The Economist (though they reviewed Schiffrin's book together with Diana Athill's Stet).

       The reviews vary, from focussed pieces on the books themselves to considerably broader examinations of the issues touched upon in them. A considerable number of the reviews are by people active in publishing, including representatives from conglomerate-owned houses (Simon & Schuster editor in chief Michael Korda), as well as from independents (Seven Stories publisher Dan Simon, Arcade publisher Richard Seaver).
       (Note that Korda also supplied a "blurb" for the back cover of Book Business (as did a few other heavyweights: Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, and E.L.Doctrow; Schiffrin's The Business of Books makes do with blurbs by Studs Terkel, Robert L. Bernstein (both of whom figure quite prominently in his book), and Eric Hobsbawm). In his blurb, Korda opines: "Jason Epstein has written a wise and insightful book", while in the review it is: "at once a thoughtful, witty, and surprisingly affectionate memoir". In his blurb, Korda also mentions Epstein's "guardedly hopeful view" of the future of publishing (reverting to a cottage industry, thanks to the Internet), while in his review he says Epstein: "sums up a thoughtful and plausible happy outcome".)

       Both books are, to some extent, memoirs, as both Schiffrin and Epstein recount their experiences in the publishing business over some five decades; several reviews refer to the books explicitly as "memoirs", despite the fact that they are not presented as such (Norton suggesting on the back cover of Epstein's book that the proper categories for it are: "Reference/Publishing"). The biographical parts of both titles are generally found to be of considerable interest, the few reservations generally focussing on Schiffrin's account of his departure from Pantheon.
       Reviewers also weigh in on the view of the publishing world presented by the two authors. Epstein generally gets off fairly lightly: some feel he is missing a few significant points, or isn't really saying anything specific (especially about the future), but his breezy, cheery tone wins most of them over. Emotions don't run particularly high regarding what he says -- beyond, perhaps, a sense of melancholy about the wonderful days gone by he writes about (with a few realists suggesting both Epstein and Schiffrin should just get over it already: the world has changed). Some of the British reviewers are a bit more snide, perhaps also feeling a bit left out of Epstein's very US-centered account (apparently they do also publish books in Britain).
       Schiffrin and his book are treated considerably more harshly. Reviewers find author and work hard to separate (regarding Epstein's book as well as Schiffrin's) -- understandably so, perhaps, given how much is based on personal experience. Schiffrin is the more contentious figure, and his politics (generally referred to as leftist) also seem to aggravate some of the reviewers.
       The personal attacks on Schiffrin and The New Press range from the reasonable to the ridiculous. James Atlas, in Brill's Content is among the most vociferous. From the bitter beginning ("like a lot of old-timers in just about any business, he's convinced that publishing is over because he's over"), Atlas is critical of what he sees as Schiffrin's resignation (or failure) in the face of the challenges that publishing faces. Atlas actually writes about The New Press:
Schiffrin's enterprise reminds me of Robert Frost's definition of free verse: playing tennis with the net down. It's no fun to publish books without a thought to their potential profitability. If you're going to be in the game, you have to play by the rules -- in this case, the rules of free-market capitalism.
       Such contempt ! But what on earth is he talking about ? What is this about the "fun" of publishing books ? Is that the proper criterion ? And, unfortunately, even a non-profit doesn't publish without giving a thought to the potential profitability of its products (though admittedly Schiffrin implies in his book that he doesn't worry about the bottom line at all). (We note with particular displeasure that The New Press' titles are just as obscenely expensive as any other books on the market: if they didn't care about profitability they could surely at least give customers a break on the price.)
       "If you're going to be in the game, you have to play by the rules", Atlas says. But Schiffrin is playing by the rules, fair and square: because of the ridiculous preferential treatment given to non-profit groups he's managed to get himself a nice competitive edge in a tough business. Americans pay lip service to "free-market capitalism", but whether through accounting rules (the huge tax write-offs HarperCollins and Random House took a couple of years back), tax breaks (including, but not limited to, hiding behind non-profit status), and many other tweakings of the market-place it certainly does not exist in anything near a pure form (which is probably for the best). One can argue that the rules are bad (we certainly would), but Schiffrin is certainly playing by them -- craftily using them, in fact. More power to him !
       The non-profit status of The New Press irks a number of reviewers. The Wall Street Journal's Elizabeth Bukowski feels:
In a way, Mr. Schiffrin has surrendered to the challenges that the industry faces. The New Press is a nonprofit enterprise funded by foundations, an approach that cannot be used on a large scale.
       This portrayal of Schiffrin as wimp, backing down from the challenges, is a curious one. Surely, he can as easily be seen as a wily competitor, taking advantage of the system -- and having achieved considerable success that way. And The New Press actually operates on a fairly large scale (miniscule compared to Random House, but not negligible), and there is no reason why its approach can't work on a larger scale. Though, in addition, it should be noted that one of the things Schiffrin argues against is the "large scale".
       (Jason Epstein places even greater hopes in the "cottage industry" format for publishing, and might even argue that all publishing is only successful on this relatively small scale -- witness the many (and seemingly inevitable) large-house fiascos.)
       Other reviewers, such as The New York Times Book Review and The Village Voice, don't differentiate sufficiently between Pantheon and The New Press, making it seem as though Schiffrin had just moved from one job to another, and barely noting the difference -- or noting that there is barely a difference (so The Village Voice's spin).
       A direct counter to the Wall Street Journal, Kera Bolonik writes in The Village Voice: "Schiffrin demonstrated the courage of his convictions when he founded the independent New Press". This is as wrong-headed a statement as Elizabeth Bukowski's. Bolonik does not mention that The New Press is a well-subsidized non-profit, with a board filled with impressive names, and some very wealthy foundations behind it. We'll demonstrate courage -- and accept anyone's convictions -- with that kind of sweet set-up too . (Schiffrin did a great job of organizing The New Press, and his vision (arising out of his convictions) probably helped sway many supporters -- but that has nothing to do with courage and it is ridiculous to praise him in this manner.)

       Critics are on sounder footing when they make note of the shoddy editing and terrible index of The Business of Books. Surprisingly few, however, mention either. (Similarly, only John Sutherland in the London Review of Books seems to have noted that the Penguin publisher's name is misspelt (as "Alan Lane") in Epstein's Book Business.)
       James Atlas -- not one to pass up such an easy opportunity -- is certainly correct when he notes:
His own book is a perfect example of how shoddy publishing has become. It's disgracefully unedited.
       Richard Seaver, in The Los Angeles Times, is among the few others to point out some of the errors, noting also that: "As for the index, it is simply appalling." (Seaver reviews Book Business in the same piece, and is surprisingly gentle in his judgement of it: there are no glaring typos (beyond Epstein getting Penguin founder Lane's name wrong) or mistakes, but the book hardly seems deserving of the empty gush Seaver offers either.)

       Particularly unfortunate is that the few people who might have a better idea don't address the most disputed and controversial part of Schiffrin's book, his account about his departure from Pantheon. (It's also something we would have loved to hear Epstein write about, as Schiffrin accuses him of having a less than honorable role in the affair.) Schiffrin's is not a clear account (weighed down, apparently, by non-disclosure agreements (why ?) and more). Seaver comes up with enough examples of Schiffrin's "tendency to play fast and loose with facts" to make one wonder -- but doesn't offer much help in clearing up the murky story.
       Dan Simon's long and generally thoughtful piece in The Nation is certainly partially undermined by his praise of Schiffrin's garbled account, about which he says:
Most movingly, Schiffrin describes -- for the first time, I believe, and in intricate detail -- some of what went on at his own former imprint, Pantheon, when its overseers at Random House decided it was too left-leaning, too independent, oh and yes, not profitable enough.
       "Intricate" indeed -- if by that Simon means: "hopelessly confusing". The emphasis should be on "some of what went on". It is a fun part of Schiffrin's book, but too limited in scope, hopelessly subjective, and essentially without any supporting documentation.

       Some of the praise for Schiffrin is unusual -- for example editor André Bernard's parenthetical comment in his review in The New York Observer:
(Many in the business feel Mr. Schiffrin should have left Pantheon long before he was ousted. His style was said to be difficult, and his list not especially profitable even by the standards of his kind of publishing. I am not among his critics. Publishing needs more smart, independent book people willing to take financial hits for the long-term effect of getting and keeping books that matter in print.)
       "Financial hits" -- and "independent" -- are the key words here. No doubt, every publisher would love it if there were more such people working in the industry -- as long as they were employed elsewhere. Mr. Bernard suggests such hits should be taken "for the long-term effect of getting and keeping books that matter in print" curiously, he doesn't suggest that taking such financial hits now may pay off financially in the future. Both Schiffrin and Epstein tout the benefits of a strong backlist as a money-making machine -- does Mr. Bernard disagree, believing its only value is "keeping books that matter in print" (laudable, too, but not what owners want to here in these commercial times) ? (We're also curious about the "not especially profitable", given that everyone seems to be saying that any profit seems to be almost a remarkable achievement in publishing.)
       Dan Simon, himself an independent publisher, makes the case for small publishers, expressing little reservation about Schiffrin's book:
Schiffrin's indictment is impassioned and filled with righteous, if quiet, indignation. (...) The book is smart, thoughtful and well presented.
       At least Simon considers one of Schiffrin's main argument, largely ignored in the other reviews: the question of, as Schiffrin's subtitle states, How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read. One of the few other reviewers that also looks at this issue -- or thinks he does -- is Brian Doherty, in Reason. He comes to the simple conclusion:
Readers, however, care about a different issue: Is a wide range of books appealing to a wide range of interests widely available ? Anyone who has spent 10 minutes in a Borders or Barnes & Noble superstore -- bad guys in Schiffrin's book -- who doesn't see that the answer is a ringing, resounding "yes" is simply blind.
       Blindly and in utter disbelief we raise our hand to object (and refer readers to our Literary Saloon dialogue In Praise of Slush, May a Hundred Million Books Bloom), insisting, once again, that nowhere near enough books are published or available -- at superstores or independents or or anywhere. As people who devote (or, possibly, waste) their lives looking for books -- generally futilely -- we feel very confident about this particular opinion. There may be a couple of hundred thousand titles available at the local Barnes & Noble, but, as we like to point out, you won't find a single volume of Nobel laureate Patrick White's fiction there (sorry, out of print) -- just to use a favourite example (one of literally hundreds of thousands we could choose from).
       There is no question that Schiffrin is right about the marketplace of ideas being compromised. There are some questions about whether the conglomerates (and mega-bookstores) are responsible -- as well as what possible solutions there are.

       Both Schiffrin and Epstein lament the decline of the independent bookstore and the independent publisher, both of which they romanticize as having made for a much better publishing climate. A number of reviewers defend the superstores considerably more than Epstein and Schiffrin are willing to do (Epstein and Schiffrin do grudgingly acknowledge that the huge selections made available this way do benefit consumers).
       As to the conglomerate-owned publishers, many reviewers also emphasize the very points made in the two books: that these owners don't seem to be running them well and are throwing away lots of money. As Michael Korda states explicitly, and others imply, these owners can, of course, do as they damn well please -- it's their (or their stockholders') money being thrown away. Of course, what peeves the authors -- especially Schiffrin -- is that they are throwing the money away on crap, rather than on edifying material (which they could lose lots of money on too, if they wanted to).
       The decline of the independent bookstore and independent publishers is not adequately differentiated in either Epstein's or Schiffrin's books. Small, independent bookstores were largely driven out of business by the superstores. With publishers the situation was (and is quite different). Michael Korda is one of the few who is willing to mention the ugly truth: that most independents were not forced out of business, but rather that they sold out. For all their alleged publishing idealism, most independent publishers accepted the best deal when time came to move on -- whereby the best deal invariably meant the largest dollar offer. What was important to these publishers was not keeping up tradition (though, of course, they always mouthed those platitudes at the closing and in the press releases) but getting the most money. While some semi-public companies (such as Cerf's Random House) obviously had an obligation to shareholders in making their decision, little attention seems to have been paid to insuring that the tradition of any independent would be carried on. Ultimately, the independent publishers were (and generally are) as greedy as everybody else, looking for that big payout at the end of the day (even if that ultimately doomed the tradition they had so carefully built up) -- a fact that should receive considerably more attention than it does.

       Some reviewers also make note of a roundtable discussion in which Schiffrin participated (along with John Donatich and Dave Eggers). Vaguely focussed on his book and the issues it raises, it was published as Of Editors and Adding Machines at FEED Magazine. Numerous reviewers mention that in his book Schiffrin is too dismissive of the new technologies and the possible effect they will have; those that mention the FEED Magazine roundtable rub in Schiffrin's unwillingness to discuss these issues there (deriding him for apparently foolishly harping on matters of "content").
       At least for a while, Schiffrin can have the last laugh here. In a lovely ironical twist, FEED Magazine -- apparently a groundbreaking site showing the potential of the new technologies in reaching audiences and disseminating content -- suspended publication in June, 2001 (i.e. they went belly-up). So maybe Schiffrin is correct -- for now -- in not even bothering to worry much about the new technologies.
       (Incidentally, while we do regret the passing of FEED Magazine, which was always an interesting forum, we at the complete review must note our complete befuddlement at how they managed to go under. A four million dollar investment last year for them and Suck and Plastic (under the umbrella of Automatic Media) and they can't stay afloat ? We can't even imagine how high we'd be flying with even a fraction of that money.
       In fact, their story sounds just like that of the small, independent and independent-minded publisher crushed by a money-grubbing parent corporation (in this case, investors Lycos and Advance Publications). Plus ça change ..., eh ?)

       A number of reviewers also point out the interesting fact that neither of these titles was published by one of the conglomerate-owned publishers. Epstein's Book Business was published by one of the last major independents, W.W.Norton, while Schiffrin's The Business of Books was published by Verso (whose books are, in fact, distributed by Norton).

       Some critics feel Schiffrin's and/or Epstein's books are complete and useful works about the current state of publishing (and how we got here and where we might going). Most, however, find them at least somewhat wanting. Not full-fledged memoirs, they also sputter around various publishing issues. Both are fairly vague -- with their examples, numbers, and decidedly flabby hard facts.
       Reviewers who themselves work in publishing also have their own insight to offer (or so they seem convinced) -- which generally isn't all that bad, in this case. Ideology does play too large a role in some of the reviews of Schiffrin's work, while the consummate professional Epstein remains largely unassailable.
       Schiffrin did himself a great disservice by presenting a book that was poorly edited and has an essentially useless index -- but most of the reviewers were fairly forgiving of these faults. (One wonders why.)
       The books appear too small -- in scope and ambition -- to make a greater impact. They are interesting, but the lack of focus (and, particularly in Schiffrin's case, the pettiness of some of the detail) makes them less valuable than one might have hoped for. They have received a lot of attention. Given the importance of the issues that they raise (even if they don't themselves address them all that well) this is certainly welcome. The reactions have been varied (and often entertaining), though few reviews adequately consider what the books actually say and the implications of what is said.

       André Schiffrin's The Business of Books and Jason Epstein's Book Business haven't made for a true literary debate, but they have livened things up a bit.


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© 2001 the complete review Quarterly
© 2001 the complete review