Legendary American publisher-writer Andre Schiffrin's latest book, “The Business of Words” is the 76-year-old author's lucid insider analysis of the politics of publishing. The book, a combined edition of Schiffrin's two other titles — “The Business of Books” and “Words and Money” — was recently published in India by Navayana with a foreword by Urvashi Butalia of Zubaan.The book is Schiffrin's gritty attempt at driving home the point that how in Europe and America, the publishing industry, which had a long tradition as an intellectually and politically engaged profession, has been corporatised and that it is no good news. One of the major fallouts is the shrinking space for independent thought. And with big players entering the Asian market now (the entry of the five big names of the publishing industry is complete in India this year), Schiffrin weaves into the book reasons why he had to create his own space through New Press, an independent publishing house created two decades ago, and thereby sends out a message to newly opening markets like us, that there is every chance of this history being rerun here if not guarded against.
Choc-a-bloc with information about the publishing industry worldwide, then and now, some of it little known (like how V.K. Krishna Menon as one of Penguin's chief editors in London in the 1930s was successful in setting a high standard there), the book is worth your notice.
A soft-spoken Schiffrin, in New Delhi to take part in a host of events surrounding the launch of the book, said “An independent is a not-for-profit venture — it has no shareholders; at New Press, we only break even. Since there are no shareholders, no one puts pressure on us to publish or not publish a certain book.”
The decision to publish or not publish a title by a conglomerate is based less on its intellectual merit, more on its potential to make the cash registers ring or make someone happy, he underlines. Drawing from his understanding that came while working for Pantheon (for about three decades) after it was acquired by Random House, Schiffrin recalls, “When we wanted to bring out Noam Chomsky's next book, marketing people from Random asked us how many copies of his last book were sold. At the expense of keeping out new ideas, the conglomerates look at the commercial side of publishing.”
The publisher of many legendary authors including Jean-Paul Sartre, Michel Foucault and Kurt Vonnegut, stresses that often an idea is more important than how much it can sell in book form. “Kafka's first book sold 600 copies, Samuel Beckett's only three.”
With big signing amounts given to authors by conglomerates hitting the headlines these days, he remarks on the changed role of agents. “It is harmful in the long run. Strange, but we now hear things like, ‘Oh I have already run out of this year's budget.' There was a time when we would read manuscripts at the Frankfurt Book Fair during the evenings; now it is networking time.” Then there are bookstores which would prominently display a book, not because it is a great book. And with more and more conglomerates acquiring different publishing houses, he says, “People don't realise that so many publishing houses are actually co-owned.”
Schiffrin welcomes the Australian Government's move to bring in a law to protect the independents, commenting, “This is certainly a way out.” Though technology has already been taken over by giants such as Amazon, Google, etc., he is not without hope. “Technology is neutral, can help independents.”
If only Goliath allows David his way!