Britney vs. Beowulf
There’s an interesting adage among a dying breed of old-school book publishing people: Sales and marketing staff are overhead, meaning that the real work, the glue that holds the publishing world together, is undertaken by the authors and the editors, and that those bean-counters down the hall are of minimal importance. Seems fairly logical a bit condescending, sure, but it generally makes sense, right?
Not any more it doesn’t. Today marketing and sales efforts and, above all else, the profit motive are just as much a part of publishing as bound galleys and remainders. Like it or not, modern publishing is very much the business of how to market ideas rather than of ideas themselves. The business of teasing out a book’s crossover potential and capitalizing on its synergies with other media properties. The business of finding authors who are media-genic: young, attractive, and “promote-able.” Now, more than ever, publishing is about creating a product that people will want to buy. And why shouldn’t it be that way? Book publishing is a business, just like the film business and the music industry. The idea is to make money.
Andre Schiffrin is mad about that.
Schiffrin, one of book publishing’s most idealistic icons, is disgusted with the industry’s current modus operandi, and The Business of Books is a pull-no-punches jeremiad against today’s publishing system. He laments the fact that the publishing world is hell-bent on making money at the expense, he says, of bringing important books to the public. Publishers don’t care about ideas they’re fixated on the bottom line. Serious, highbrow books important books don’t sell very well, and so they don’t get published by mainstream houses, he argues. All in all, Schiffrin does a good job of illustrating the decisions being made which end up affecting what we, as consumers, read.
Schiffrin begins with an interesting account of his family’s roots in the publishing world. His father, Jacques Schiffrin, was a noted publisher; after working at New American Library, the younger Schiffrin started the popular Signet Classics line. In 1962, he joined Random House, and for thirty years, he helmed the Pantheon Books imprint. During that time, Schiffrin published an astonishing list of nonfiction heavyweights: Noam Chomsky, Art Spiegelman, Studs Terkel, and many more. But when the media magnate S.I. Newhouse, in what represented the growing trend of conglomerates buying book-publishing houses, purchased Random House and installed Alberto Vitale as CEO, Schiffrin writes that he found himself, as well as his high-minded books, out of favor (Schiffrin despised Newhouse’s lowbrow tastes, accusing the media big-wig of being “as attracted to glitz as a moth to a flame” and calling Vitale an “illiterate businessman”). The new regime demanded that Pantheon’s books make money on a title-by-title basis, not as a group, with one book’s successes subsidizing another’s lackluster sales, as is often the case. Not all of Schiffrin’s books turned a profit, so that was that. Schiffrin was canned. Since, to him, ideas sustain free-thinking society, Schiffrin advocates publishing works of utmost intellectual value whether they’ll make money or not. That’s right: whether they’ll make money or not. Ideas, Schiffrin writes, are of paramount importance, and if publishers focus on making money to the exclusion of intellectualism, then we’re all in big trouble: “If the domain of ideas is surrendered to those who want to make the most money, then the debate that is so essential for a functioning democracy will not take place. To a large degree it is this silence that has overtaken much of American intellectual life.” Schiffrin now runs The New Press, a publishing house which is funded by grants from foundations, operating more or less like a non-profit organization. That’s not to say that they don’t sell their fair share of books. They do, but a specific title’s inability to fill the coffers is never a prohibitive factor, he writes. Schiffrin and his colleagues put out (mostly politically liberal) books that they think are intellectually robust.
Schiffrin makes a lot of good points about the overly profit-driven marketplace, but at the same time he falls short on a few counts. He’s definitely right in stating that too many manuscripts, regardless of their merit, can’t find publishers because they’re not marketable enough, or because they don’t have a clearly defined audience. Moreover, he is dead-on when he says publishers shouldn’t be as focused on the bottom line as they generally are. But Schiffrin doesn’t give nearly enough credit to the university presses. They play a huge role in bringing serious books to market. Got a groundbreaking, two thousand-page manuscript about the financial implications involved in the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons in Russia? Forget Simon & Schuster. Instead think Yale, or the University of Chicago, or any other university press. Schiffrin believes, however, that even these publishers, like the big corporate houses, are too profit-hungry. With their administrations increasingly demanding that they operate in a more profitable manner, more and more of them are publishing books which appeal to non-academic audiences. Schiffrin argues that “the search for wider audiences will invariably dilute educational content.”
But Schiffrin exaggerates this trend: While it may be true that university presses have stopped publishing as many arcane books as they once did, they’ve certainly not completely forsaken their academic audience in favor of mainstream dollars. For example, Schiffrin notes that, after the University of New Mexico Press recently recorded high sales, the university assessed them a 10 percent tax in order to squeeze more money out of them. But it’s not as if they publish Anne Rice mass-market paperbacks or other equally mainstream books. Their current list, which seems to be indicative of their work, includes decidedly un-commercial titles like The Navajo Verb System: An Overview and New Mexico Vegetation: Past, Present, and Future. Schiffrin’s fears seem to be unwarranted. Even a successful academic publisher like the University of New Mexico Press is still publishing serious books.
The bigger flaw in The Business of Books, however, is that Schiffrin underestimates the intellectual heft of some of today’s bestsellers. Throughout his treatise, he dismisses virtually everything published by the large houses as lowbrow pap, and some of it is, but much of it is truly penetrating work. Important books are still published today. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, for one, is a big publisher owned by Holtzbrink, a German media conglomerate, no less that continuously publishes books of undeniable substance, and Knopf, a Random House imprint, is another amazingly consistent source of top-notch books (Random House is no longer owned by S.I. Newhouse, but by one of the biggest media firms in the world, another German gargantuan, Bertelsmann). For specific evidence of the vitality of today’s publishing world, consider one of the most popular books published last year, a new translation of Beowulf by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. Beowulf the Anglo-Saxon tale rife with mead and warriors and dragons and stuff. Heaney, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature, went back and gave the story new relevance, replacing the archaic text with modern language and thus rendering the yarn was suddenly much more accessible, and subsequently the book was a smash hit. Granted, the translation was done by a renowned poet, and it could certainly be said that Beowulf is already a time-tested seller, but still, it’s not exactly lightweight reading (on the other hand, Schiffrin might counter this argument with the observation that Britney Spears, bubblegum pop’s favorite girl-next-door, recently sold a book about Mother’s Day which she wrote with her mom yikes).
In the end, whether one agrees with Schiffrin’s specific diagnoses of the book-publishing world’s ills or not, one has to applaud, on some level, his willingness to rage against the money-hungry, conglomerate-driven publishing climate. At least Schiffrin cares about ideas. And ideas are what books are ultimately about, regardless of the state of the publishing system. At least Schiffrin reminds us of that fact. The question is this: Is there enough room in today’s marketplace for both the purely commercial Britney book and Heaney’s Beowulf? And if not, which sort of book will survive? The fact is, there’s plenty of room for both of them.