Last Friday, I was very kindly asked to chair a seminar, organised by Verso, with André Schiffrin on the future of the book trade. Shiffrin was recently described by The Bookseller as the "legendary Pantheon publisher of old and independent firebrand of now with the not-for-profit house The New Press." He is a publishing hero to many, myself very much included, having put luminaries such as Studs Terkel, Noam Chomsky, Juliet Mitchell, R.D. Laing, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P.Thompson into print in the States. The excuse for the occassion was the publication of Schiffrin's latest book, Words and Money, a follow-up of sorts, a decade on, to his excellent The Business of Books.

The format of the session was pretty typical: Schiffrin gave a synopsis of his argument, then I interviewed him (a first for me, hugely enjoyable and a massive privilege) and then I took questions from the floor. Schiffrin's argument is essentially that "big-business congolomerate publishing in its current form is doomed... Investors are demanding as much as 15% returns on a business which, Schriffin argues, can only offer 3 or 4%." Widening-out from this is a cultural argument, of course: why is a business seen to be a failing concern if it is profitable, but just not massively so? This is a particular concern because, whilst publishing serious books can be profitable, it isn't often hugely so. This kind of publishing, runs the argument, is already always anti-intellectual.

An excellent comment (from HugoIgoNogo) over at The Bookseller takes up the argument, and brings our attention to its limitations (essentially, Schiffrin hasn't really got to grips with the Internet):

For books, the first decade of the 21st century has seen one of the great cultural earthquakes. Go back 10 years, or perhaps 20, and the landscape is barely recognisable. No Amazon; no Google and no ebook. Wherever you look: writers, agents, publishers and booksellers transacting literary business like their great-grandparents. Since the millennium, the relationship between words and money has undergone almost total inversion. On the demand side, publishers recklessly drove up profit margins from a comfortable 3% to a suicidal 15%. As for supply, a privileged minority of "content providers" (AKA authors) reached audiences and made fortunes that started at six or seven figures. This takeover sometimes had the air of a gold rush, but it has not been a bonanza for everyone. At the end of the second world war there were more than 300 bookshops in New York City. Today there are fewer than 30. The astonishing scale of this transformation has left many observers as disoriented as the survivors of a natural disaster. A new genre of books, cultural survival kits, has emerged to supply emergency road maps through new terrain: The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, and No Logo by Naomi Klein. Each one of these bestsellers is animated by a need to make sense of the new and troubling questions provoked by global capitalism and the viral power of the internet. Less flashy, and more humane, André Schiffrin, a distinguished former New York publisher, has been throughout this decade an indispensable, if rather pessimistic, guide to life after a cultural apocalypse, first in the much-admired The Business of Books (2000) and now in Words and Money (Verso). He has spent the last decade puzzling over the annihilation of the business he loves by conglomerate visigoths such as Vivendi (a French water and sewage company turned media giant). Actually, while the old contract between words and money was being torn up a new one (entitled "free") was being written, mainly by geeks in California. It is a measure of the profound disorientation experienced by seasoned professionals in this new environment that nowhere in Words and Money does Schiffrin really get to grips with the so-called Google Print Initiative, the biggest copyright heist in history. Nor does he tackle Amazon's burgeoning role as an internet publisher. Sometimes the cultural analyst who puts himself in the middle of the information superhighway ends up looking like Bugs Bunny in the path of a runaway Mack truck. There's a lot that's passionate and useful in Schiffrin's anguished analysis. He is right to identify a healthy market as the key to a vital culture and vigorous democracy. His heart is certainly in the right place, but strangely, for a book entitled Words and Money, he never fully addresses the thorny question of "free", as articulated by Anderson, James Boyle (The Public Domain) and Lawrence Lessig (Free Culture). I wish he had because this goes to the heart of the crisis faced by print at the moment. Books, like newspapers, are an essentially middle-class phenomenon whose market is the self-improving professional. As a bourgeois medium, books and their authors depend on the cash nexus. Johnson went straight to the point with: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Johnson was right. Words that get written for money are likely to be superior to words spun out for nothing, on a whim. California's "free" movement wants to argue that literary copyright is an intolerable restriction of the public's right to access information, and that words should be free. That's a profound threat to the western intellectual tradition. I hope that André Schiffrin, having raised the alarm about the demise of serious publishing and journalism, will urgently turn his attention to the new, possibly darker, threat of digitisation and its consequences.

Readers Comments

  1. thanks for such clarity, Schriffin is someone I admire enormously

  2. Jacques Testard Monday 01 November 2010

    Hi Mark,

    Just thought I'd let you know -- the 'excellent comment' you are quoting from the Bookseller is actually an article by Robert McCrum that was published in The Observer a month or so ago.


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