Bigger and Badder

More books are more available than ever before. So who's complaining?


Among American writers, there's a long and revered tradition of attacking markets as the enemy of a rich and vibrant literary culture. Hawthorne did it, Melville did it, and now Andre Schiffrin, the former top dog at Pantheon, does it in The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (Verso). Where Hawthorne moaned about the "damned mob of scribbling women" who dominated the bestseller lists of his day and Melville rationalized his loss of a popular audience as a sign of his true genius, Schiffrin lays into Big, Bad Business in an insider's memoir that draws on 40 years in publishing.

The consolidations of publishing imprints and the demise of small, "independent" book stores at the hands of national chains, he complains passionately, have been disasters for serious writing and thinking in America. Now head honcho at the New Press, Schiffrin says that the conglomerate owners of most American publishers expect every book to make historically unlikely profits, abandoning the old principle whereby a few bestsellers threw off enough cash to subsidize noble tomes that everyone knew would never make a dime.

What's more, according to Schiffrin, the big money boys have abandoned publishing serious policy books of a leftist bent, or, same thing, won't do what it takes to make them huge successes. Predictably, he recommends antitrust actions and government subsidies as solutions to the book industry's supposedly woeful state.

Some of Schiffrin's specific complaints have bases in fact. Over the past few years, there has been a huge consolidation in the publishing industry. (The widely discussed 1998 takeover of Random House—itself a major conglomerate that includes imprints such as Alfred A. Knopf, Pantheon, Ballantine, and Bantam—by German juggernaut Bertelsmann was simply the highest profile instance of a broad trend.) And national chains have surpassed independent book stores as the place where people like to buy books. (In 1997, according to the Book Industry Study Group, 25.2 percent of books were sold at chains vs. 17.2 percent at independents. The rest were sold through book clubs and other outlets, including used book stores, discount clubs, and drug and grocery stores.)

But from a reader's perspective, such insider concerns are wholly besides the point. Schiffrin and other old publishing hands may care whether today's corporate shills are keeping faith with the ghost of Alfred Knopf. 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.

Even Schiffrin isn't too willing to argue that point. In a recent phone interview, I asked him about Borders and its tremendous selection. He is neither fool nor knave, and could not deny that, hey, it's a great bookstore. Still, he offered, there is a certain je ne sais quoi about the independent bookstore. Variety of voices, and all that. Skill and passion in owners and employees. One of the things indie bookstores can offer, says Schiffrin, is a knowledgeable and dedicated staff made up of actual book lovers, and not just minimum-wage drones.

Fair enough. During my last visit to a Borders in Los Angeles to examine Schiffrin's book, the clerk had no idea who Schiffrin was or what book he had just published. His initial computer search on the title came up with nothing. He then tried an author search that worked just fine. He helpfully walked me over to the literary criticism section, where six copies of Schiffrin's book excoriating the state of the book market sat, just waiting to be taken home.

And all around me was similar bounty: Sixteen different titles by or about Walter Benjamin, 20 books by or about Michel Foucault (an author Schiffrin is proud to have introduced to the mass American market while running Pantheon), hundreds of offerings from small foreign presses and university presses, shelves of books dedicated to gay concerns (including huge Tom of Finland art collections), selections in every specialty that matched or beat what even the best independent store has.

There was 100 feet of serious history, 20 feet of philosophy, books on radical labor leaders from such nonradical presses as Harcourt Brace and Plume-even a huge scholarly biography of Ho Chi Minh from Disney's Hyperion imprint. If books of leftist politics are no longer dominating American intellectual life, it's not for lack of titles.

In The Business of Books, Schiffrin pushes a popular leftist trope, that "market ideology" has come to rule the world since the bleak days of Thatcher and Reagan, that all decisions, even cultural ones, are now made by grim bean counters who will only green-light projects with massive sales potential. Yet he himself presents the evidence that the policies he decries-throwing huge advances at celebrities, ignoring the midlist, ballooning executive salaries, general crassness-are not rewarded by the market. Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins, he notes, writes off $270 million in unearned advances. When S.I. Newhouse sold Random House to Bertelsmann, it was reporting a whopping 0.1 percent in annual profits. Not everything done by a conglomerate is in fact an example of "the application of market theory to the dissemination of culture." Schiffrin describes cases where people with more money than sense are losing some of that money. Now that's the free market at work.

So is this: In the face of everything Schiffrin decries-consolidation, S.I. Newhouse's philistinism, university presses doing more middlebrow nonfiction and fewer pure scholarly monographs, and the death of many small booksellers—most Americans have more access to a wider range of books of all qualities and types than ever before.

Even—or perhaps especially—the left seems to be feasting during this supposed famine. Certainly Schiffrin is doing just fine for himself and his noble causes over at the New Press, one of whose first books was a bestseller on a serious political issue from a left perspective, Studs Terkel's Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession.

So if in fact books like that aren't being published, it's not because of market ideology run amuck; it's because the conglomerates are being bad businesspeople. Schiffrin ends his book by saying, "We must hope that in the coming years more people…will realize how dangerous it is to live in a culture with a limited choice of ideas and alternatives."

Indeed. We can also hope that in the coming years people will realize how blind many cultural critics really are.