Publish or Perish


In early 1990, the publisher of Pantheon Books, André Schiffrin, together with his entire staff, submitted his resignation to Random House, sending shock waves throughout the publishing industry. Hundreds of publishing and literary luminaries showed their solidarity with Pantheon by demonstrating outside Random House and publishing a full-page ad in Publishers Weekly in support of Schiffrin. The media seized upon the David and Goliath story that characterizes conglomerate publishing in the ’90s.

André Schiffrin simply wanted to put ideas before profit. After meeting with Random House CEO Alberto Vitale, who strongly suggested Pantheon cut its list and staff by two-thirds, concentrate on books with the largest printings, and stop publishing “so many books on the left,” Schiffrin realized that his vision for Pantheon was no longer welcome. Rather than kowtow to Random House’s agenda, Schiffrin and the Pantheon staff walked.

In The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, Schiffrin documents his 30 years as the publisher of one of America’s most esteemed presses. Schiffrin’s memoir is a brief, incisive social history of postwar publishing in America (there are so few available outside of At Random by Bennett Cerf and Another Life by Michael Korda). It is at once a riveting chronicle of the qualitative rise and fall of the American reader and a very personal book—a rant against the changing climate at Random House over three decades.

Pantheon Books was cofounded in 1942 by Schiffrin’s father, Jacques, a Russian Jew, and the former publisher of an imprint of the French press Gallimard (the Schiffrins fled from France after Gallimard’s purge of Jews, following the French defeat in 1940). Twenty years later André Schiffrin joined Pantheon, which had just been purchased by Random House. He published Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Juliet Mitchell, Noam Chomsky, R.D. Laing, Eric Hobsbawm, and toward the end of his tenure, the bestselling Life in Hell series by Matt Groening (pre-Simpsons), and Maus and Maus II by Art Spiegelman.

Pantheon frequently succeeded in balancing commercial success with prestige, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, when the nation was roiling with political fervor. But by the 1980s America’s readers had become less political, and Pantheon suffered accordingly. Luckily for Schiffrin, Random House CEO Bob Bernstein offered his unwavering support.

In 1980, S.I. Newhouse bought Random House, “emphasiz[ing] that he had bought us for our intellectual and cultural merit.” But by 1989, Newhouse had asked Bernstein to step down, and replaced him with Alberto Vitale, an Italian banker who later admitted that “he was far too busy ever to read a book.” With Bernstein gone, the fate of Schiffrin’s Pantheon was written on the wall.

The demands that Vitale made on Schiffrin signaled to the world that even Random House—an ever growing publishing conglomerate that built its reputation on its balance of highbrow and commercial fare—was no longer going to rely on blockbusters to carry the weight of less profitable, intellectually rich books. Vitale’s plan undoubtedly came as a shock, but it is hard to believe that Schiffrin was so naive as to think that Pantheon would continue to be exempt from the demands Newhouse was making on the other imprints, like Knopf.

Schiffrin’s argument against Random House’s treatment of Pantheon inspires sympathy for his plight and invites disgust for the direction publishing and readers’ tastes have gone. With a mixture of obstinacy and dignity, Schiffrin refused to heed the trends of the American reader, which underlines why his 30-year relationship with Random House was destined to come to an end. Americans may be reading more than ever, but they are more drawn to quick-selling commercial and genre fiction, inspirational literature, celebrity biographies, and the occasional literary phenomenon—and less to academic enlightenment.

This kind of publishing has never appealed to Schiffrin. Two years after his departure, Schiffrin demonstrated the courage of his convictions when he founded the independent New Press, where he keeps up his tradition of publishing belles lettres. Many of the authors he cultivated at Pantheon have followed him there, like Terkel, and John Dower, whose Embracing Defeat (copublished with Norton) won last year’s National Book Award for Nonfiction (as well as a Pulitzer Prize, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History). As it happens, the same year brought success to post-Schiffrin Pantheon, which nabbed the National Book Award for Fiction for Ha Jin’s Waiting. Whether this demonstrates that Schiffrin can compete with his former home remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: The house that Schiffrin built secures a future for his vision of intellectual publishing.