Words & Money: A (Not So) New Publishing Model from the Old World

Leon Neyfakh | November 29th, 2010

According to the new book by Andre Schiffrin, founder of the not-for-profit indie publisher The New Press, the survival of the American book business as we know it will require the generosity of wealthy individuals and intervention from the government. Schiffrin argues that neither book publishers who seek to publish important or difficult works nor news outlets that aim to produce significant reportage can “continue to rely on the traditional forms of profit-centered ownership” and must find ways to attract funding from alternative sources. Without it, he writes, there’s no reason to expect that editors at the biggest houses in the United States, all owned by international media conglomerates, will be able to withstand the professional pressure to produce only books “with the highest sales potential,” and thus ignore difficult or esoteric but nonetheless crucial titles.

Schiffrin’s view is that book publishing should be no different from culture, theater, or dance — all cultural realms whose health is widely understood to depend on public programs and not-for-profit operation. “The traditional market, I argue, has not shown us how to preserve the kind of diverse and independent culture that we know we need,” Schiffrin writes. “Now we are faced with a group of other media — book publishing and its distribution infrastructure, newspapers and other newsgathering organizations — whose profits are no longer high enough to satisfy the private sector but for which no other sources of support yet exist.”

One’s ability to hit the sweet spot between commercial and critical success is the measure of his or her worth as an editor or publisher; the people who can do it regularly are the ones who are most respected and admired by their peers.

Most of Schiffrin’s short book, entitled Words & Money and issued earlier this month by Verso, is spent describing how small publishers and independent bookstores in Europe, particularly in France and Norway, have managed to benefit from public money, particularly in the form of regional and local aid. He admits that while “many of the solutions described in this book may seem utopian to American and English readers, they are mostly policies that have been in place for years and have proven that they can work.” In France, for example, the Centre National du Livre, had a budget of 37 million euros in 2008, and gives thousands of grants to publishers, bookstores, and libraries every year. A million euros of the CNL’s budget is spent annually subsidizing scientific and scholarly publications, according to Schiffrin, and 375,000 was spent on poetry and drama. In 2008 1.6 million euros were spent on translating 330 foreign books into French — the National Endowment for the Arts, meanwhile, “the closest thing to a ministry of culture in the U.S.,” spent $200,000 to translate 13 books into English.

As I read Words & Money, I wondered what some of the editors and agents I got to know while covering the book publishing industry for The New York Observer would think of Schiffrin’s proposals — whether they’d be into the idea of taking government subsidies to pay for projects that they can’t financially justify to their superiors or whether it would make their skin crawl. Most of the people I talked to as a beat reporter worked at the major houses — Random House, Simon & Schuster, Hachette, Penguin, Macmillan, and HarperCollins — and most of them had what one might call literary ambitions: Whether they were working on fiction or non-fiction, they wanted it to be uncompromising and serious. They also wanted it to make money. This was not a secret — and while there are those publishing people who take pride in being “all about the books,” most of them openly take pride in turning books they consider great into bestsellers. One’s ability to hit the sweet spot between commercial and critical success is the measure of his or her worth as an editor or publisher; the people who can do it regularly are the ones who are most respected and admired by their peers.

The sustained tension that resulted from the collision of market pressures and literary ambition is what made the publishing industry so much fun to follow — there’s a reason why I mainly avoided stories about independent presses, even though a lot of them were constantly publishing great works. Probably it is deeply misguided to feel an instinctual resistance to a proposal that seeks to cut that tension — wasn’t it just two weeks ago that I wrote glowingly here about Esopus, the superlative art journal that is funded entirely by foundations and individual donors? — but nonetheless I suspect there is something productive about it, that something would be lost if suddenly publishers didn’t have to worry anymore whether anyone bought their books.

I did a story at the end of 2008 where I talked to a bunch of young publishing people and asked them if they understood why corporations like News Corp and Viacom had decided to get into the book business. Though, for some reason, I didn’t acknowledge it in the piece, it was a question spurred by Andre Schiffrin’s 1990 book, The Business of Books, in which he described the corporate takeover of publishing that resulted in the landscape we have today. Most of the people I talked to said they really couldn’t make heads or tails of it — that book publishing wasn’t the kind of growth business that corporations are generally interested in. At the end of the piece, I quoted a woman named Lindy Hess, who for the past 22 years has taught the famous Columbia Publishing Course, a summer program that has produced some of the industry’s current leaders. “I don’t think people in my course think about Maxwell Perkins and the good old days,” Hess told me. “Graduates of the course come into the industry with a real knowledge of the marketplace as it is. I feel my job is to temper their idealism with real-world business knowledge, and not to kill it. This is a business.”