U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“A Willingness to Surrender”: The Procrustean Publishing Market

In a memoir covering his years as an editor and publisher (with Pantheon books and The New Press), André Schiffrin discussed a transformation of book publishing in America during the last quarter or so of the twentieth century.  You can tell from the title what Schiffrin thought of the transformation.  The memoir is called The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (London: Verso, 2000).  The change is summed up in a single statement from Schiffrin’s text:  “Belief in the market, faith in its ability to conquer everything, a willingness to surrender all other values to it – and even the belief that it represents a sort of consumer democracy – these things have become the hallmark of publishing” (6).   One of the casualties of this “willingness to surrender,” it seems to me, is the space – institutional, material, conceptual – available to “the public intellectual” in and out of the academy.

“In Europe and America,” Schiffrin writes, “publishing has a long tradition as an intellectually and politically engaged profession.  Publishers have always prided themselves on their ability to balance the imperative of making money with that of issuing worthwhile books” (5). Well into the twentieth century, in Schiffrin’s telling, many publishers viewed their work not simply as a profit-making venture but also as an essential contribution to the healthy workings of a democratic society.  Publishing was not just a business, but also something of a calling, and publishers were committed to bringing new ideas and new voices to the public, to the marketplace.

However, publishing did (and does) depend on making a profit.  So if a new title was not expected to sell well or to do well, editors could count on the revenue stream from their imprints’ backlists to “cover” the risk of bringing out significant new works.  Similarly, on a larger scale, publishers could view the often extraordinary profitability of some of their imprints as something of an earnings cushion for other imprints whose lists earned less impressive profits.  Not every division of a publishing house, not every imprint, was expected to turn an equally huge profit from year to year.  That expectation began to change when the big publishing houses – such as Random House, which had itself taken over Pantheon Books in 1961 – were taken over in turn by multi-national corporations or holding companies with no history of or commitment to publishing per se, but simply with an eye to profitability.  “It is now increasingly the case that the owner’s only interest is in making money and as much of it as possible” (5).

In Schiffrin’s telling, it was not always so.  Indeed, Schiffrin emphasizes the breadth and intellectual range of publishers’ lists, well into the 1970s.  For example, under his leadership, Pantheon – not an academic press, not a university imprint — published E.P. Thompson, F.R. Leavis, Eric Hobsbawm, Eugene Genovese, Herb Gutman, Warren Sussman, Staughton Lynd, and Jackson Lears (41-42). But Pantheon was not alone in publishing scholarly works for a general audience.  Schiffrin points to the example of Harper’s.  “Today, one thinks of HarperCollins as a publisher of extremely commercial titles as well as how-to and entertainment books. A look at Harper’s forty years ago couldn’t provide a more dazzling contrast.  While their fiction list was not particularly distinguished, the number of interesting books on politics and history is quite extraordinary….Harper’s also launched the Harper Torch Books (now all erased from the Harper backlist), which ranged from a series on religion including Nicholas Berdyaev’s The Destiny of Man to Arnold Kettle’s two-volume Marxist introduction to the English novel” (67-68).

Schiffrin emphasizes that these and similar works were not “academic” titles.  “These titles were issued at a time when the intellectual awakening of the late 1960s, spurred on by the opposition to the Vietnam War and the debate around domestic issues, had yet to happen.  America was still a very quiet place, intellectually speaking.  The books, therefore, were not aimed at a clearly perceived intellectual and academic audience.  Rather than benefiting from change, this list helped bring it about” (68). One might fruitfully object to Schiffrin’s characterization of the early 1960s as a time of intellectual quiescence.  His image here seems to rely on the idea that there was in fact “consensus.”  Nevertheless, his underlying point is sound – the intended audience for these works was not restricted to those in or connected to the university.  By bringing out these titles, the publisher was providing room or making room for the public’s serious engagement with serious ideas.

The consolidation of the publishing industry, though, has squeezed out the kind of marginal spaces – the interstitial spaces, to borrow from Robert Vanderlan’s Intellectuals Incorporated — where titles that were not strictly academic, but were of more broad intellectual interest and appeal, might have fit in.  “In recent years,” Schiffrin writes “publishers have been put on a procrustean bed and made to fit one of two patterns: as purveyors of entertainment or of hard information.  This has left little room for books with new, controversial ideas or challenging literary voices” (7).

How has this procrustean bed worked its mischief?  By unleashing “market competition” within publishing firms.  Instead of looking to the profitability of the publishing enterprise as a whole, new corporate owners began to insist that each imprint within a house, and each house within a firm, hit the same profitability target.  Soon the focus on profitability became a book-level concern – that is, some corporate managers insisted that each individual book on an imprint’s list contribute to both overhead and profit (73-77).

This reorganization of publishing along profit-per-book lines meant that all the publishing houses owned by the same conglomerate might be competing against one another for the same kind of profitable and commercially viable content.  “In the desperate search for higher income,” Schiffrin writes, “we were all spinning our wheels, very expensively.  The logic of the profit center began to be counterproductive.  The  need for each entity to achieve an annual increase in sales and profit forced every part of the publishing house to duplicate the other’s efforts and to compete for the most lucrative titles” (76).

Instead of opening up space for a range of ideas, market competition shut it down.  “Even the highly profitable Knopf list gradually jettisoned the more demanding translations and works of philosophy and art criticism on which it had built its reputation.  Random House itself became more downmarket, competing with Knopf for titles it was hoped would bring in the millions that were essential to the machine.  The system of allowing competing entities from within the firm to bid against each other, indeed urging them to do so, raised advances and ratcheted up commitments to advertising and publicity” (100-101).  This costly competition within publishing firms for the same kinds of texts ends up flattening the intellectual, ideological and stylistic diversity of their combined offerings.  In this case “market competition” has narrowed the public space available for all but the most profitable of titles, and has thus narrowed the range of choices available to consumers shopping the bookstalls in the marketplace of ideas.

The market-driven – or market-serving – changes to publishing described in Schiffrin’s memoir have their parallels, it seems to me, in analogous changes to the university.  And these twinned transformations – changes to the structure of publishing, changes to the structure of the university – are acting like a pincer to narrow not only the conceptual horizons of intellectual discourse for writers and readers but also the professional horizons of intellectuals both within and beyond the academy.   I hope to take up some of these issues in subsequent posts.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. L.D.,
    What a great post, with much to chew over–I look forward eagerly to the next posts about these transformations.

    Publishers are absolutely fascinating subjects for intellectual history. Trysh Travis’s dissertation (which she is now revising as her second book, as per this article) was precisely about these concerns, although from the first half or so of the 20th century, rather than the last fifty or so years, as with Schiffrin. (Travis appears to have moved this up for the book project, to 1930-1980, overlapping considerably with Schiffrin.) Although the specific cause of the multinational merger movement was not causing it, these publishers from the interwar and wartime era were also deeply concerned about the potential damage that a greater incursion of market forces would cause to the code they believed in and the mission they felt was theirs. It would be interesting to compare Schiffrin and a few other publishers of his time with this earlier generation.

  2. Andrew, thanks for the link — I read Travis’s article and am very eager to read her book. Have to admit that I was even more interested in her description of how/why the dissertation took the shape it did, and why it needed to sit for a while before she could think of turning it into a book. I think this is the first time I’ve heard of someone’s dissertation being their second book, when the first book was written *after* the dissertation. So that was intriguing.

    Agreed on the importance/promise of publishing history, or book history, or the history of print culture. I think I might have my work cut out for me to contend that such an approach is an essential part of doing the history of ideas — so maybe I won’t go that far. But it’s certainly useful.

  3. You might also find useful Priscilla Coit Murphy’s 1998 article “‘Down with Fiction and Up with Fact”: Publisher’s Weekly and the Postwar Shift to Nonfiction.'”

  4. The other half of the story might be the consolidation of access to this shrinking list of titles, in the corporatization of book selling. I remember visiting the crowded little Barnes & Noble in the Boston area when I was a kid, during the era when their business seemed to be mostly overstocks and reissues of out-of-print classics. It was just one of a variety of bookstores we went to regularly. Maybe it’s because I’ve been teaching Environmental History this semester, but it seems like the same old story of increasing scale leading to monoculture. Cornfields from Canada to Mexico were enabled by Ag subsidies. Is there an analogous story about how finance led to corporate booksellers occupying anchor spots in malls and driving the catalogues of all bookstores toward the same short list of titles?

  5. Dan, short answer: yes, there is an analogous story. Schiffrin gets into this to some extent in his memoir. Jason Epstein’s memoir (Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future) spends a little bit more time on changes in the retail business, discussing this in the context of suburbanization. Indeed, both Schiffrin and Epstein can be read profitably alongside Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals. I think so, at least.

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