Debate: The Future of Independent Publishing with André Schiffrin

22 08 2011

Andre SchiffrinRenowned New York publisher André Schiffrin left Random House many years ago in order to work for Pantheon. But today came to Edinburgh to describe what he believes to be a developing crisis in Western publishing. In The Business of Books, he demonstrates how the American corporate model has extended its reach across the globe.

Schiffrin had a lot of interesting things to say and took up most of the hour working through pre-pared notes, that transferred to the audience as a gentle guide through the world of publishing and the state we found ourselves in. “The Adam Smith concept that good things will sell,” he began, “isn’t necessarily the case in publishing; a lot of good books have lost money.”

And from here the story he painted only looked bleaker, as he cited a couple of interesting titbits. For example, “during the first Iraqi war, no books were published from American publishing houses that were critical of Bush of the White House at that time. This proves the big publishing houses were influenced by the political landscape of the nation and how it applied to their profit expectations.”

Another thing that worked against the system was the Mars Bar Index: “Mars was comparing their price increases with everyone else, and the same thing is happening now. Penguin did this so they could increase their growth and profitability by 15%-20% instead if the 6% it was before.”

Schiffrin seemed to argument more for the benefits of having not-for-profit publishing houses as opposed to the conglomerates model of maximising profits (or increasing their return to shareholders). They way of doing this is would be “to drop massive author advances and then pay authors and staff a consistent rate.”

When asked about the impact of Kindle on book stores, he commented: “publishing only means you make something public, you still have to put in the same level of marketing whether you are on Kindle or not. However, when I worked in New York as a lad there were over 300 good independent book stores, but now there are only 30.” He continued: “Small books won’t make it through the barrier any more thanks to Google and Amazon.”

Hinting that it might be beneficial to introduce a law to prevent the current model of heavy discounting, which only served to create fake cover prices of books and devalue the cost of a novel, Schiffrin’s allotted time came to a close far too soon—it was just getting interesting when time ran out.