Self-Censorship & the Alternatives

André Schiffrin | December 2000

Andre Schiffrin


I recently attended a meeting of the Freedom to Read Committee of the American Association of Publishers, the industry's official anticensorship group to which I belonged on and off over the years. At this particular meeting, a large group of people associated with the anticensorship cause weregathered together. The meeting was held high above Central Park in the extraordinarily luxurious conference room of one of New York 's leading law firms, a company that represents the AAP on censorship matters. We sat around a large conference table on a set of chairs that must have cost more than the annual salaries most of us were paying our assistants. The significance of such luxury was not lost on those present.

But the lawyers were speaking to us for our own good. They were concerned that the public's perception of publishers had greatly altered over recent years. They worried that a once worthy profession had been swallowed up by extensive, wealthy conglomerates. Not surprisingly, when a libel case or other lawsuit against a publisher was heard, juries were not as sympathetic as they once had been and the judgments against publishers had risen accordingly. The lawyers explained that if they could tell jurors that we were the bastions of the First Amendment, willing and eager to publish books that expressed important ideas, their view of us might change perceptibly. Looking at the 40 or so of us who represented most of the major houses in New York , the lawyers asked, "Can we assure jurors in the future that if an important book comes along you will publish it?" Not a hand was raised. No one seemed aware of the irony that the publishing industry's own anticensorship committee was itself part of the new market censorship. Evidently surprised, the lawyers continued to ask questions. Surely, they pleaded, publishers must occasionally take on a book pro bono, as lawyers sometimes do in representing impecunious clients. "Only inadvertently," answered the chair of the group, bringing a wave of relieved laughter and marking an end to an embarrassing colloquy.

I certainly would not argue that publishers in the past were innocent of attempts at censorship. Going back in history, there is no lack of egregious examples of editors trying to influence what authors had to say or refusing their books altogether. Eugene Saxton, the chief editor of Harper's, declined to publish John Dos Passos's classic 1919 unless the author removed his criticism of J.P. Morgan, a major backer of the house. In 1935, when the popular critic Alexander Wolcott criticized Hitler on a Cream-of-Wheat sponsored CBS program called A Town Crier, the cereal manufacturer objected and then canceled the show when Wolcott refused to stop his criticisms. Though Wolcott argued that "anyone with the courage of a diseased mouse" would have done what he did, there is no question that people disseminating ideas are under a lot of pressure from those in power.

Censorship used to come from company bosses who were intolerant toward dissenting opinions. Today, while individual owners are still very concerned with imposing their own views, overall corporate interests have become far more important in controlling the circulation of ideas. The history of Harper's is a good example of this. On the eve of World War II, this company, which had published Leon Trotsky's earlier works, received the blood-splattered galleys of his latest attack on Stalin. The galleys had been on Trotsky's desk when he was murdered by Ramon Sander. Trotsky's followers rushed the galleys to New York on the assumption that they would be published immediately.

The chief editor of Harper's at the time, Cass Canfield, realized that America would soon be at war with Germany and would in time need Stalin's full support. Though he himself was not subjected to any
pressure from the government, he called a friend in the state department and discussed the question. Both agreed it would be wiser not to publish the book right away but rather to wait for a more propitious moment. Accordingly, the copies of Trotsky's books that had already been printed were left to gather dust in the Harper's warehouse until the end of the war. Whether Trotsky's critique of Stalin would have influenced American thinking and created a more informed view of Soviet policy during those crucial years is something we will never know. But the decision not to publish and the way it was carried out perfectly symbolized the "responsible," elitist attitude that governed Anglo-American publishing at the time. It seemed the right thing for a citizen to do, even at considerable cost to his firm, and it was carried out without further consultation. One can call this idealistic or patriotic censorship. It was certainly not motivated by a search for profit.

In 1995 Basic Books, the prestigious social science publisher then owned by HarperCollins, published a biography of Deng Xiaoping, written by his daughter. 1 The book itself proved to have no perceptible merit, not even as a document of Chinese hagiography, but Basic launched it with a large publicity campaign reported to have cost at least $100,000 in which the author was brought from China and presented to the press and public. At the time, Murdoch was eager to obtain permission from the Chinese government for his Sky cable network to broadcast in China. He had already agreed to censor the network so that the BBC News, once available to the Chinese, would be blocked. Apparently further persuasion was needed.

To Murdoch, the use of publishing to achieve other ends was simply business as usual. It was exactly the pattern he followed in using his newspapers in Britain and the United States to obtain political favors from different governments. In return for exempting him from British monopoly laws and allowing him to buy several London newspapers, Thatcher was promised their editorial support. In America, as part of a campaign to get licenses for an airline he was starting, Murdoch promised Jimmy Carter, then president, the support of the New York Post (traditionally a Democratic party paper anyway). Years later in 1994 a great deal of press coverage was devoted to HarperCollins's decision to pay Newt Gingrich an advance of $4.5 million at the height of the house leader's legislative power (which included important influence over the allocation of television franchises). 2 Less attention was paid to the fact that his book eventually earned a third of that advance, at most.

Another case, which aroused considerable interest, this time in Britain, was Murdoch's decision not to publish a book under contract to HarperCollins by the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. Patten had been a particularly outspoken Conservative opponent of the Chinese government and it was known that his memoirs would be highly critical of it. At the last moment, Murdoch announced that the book would not appear. The book's editor, Stuart Proffitt, the very model of an enlightened Conservative intellectual, resigned and the British press went to town, excoriating Murdoch for his decision. Even the right-wing Daily Telegraph, hardly a model of diverse opinion but owned by a rival media tycoon, spoke eloquently in defense of Proffitt and Patten. The book was moved to an alternative publishing house and Proffitt ended up in another excellent publishing job; in this case the story had a happy ending.

Generally, it is safe to say that whenever a conglomerate has a wide variety of holdings, there is a very real risk that its media companies will not report news that might diminish the profitability of other branches of the firm. In France, for instance, the Hachette group has long been part of a large corporation that also owns much of the French armament industry. To my knowledge, no major critiques of the arms trade have been published by Hachette, nor are there likely to be.

When Putnam was briefly owned by a major Japanese electronics firm, its president came to the United States on an inaugural visit. He had not been briefed on the ways of the American press and so answered with unexpected frankness when one of the reporters asked if Putnam would publish material critical of Japan's behavior during the war. Evidently surprised by what he took to be a silly question, he replied that of course they would not. Since books critical of Japan's behavior during the war have had a very hard time being published in Japan itself, why would overseas subsidiaries be allowed to put them out? The broader the holdings of conglomerates, the more likely it is that these forms of internal censorship will increase.

Only twice during my long years at Pantheon were we pressured not to publish a book for political reasons. One was a book on Arab-Israeli relations by the French Islamicist, Maxim Rodinson. Rodinson was a highly respected scholar, but his views were at odds with those of some of the more militant advocates of Israel, including George Weidenfeld, the British publisher. Unbeknownst to me, Weidenfeld protested our publishing the book to Bob Bernstein, who, to his credit, passed Weidenfeld's letter directly to me. No further obstacles were placed in the book's way and Israel and the Arabs was published in 1969.

The other case was more serious. Pantheon had taken on a young Chilean exile named Ariel Dorfman, then little known in the United States. Dorfman had published a very clever illustrated critique of Disney which had been prevented from circulating in the United States by Disney's watchful copyright lawyers. The book we wanted to publish, The Empire's New Clothes, was similarly pointed about Disney comics. Since the text was not illustrated, there was no question of a lawsuit, but the criticism of Disney caused great anxiety in Random House's juvenile department-then the foremost publisher of Disney properties. The department's head protested vigorously to Bob Bernstein that our book would be harmful to their relationship with Disney. The book's editor, Tom Engelhardt, and I both felt that the issue was one of basic principle and decided that we would resign if the book were blocked-but we did not tell Bob this. I remember sitting with Tom in Bob's anteroom, nervously wondering what would happen and ready to announce our departure if needed. As it turned out, we had overestimated the danger, since Bob had no intention of bowing to such pressure. Neither Ariel nor Bob ever knew of our decision, and I suspect Bob would have laughed at us had he heard of it. He was to become a major advocate of the First Amendment and a strong supporter of dissident writing, particularly in the Soviet Union. He subsequently founded Human Rights Watch, which he has continued to lead since his departure from Random House.

Publishing on political issues, particularly around elections, was for many years characteristic of American publishing houses. But in both the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, virtually no books were published for the general reader that dealt with the big issues facing American citizens. NAFTA, health insurance, the future of the welfare system-such topics were rarely discussed in books other than those that took a markedly right-wing position. These books were often subsidized by right-wing foundations and published by major conglomerates. There is no question in my mind that some of the more controversial issues, such as NAFTA and national health care, would have been dealt with very differently had a public discussion been fostered by critical books at the time.

In a survey in 1996, Publishers Weekly listed some 40 new political books, all backing Gingrich and the right and just one dissenting title-which The New Press published. The major houses have pretty much abandoned well-argued left-of-center books, which are now the preserve of a few independent and alternative houses.

If the transformation of commercial publishing is as extensive as I've described, can university presses provide an alternative? Many of them have pinned their hopes on publishing the midlist books that the conglomerates are abandoning, making money for themselves while rescuing important books from oblivion. The situation, however, has turned out to be more complicated. The not-for-profit sector has been subjected to increasing commercial pressures, which have in some cases amounted to de facto privatization.

It was inevitable that corporate approaches would eventually hit the university presses. After all, were not whole academic departments being closed down for lack of customers? If the teaching process itself was under the influence of such pressures, what fire wall was there to protect the university presses?

In an article in the Times Literary Supplement last year that provoked widespread discussion in England, including debate in the House of Lords, Sir Keith Thomas raised the question of what university presses can do best in today's marketplace. Thomas, a well-known historian, is head of the Oxford University Press finance committee and one of those responsible for Oxford's decision to discontinue the publication of contemporary poetry. His article was, in some respects, disingenuous. He described Oxford as a middle-sized publisher, when its annual global sales of close to half a billion dollars make it a giant in its class. Oxford's sales are greater than all of the American university presses put together. The Oxford list includes a large number of highly commercial books, and their extensive trade publishing contributes significantly to profits. Thomas also stated that Oxford University is entitled to "a reasonable return" from its press which, over the last five years, has paid back to the university an average of $16 million each year. In light of this, the move to cut back on poetry seemed mean and philistine to many critics.

Further cutbacks at Oxford also eliminated the intellectually important paperback series Opus, the Modern Masters series, and the use of Clarendon Press as a meaningful imprint. Letters in the pages of the TLS, some from former OUP employees, expressed anger about Oxford's decisions. The barbarians were no longer at the gate, it was argued, they were well entrenched in Oxford's management.

In defense of these closures Thomas invoked familiar changes: the increased concentration of the ownership of publishing houses and of bookstores, the subsequent profit pressure on publishers who find themselves giving ever higher discounts to the chains, the difficulty of competing in a nearly monopolized market. These questions are pressing for a publisher the size of Oxford, less so for the smaller American university presses. But the issue raised by Oxford University Press about making a profit to pay its owners is something many of those in the university sector now have to face.

It is clear that, like Oxford , American university presses are suffering because of how much it costs to publish monographs, traditionally their major output. In a thoughtful article for the New York Review of Books, Professor Robert Darnton argued convincingly for the publication of monographs online, citing dwindling sales (which can now be as low as 200 copies) and the crisis in libraries, whose funds are increasingly diverted to learned journals. (These are also all but monopolized and a single journal can now cost up to $16,000 per year.)

But at the same time as their principal "product"-the monograph-is proving ever more expensive, support from universities is diminishing. According to Thomas, nearly all American university presses receive subsidies from their owners, but in fact an increasing number are now expected to break even or make a profit. Ohio State University, for instance, recently demanded seven percent of its press's sales, though that number was later negotiated down. After a singularly successful year, the University of New Mexico Press found itself hit with a 10 percent tax by its university. The University of Chicago, true to its economic teaching, considers the whole university a profit center, and demands of each of its departments including the press-an annual increase in profitability. We are told that young accountants scurry about the campus every quarter, asking department heads whether they have made the progress expected of them in their business plan, a ritual familiar to anyone who has worked in corporate America. A recent internal study of 49 university presses showed that over the last four years, their annual subsidy from universities had decreased by eight percent in real dollars, and that 12 presses lost over 10 percent of their support. To use the elegant phrase of Peter Givler, head of the American Association of University Presses, many universities can be said to be offering "negative support."

In my discussions with university press directors I was surprised by their reluctance to speak for attribution. They were happy to talk about what was happening in other presses, but often unwilling to be quoted directly. Here, too, the chilling climate of a large corporation could be felt, rather than the spirit of open inquiry, which is supposed to characterize university dealings.

If the role of monographs diminishes in the coming years and, university support continues to decline, where are university presses to turn? For some time now, a number have tried to become regional publishers as a solution to this dilemma. Presses such as Nebraska and Oklahoma have developed impressive lines of books on local history. In areas that have no independent local publishing, such a move clearly renders a valuable service.

Others have turned to the commercial world. Princeton, the best endowed university in the country, with an income of $23 million at its disposal, has been aggressive in trying to replace traditional monographs with more popular, commercially attractive titles. The space for serious publishing has been reduced by this approach. One of Walter Lippincott's first moves on arriving as director at Princeton in 1986 was to try to close down the Bollingen series (moved there from Pantheon when we were bought by Random House on the grounds that a nonprofit university press was a more appropriate home). Happily, Princeton's board recoiled at the suggestion.

Their recent catalogs suggest that many university presses have now devoted a substantial part of their programs to more commercial midlist titles, in the hope of covering their costs. 3 A surprisingly large number have turned to baseball as a subject worth covering; books about movie stars also proliferate. The current list of the University of California Press features a revised edition of Antonia Fraser's History of the British Monarchy, the kind of popular history that used to be published by Knopf. This reliance on books that commercial publishers have abandoned raises serious questions. Of course, it is not clear that these books can be sufficiently profitable in today's book-selling environment and many university presses have discovered that the market for midlist publishing is unreliable. But even when such books do make money, is it proper for a university press to be publishing them? Hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on such presses over the years, either directly or indirectly, through tax-exempt alumni contributions. This money was meant to insure that the presses remain a source of scholarship and information, one of the few available to the country as a whole.

Looking at the writing on the wall for university presses, I think I can make out the letters "PBS." Public television was subjected to major political pressure during the Reagan-Bush years, during which period government funding was deliberately removed in order to force broadcasters to seek private sponsorship and to ensure anodyne, less politically confrontational programming. The decline of public television is another example of what happens when the market becomes the arbiter of what is to be made available. The search for wider audiences will invariably dilute educational content. If the university presses choose to follow the lure of the trade-book market, we may well see a similar evolution there.

As I mentioned previously, I once had the opportunity to appear before the search committee of Harvard University Press to discuss its future publishing. I prepared a long and detailed memo. Acknowledging that Harvard was already preeminent in the publication of scholarly work and monographs, I suggested that the press devote some of its efforts-and profits-to other areas. Noting that John Silber, the ultra-conservative president of Boston University, was making energetic attempts to take over the Boston city schools, I suggested that Harvard consider directing some of its expertise in the field of education toward publishing books for teachers and students in the Boston area. I also proposed that Harvard pay more attention to scholarly publishing overseas, helping fledgling university presses in Eastern Europe and in the Third World through translations and cocommissioning.

Had I suggested to the distinguished committee that we march down to Harvard Yard and set the Widener Library ablaze, I would have made a better impression. It was clear that Harvard saw its role as publishing for only its faculty and their peers in the university world. It was not part of its agenda to concern itself with the needs of local schools. But Massachusetts, like all states, has high school courses in state history. Thanks to the local AFL-CIO, its legislature even recently approved a requirement in local labor history. These areas are not being met at a high intellectual and scholarly standard by the commercial text book houses and could have been a worthy challenge for a university press.

Taken together, what remains of the independent sector in publishing-the university presses, the nonprofits, the church owned houses, and the presses associated with major foundations can still play an important role. But the playing field is anything but level, and the resources available are too limited.

The Bowker data bank of publishing houses lists a mind-boggling 53,000 publishers in the country. But this number must be kept in perspective. Remember: 93 percent of annual sales are controlled by the top 20 firms, another two percent by the hundred-plus university presses. All of five percent of book sales are left to be fought over by this vast number of publishers. Nor does being small and independent guarantee publishing at the highest level. The vast majority of the small firms are publishers of how-to books, religious and inspirational books, regional guides, and the like.

However, this growing band of independents also includes a number of small literary houses like Copper Canyon, Milkweed, Coffeehouse, Graywolf, Seven Stories, and Four Walls Eight Windows, who have taken on the publishing of serious fiction, poetry, and political thought. Without their presence, it would be impossible for many beginning authors to find an audience.

Another source of independent publishing is the churches who have for years supported their own houses, some purely centered around denominational interests, some seeking to reach a broader audience. Among these, firms such as Beacon Press, Orbis, and Pilgrim have intervened in political debate and offered ethical discourse. Such presses played an essential role opposing the Vietnam War, for instance.

Because of the marked lack of books from commercial firms on political and social issues, there has also been a significant increase in publishing by foundations seeking an audience for research they have funded. On the right, the Heritage Press and the Cato Institute have grown in importance, partly taking over the role that was once played by The Free Press. The right-wing Bradley Foundation, based in Milwaukee , recently gave three million to polemicist Peter Collier to start a new house, Encounter (which many will remember as the name of the CIA-funded journal that played an important role in postwar Britain ). At the center-left of the political spectrum, the Brookings Institute and the Century Foundation (formerly the Twentieth-Century Fund) have become increasingly important in funding publishing. These presses are very much the heirs to the New Deal and Fair Deal years, publishing the kinds of studies that are close to the hearts of liberal democrats, books that once were published in large numbers by the houses now owned by the conglomerates. In addition, there are still a handful of independent political publishers, which include Regnery on the right-the continuation of the Henry Regnery firm that was a leading right-wing publisher in the 1950s-and a number of publishers on the left such as Monthly Review, South End, Common Courage, and others.

Another important source of questioning, critical publishing comes from the few remaining trade houses that continue to work in the spirit of openness and respect for broad audiences that was once standard in America. Notable among these is W.W. Norton (the distributor for The New Press), both for its list and for its unusual structure. It is the only large firm that is owned by its executives, an arrangement established when the firm was founded over 75 years ago. This is a strong deterrent to outside firms who might have tried to take it over and it has served Norton well. But Norton is more than an independent firm. The quality of its books has not diminished over the years and its titles earn more reviews and literary prizes every year. There are a number of other trade publishers, such as Harcourt Brace, Houghton Mifflin, and the newly established Metropolitan Books at Henry Holt that while being owned by conglomerates, have managed to retain intellectual independence and are still able to publish works of high caliber. In most of these cases, the trade lists are only a small part of a much larger textbook business whose owners presumably want to retain the cachet of an intellectually respected trade presence.

A promising experiment has begun with Perseus Books. Headed by a former HarperCollins executive and funded by a consortium of banks, Perseus has pursued the clever strategy of buying up houses just as they are dumped by conglomerates. Familiar with the economics of the Murdoch holdings, Perseus took over Basic Books and Westview Publishers, both formerly owned by Harper's, as well as Counterpoint, a reincarnation of the distinguished North Point imprint, which had previously been owned by Random House. New lists have also been launched, including Public Affairs, headed by Peter Osnos, the former Random House vice president. Today Perseus publishes 350 books a year with sales of $65 million, an impressive if risky beginning since trying to outbid conglomerates is an expensive proposition.

Two different examples, one American, the other French, provide hope and stand as models for further experimentation. Dalkey Archive, named after one of Flann O'Brien's lesser-known novels, is based in the unlikely venue of Normal, Illinois. It is located there because its staff is on the faculty at the local State University of Illinois and the firm uses university offices and works with graduate students. Its director is a tenured professor, freed of teaching duties so that he can devote time to the press. The house has developed one of the more interesting lists in American literary publishing, making available a wide range of important works, both in translation and in English. In addition to Flann O'Brien, Dalkey has published the novellas of Arno Schmidt and the novels of Leonard Mosley, which, though demanding, have become unexpected commercial successes. Dalkey has pieced together out of bits of free space and free time a model that could easily be emulated at universities throughout the country. There is no reason why university presses should not encourage ancillary alternative publishing houses that could share their facilities and publish in areas that the university is wary of venturing into. University presses have barely scratched the surface of what should be translated or, equally important, what could be reissued. Such publishing houses could fill the growing gap in our knowledge of thinking abroad and writing in the past.

An equally inspiring example can be found in France on a larger scale, in one of the most exciting and promising of recent developments in European publishing. Pierre Bourdieu's Raisons d'agir (Reasons to act) series consists of small, inexpensive books, published from his office in the College de France. These books have dominated French best-seller lists with their new ideas, polemics, and criticism. While other French publishers have increasingly shied away from radical publishing, Bourdieu has plunged into the field. The series comprises short, controversial books sold for less than 10 dollars, a very low price in the French market. As a result, some of his titles have sold over 100,000 copies. Their tremendous sales can be attributed in part to Bourdieu's own growing reputation, but they are also the result of a publishing strategy that appeals especially to a younger audience generally ignored by other publishers. Bourdieu, a brilliant critic of the media, has found a way of intervening in public debate that is free from the constraints of traditional publishing.

We know from history that experimentation and discovery are far more likely to take place on a smaller scale where risks can be taken and enthusiasms pursued. As Klaus Wagenbach, the noted German publisher and Kafka scholar wrote recently:

Independent publishers are once again disappearing into the grasping arms of the same two conglomerates. You may ask, is that so bad? Let me explain briefly why it's not just bad-it's disastrous.

Let's imagine the future. What if, in this brave new future, there are only a handful of publishing houses left, like, say, in the former East Germany. What is-not thinking in terms of communism and capitalism here-attractive about that? That books will be cheaper? Maybe. But only a tenth as many will be published at all. In East Germany, this was because of Party censorship. In our hypothetical future, it will be because of censorship imposed by the tastes of the mass market.

Big houses think in terms of big numbers.

But new, strange, crazy, intellectually innovative, or experimental books are published in small to medium-size print runs. That is the task of the smaller houses. Ourselves. These smaller houses are not made up of marketing experts. They are staffed by people who do books because of their passion or their strong opinions-certainly not because of the profits they will generate. Books that otherwise would not be published at all.

Let's make this as explicit as possible: If books with small print runs disappear, the future will die. Kafka's first book was published with a printing of 800 copies. Brecht's first work merited 600. What would have happened if someone had decided that was not worth it? 4

We cannot speak of open competition or a free market in American publishing today. We are faced with a classic situa tion of oligopoly, approaching monopoly. The conglomerates' links, through common ownership, to other media give them incredible advantages in press, television, and newspaper coverage and publicity. Firms that own publishing houses as well as magazines have not hesitated to give a disproportionate amount of attention to books emanating from the companies they control. The changes that are needed to deal with this kind of power are obvious. The most effective solution to the increasing conglomeratization is in the hands of the government. Unfortunately, in the United States and Britain , as we have seen, conglomerates' control of key media is so powerful that governments have been afraid to invoke the provisions of antitrust legislation.

Some promising developments have occurred in the European Union. A recent decision of the EU antimonopoly commission blocked the proposed merger of Reed Elsevier with Walters Kluwers, two originally Dutch but now international conglomerates that control a large percentage of the reference and information world, as we have seen. The commission rightly decided that this merger would have given these two firms a near monopoly in crucial fields. It is hoped that European governments, increasingly aware of the fact that their national cultural independence is being threatened by such conglomerates, will prevent further mergers and even question those already in place.

A second possible solution is technological. Much has been made of the value of the Internet as a method for disseminating information. With limited capital and minimal training, anyone can establish a website, any author can publish his or her work, any journal can begin publishing and perhaps reach a like-minded audience throughout the world. But clearly the amount of material presently online is as much a problem as it is an opportunity. How can we know if what is offered is reliable? In this very question we see the advantage of the publishing system. Publishers, above all, are people who make a selection, who choose and edit material that will be distributed according to certain criteria, and then market and publicize it. By putting their name to writers' work, they provide a guarantee and guide to the reader.

Further, the idea that the Internet automatically provides a democratic way to propagate information is by no means proven. Very few sites have discovered how to get visitors to pay for the material they have access to, and while getting on the Internet is relatively easy, establishing and maintaining a site that will attract an audience is an expensive venture involving substantial design and advertising budgets. There is every reason to assume that larger firms, with greater marketing clout, will dominate the Internet in the same way they have asserted themselves in more conventional publishing. They may also ultimately control our access to that medium.

Stephen King recently published a novella on the Internet. The extraordinary success of this experiment has sparked the imagination of authors and publishers alike. Several hundred thousand copies of the book were sold on the first day; the site received so many hits that it was overwhelmed by them. This has led many to speculate on the end of publishing as we know it. They foresee a system for distributing books very similar to the one being developed by the music industry, where content is sent out over the Internet and downloaded by the customer.

However, the results of King's initiative suggest that distribution on the Web may be most effective, at least at first, on the extremes of the publishing spectrum. As mentioned, there has been considerable discussion about the possible distribution of academic monographs-books that would normally sell at most 350 copies and whose audience is easily targeted on the Web. The other end of the publishing spectrum, work by best-selling authors who have a ready-made audience and a proven track record, may also do well on the Web. In these cases money for widespread advertising and marketing will be available and an impatient readership will want to have the book on the day it appears.

The fear that best-selling authors might publish their own work has haunted the conglomerates for many years now. It is only through substantial overpayment that conglomerates have managed to keep the loyalty of many of them. They know that the Stephen Kings of this world can easily hire a printer and a distributor. Now with the advent of the Internet, that threat is all the more apparent. In a recent series of lectures at the New York Public Library, Jason Epstein raised this specter, but without drawing the obvious conclusions. With conglomerates becoming dependent on the sales of leading titles, will they still be willing to publish the rest of their lists if those "locomotives" disappear into the Internet? The change of intention in the large publishers from publishing a wide range of books to focusing on profit-maximization suggests that their whole enterprise may be at far greater risk than Epstein is willing to admit. The Internet may well accelerate the process we have been considering. Whether it will be of equal use to the authors and publishers of smaller books that do not merit the massive advertising required by Internet sites, is another question. As we know from the huge advertising budgets of e-commerce firms, much more money is needed to launch a site successfully than to publish a year's worth of books in a small publishing house. The technological wonders of the Internet may not be enough to challenge the profit-making structures that are now in place.

Innovations in the means of communication, from the advent of radio and television to the Web, are often accompanied by a wave of optimism at the outset, suggesting that, this time, the new machines will be used wisely and effectively to help build networks of educational value and cultural uplift. These illusions dissipate quickly. Whether the Internet and its many investors will choose a different path is yet to be seen.

A third possibility for change is that governments directly provide help to publishers as part of a broader program of assistance to cultural institutions. Many European governments now have substantial aid policies for filmmakers. There are also new cross-national associations such as the publicly subsidized French-German television station Arte, which broadcasts at a level higher than anything that can be seen in the English-speaking world or, indeed, in most of Europe. Why shouldn't book production warrant similar public help?

While there is a history of governmental assistance for publishing in Europe as part of a concerted attempt to create national policies to support both book-selling and publishing, there have been few parallel efforts in the United States. Most of what little public support for publishing in America exists has been channeled through the NEA and the NEH, but today both are very much on the defensive. Because of massive funding cuts in recent years, they have sharply reduced the amount granted to publishers to help make scholarly and innovative work available. Only a few major projects-the collected works of central figures in American history, for example-continue to receive this kind of aid. Still, it is not impossible to at least imagine the creation of a significant endowment funded by the existing governmental entities-the NEA, the NEH, and the Museum Institute. Such a plan could have a substantial impact. A great deal of interesting work is generated by the research grants given out by these organizations, and very little of it ever sees the light of day. The large amounts of federal money spent on developing new curricula, funding research and translation, and generating new museum programs is wasted if the results are not published. A more enlightened Congress might be persuaded about this.

The New Press has taken on a number of high-school level science education projects developed by the Museum of Natural History in New York and the Exploratorium in San Francisco but hundreds of valuable educational endeavors such as these are going unpublished. Commercial publishers find them insufficiently profitable; university presses are, for the most part, uninterested in school-age readers.

Beyond such obvious projects, there is a great deal of additional work worthy of federal support. Institutions have given substantial grants for the translation of foreign literature and scholarship for years, but help could also be given in funding the publication of such translations. A publishing endowment could help distribute books to the country's public libraries, whose budgets have been so severely depleted lately. For a small amount of money, libraries and schools could bring their readers a far wider choice than is now available.

Clearly, such proposals are not at the top of anyone's agenda today. The problems that face us all at the century's beginning are overwhelming both in their magnitude and in their complexity. But if the domain of ideas is surrendered to those who want to make the most money, then the debate that is so essential for a functioning democracy will not take place. To a large degree it is this silence that has overtaken much of American intellectual life.

Books today have become mere adjuncts to the world of the mass media, offering light entertainment and reassurances that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds. The resulting control on the spread of ideas is stricter than anyone would have thought possible in a free society. The need for public debate and open discussion, inherent in the democratic ideal, conflicts with the ever-stricter demand for total profit.

Robert McChesney, in his valuable book, Rich Media, Poor Democracy, quotes from the debate that took place in the 1930s over whether radio should be delivered entirely into private hands or maintain an independent, nonprofit base:

Freedom of speech is the very foundation of democracy. To allow private interests to monopolize the most powerful means of reaching the human mind is to destroy democracy. Without freedom of speech, without the honest presentation of facts by people whose primary interest is not profits, there can be no intelligent basis for the determination of public policy. 5


Andre Schiffrin was, for 30 years, Managing Director at Pantheon. He is the Director of the New Press, which he founded in 1990. He contributes a regular column on publishing to the Chronicle of Higher Education.


  1. Maomao, Deng. Deng Xiaoping: My Father. New York : Basic Books, 1995.
  2. Gingrich, Newt. To Renew America. New York : Harper Collins, 1995.
  3. Schiffrin, Andre. "Publishers' Spring Catalogues Offer Compelling Reading about the Market for Ideas." Chronicle of Higher Education, March 19, 1999.
  4. From the Wagenbach catalog, 1999.
  5. McChesney. Rich Media, Poor Democracy, p. 202.

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