andre schiffrin

Andre Schiffrin and the Business of Books

It’s commonly tossed about that book publishing remains an apprenticeship industry, and I suppose it’s generally true. Most all of us working in the field owe a debt of knowledge and guidance to peers and predecessors who showed us the ropes, gave us space to try and fail and try again, with admonishment. For me, working my first few seasons in book publishing without a real mentor, my first shepherds weren’t bosses or colleagues; they were books, often memoirs, by the legends of the golden age–Epstein and Silverman and Cerf, among others. And of course Andre Schiffrin. 

Mr Schiffrin died yesterday at the age of 78. His book, which I’ve returned to frequently over the last few years and have assigned to students in publishing courses, is part personal history, part anti-conglomerate screed, part manifesto. It’s wise and frank, and unapologetically ideological, as memoirs have the right to be. And it’s at turns deeply hopeful and bitterly cynical. Its through-line, though, is straight and clear: this publishing lifer loved books, loved finding them, arguing about them, publishing them–and he highly valued that process, even if it left him bloodied and bruised from the fight. Here’s one of my favorite passages: 

It is only in books that arguments and inquiries can be conducted at length and in depth. Books have traditionally been the one medium in which two people, and author and an editor, could agree that something needed to be said, and for a relatively small amount of money, share it with the public. Books differ in crucial ways from other media. Unlike magazines, they are not advertiser-driven. Unlike television and films, they do not have to find a mass audience. Books can afford to go against the current, to raise new ideas, to challenge the status quo, in the hope that in time an audience will be found.