This blogger skimmed the book, “A Political Education” by Andre Schiffrin, published in 2007. The author, born in 1935 in France, discussed how his family survived WWII, and his career in American publishing.
Schiffrin followed his father, a prominent figure, into the industry. In the late 1940’s, “… there were 350 bookstores in New York City, ten times the number there are today.” The author received an American elitist Northeastern education, despite the religion he was perceived to be, and with which he himself identified (Jewish). In the early 1950’s, he was politically active in school– leading various organizations that spread their opinions and lodged protests in cooperation with other student groups internationally. Schiffrin opposed France’s colonialism in Algeria and Vietnam, and Soviet repression in Hungary.
The last third of the book contains the author’s lament over how, “In America, we gradually built a system of welfare for the large corporations…” Up until the 1970’s, in the industrialized nations of the world, the publishing business was used to making an annual profit of 3%. The philosophy of publishers was “…that the successful books should subsidize those that made less money”– like, ironically, with venture capitalism nowadays– because there will never be maximum profitability for every entity funded. Yes, the ultimate goal is to make money. Humans have a history of spawning unexpectedly wildly successful books and start-ups. But society benefits more than otherwise from a diversity of intellectual, experimental endeavors, even if they fail.
The atmosphere changed when corporate America got even more greedy. It was the usual story: When avaricious bean-counters take over a creative and/or intellectual realm, everything goes south. “Wall Street was looking for profits of 10 to 20 percent.” As can be surmised, it didn’t get them. This blogger thinks the author was naive in saying, “For the first time in history, ideas were judged not by their importance but by their profit potential.” Even in the 1970’s, there was nothing new under the sun.
Read the book to learn how the last three decades of Schiffrin’s working life saw radical political and cultural changes that adversely affected the book business in the United States. For instance, the major publishing companies practiced censorship due to American politics from the mid-twentieth century into the first years of the twenty-first. Schiffrin wrote that the Right wing felt entitled to control the Middle East. Communists and Islamists were interlopers; “… if things weren’t working out [with regard to America’s takeover], it had to be due to traitors and subversives at home.”
As an aside, this blogger was reminded of two books Mr. Schiffrin would have enjoyed: “Wasn’t That a Time?” by Robert Schrank and “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” by John Perkins.