Director and Founder, The New Press
In his heartfelt talk, André Schiffrin regarded publishing within its sociopolitical context – then and now. Over the past five decades, the nature and output of publishing companies has undergone a dramatic shift. At the core of this change resides an increase in larger and larger companies. Ownership of the media is characterized as conglomerate. In fact, the top five publishing conglomerates account for 80% of sales in books. Schiffrin asserted that the consequences have been less than desirable for several reasons. Pulling a quotation from his recently published oeuvre, The Business of Books, he remarked, “Sheer size does not guarantee diversity in content.” Hence, the current content of books is altogether less scholarly and more homogeneous. He attributed this transformation to the fiduciary bottom line. Publishing has become market driven; the profit margin reigns as prime mover. While publishers do not know what will sell, they assure themselves they know what will not sell.
Of greater, though related, concern for Schiffrin is the issue of censorship, both by individuals and the market. Examples abound. PBS and NPR have recently been taken to task for the controversial nature of their programming. U.S. news sources often present one-side of the story; overseas (foreign) accounts of events are often not translated or the tone of US coverage is dismissive of foreign opinion. Hence, Schiffrin is very much concerned with fleshing out the reasons behind such censorship. As we can see from his examples, such censorship is not unique to publishing but proliferate in all media – cinema, television, magazines, etc. While focusing on what he knows best – the microcosm of publishing – he also emphasized that current structures are designed to prevent new ideas from coming to the fore. Partially responsible for this occurrence is the current conservative, political climate and its relationship to the publishing industry. The mainstream press has had a long-standing tradition of supporting the government on foreign policy. Thus, dissent in the media concerned with American foreign policy has been silenced. As a result, the current administration’s support of conglomerate ownership and recent institution of the Patriot Act have created not only less literary diversity, but also an unparalleled invasion of the reader’s rights. In other words, access to information has become increasingly monitored and restricted. Schiffrin stressed the immediate need, now more than ever, for an informed debate on the current state of political affairs.
While these concerns are daunting, Schiffrin offered some suggestions to rectify the situation. He underscored the importance of making other voices heard. To do so, he lobbies for the support of independent media, anti-trust initiatives, book review programs, and the publication of foreign authors