André Schiffrin, the author of The Business of Books (2000), is the founding director of The New Press, a not-for-profit publishing house established in 1990. Before that he was the publisher of Pantheon Books for 30 years. In his new book, Words & Money, Schiffrin examines the state of book publishing, newspapers, magazines, broadcast news, and online journalism. We asked Schiffrin to pose questions about the future of book publishing.
1. Conglomerates now control much of American book publishing, including roughly 80 percent of trade books. This kind of ownership typically demands much greater profit margins than do traditional self-contained publishing houses. The rise of Amazon and Google as booksellers and distributors of book content has added bottom-line pressures. Have you seen a difference in the content and quality of published books?
2. The growth of Internet retailing has produced a withering effect on independent bookstores. Does this phenomenon mirror Walmart’s obliteration of mom-and-pop stores in downtowns across the country, and is it similarly detrimental to the richness and variety of communities?
3. Newspaper circulation continues to fall in the United States, as does newspapers’ commitment to book coverage. When it comes to book reviews and articles about books, authors, and publishing trends, can the Internet ever reach a sufficient audience to fill the void?
4. Robert Darnton, Harvard University’s librarian, has been quoted as saying, “Libraries, as I see them, are not warehouses of books. They are dynamic centers for communicating knowledge.” What does this portend for the future of books? Will our great university libraries send them to the landfill or preserve them as relics of another age?
5. Book publishers operate on slim profit margins. Is not-for-profit book publishing a viable alternative in the United States, as it is in Europe? Can for-profit book publishing reinvent itself on a scale commensurate with current and future profit margins?
6. Given the pressures and trends mentioned above, will publishing as we know it survive? If it doesn’t, will the world be a dumber place, or just a poorer one?
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