Publisher offers advice to writers to be

Andre Schiffrin discussed the issues brought about by the corporate nature of the industry.

The Daily Pennsylvanian
December 12, 2002

Publisher Andre Schiffrin believes that he has a lot in common with Meg Ryan. Or, at least, her You've Got Mail character. Like Ryan, he hates the thought of large corporate bookstores -- think Barnes and Noble on Penn's campus -- invading the publishing market and pushing out smaller businesses.

"Ultimately the question is: Do we have any other values in society besides making money?" he said.

Schiffrin, founder of The New Press, a non-profit publishing house, spoke at the Kelly Writers House last Thursday on "The World of Publishing" -- his personal advice on getting published and navigating the increasingly corporate world of publishing.

He wasted no time telling the 12 perspective authors present that "success is not immediate and it doesn't come just because you are talented."

For those aspiring to one day have their work grace the Penn Bookstore shelves, Schiffrin recommended starting small.

"Get in print somewhere -- a magazine or a literary journal," he said. "Think of smaller, independent publishers. The chance of getting published by a large house is slight."

Schiffrin often referenced his own book, The Business of Books, to talk about the issues the publishing community faces today.

According to Schiffrin, the primary problem with the current state of publishing is the monopolizing of the industry.

"Eighty percent of trade books sold come from the five largest [publishing] houses," Schiffrin said.

He explained that earlier in the century, publishers were content with a 3 to 4 percent profit margin, whereas today, houses expect more like 15 to 20 percent returns.

"We can't say anymore that we publish great books," Schiffrin said. "We publish books that make money."

And while Schiffrin did not blame a particular entity for the regressing phenomenon, he did mention some of the contributors.

"The universities have gone along with Barnes and Nobel," Schiffrin said, referring to Penn's own bookstore. "What we need to realize is this is not a shopping mall -- this is a university."

It is not surprising then that Schiffrin -- who has been in the publishing community for nearly 40 years -- broke away from corporate publishing to start his own company.

He previously worked as director at Pantheon Books, a division of Random House. In addition, Schiffrin has served as a board member for many committees geared at expanding the availability of knowledge to the public such as the New York Civil Liberties Union and various committees under the American Association of Publishers.

Schiffrin was brought to campus as part of the Penn Humanities Forum's "Year of the Book" series, dedicated to examining the role and impact of books in contemporary times.

Incidentally, his part of the series coincided with the first snowfall of the season, contributing to the small audience of under 20. But many attendees said they enjoyed this intimate setting.

"I thought the lecture was excellent," College senior Lauren Tarantino said.

And while Schiffrin's talk was inspiring, Tarantino said that it left her less than hopeful about her future publishing prospects.

"It was also very depressing but not hopeless," she said. "As someone who wants to go into that field, I was genuinely enlightened."