Suruchi Gupta

Archive for November, 2011

Andre Schiffrin: It’s All About Money, Not Honey!

by on Nov.25, 2011, under Uncategorized

Andre Schiffrin (credit: Google/Telegraph, Kolkata)

Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press – the renowned American non-profit publishing house that focuses on publishing intellectual work, was in Kolkata on invitation from Alliance Francaise to deliver two lectures in the city and to launch Business of Words (published by Navayana) – a compilation of two of his previous works: The Business of Books (2000) and Words & Money (2010). Not only did he look all of his 81 years old self, but also like a deeply intellectual gentleman, demanding respect and thoughtfulness from those who wish to spoke to him. In the course of a conversation, he asks, explains and points out facts you may not have thought existed in the world of books/news.

 Read on:

Is this your first visit to the Kolkata and India?
It is. Absolutely yes.

Is it primarily to launch the book or something else too?
Yes, and also I wanted to come to the country. But this is the main reason. And my daughter (Anya Schiffrin, professor at Columbia University and spouse of economist Joseph Stiglitz) is very fond of India. She has been coming to India every year since she has been in college. She was determined that we should come and spend a little more time around the days of the launch. (Thus, himself, Anya and Stiglitz were in the country together).

Are you aware about the Indian publishing industry, and do you have any observations on it?
I’d be talking about it in a few minutes. But am very worried that the degree to which it is following the European parallel of concentration and so on. That is something we publishers are ourselves worried about.

If literacy is a matter of concern in a country, is there a way in which publishing industry holds a responsibility and can help?
It should be the responsibility of the publishers, but I don’t think they pay much attention to it. We have made an effort in America to go toplaces – including working with various trade unions, primarily in reaching workers in hospitals in the East Coast. These are too numerous to list – that don’t necessarily read and to read aloud to them, or to even have actors act out some of the books. There were close to l00 readings, but they worked very well. It has worked very well. People have been interested. But you need to have an effort and you cannot do it in the profit making framework. You have to be in the non-profit framework.

Would Penguin or Rupa be able to make a difference in literacy in India?
I don’t know if they do or if they had had any effort to do it. I can’t comment on that.

Are you aware of the 3 decade long Left rule in Bengal, as you are a supporter of the Left? (I was informed later that the term ‘Left’ means operationally has different meanings in America and West Bengal).
Yes. In fact last night I had dinner with the finance minister of the government for the last 24 years (meaning: Asim Dasgupta). Am hearing a lot about what they had done.

What kind of inputs did you get at the meeting last night?
Well I think one of the questions you have to answer is the degree to which the press and all the media were against them in the last election. And if you had independent press, whether that would have changed the result, I don’t have the answer… but that’s a question.
Part of what the new book (his work – Words & Money) is about is creating independent newspapers like The Guardian in England, which make all the difference. I mean, if it hadn’t been for the English Guardian then the Murdock story would not have come out. So, having independent newspapers is crucial. And that does not exist here, so I guess it is needed (an impression he gathered from my comments).

Any independent press you aware of in Bengal?
I do not have much idea. I thus cannot comment on it.

University press movement has been big in the US. Do you think it is doing its role today and should exist in India too?
Well it depends. After a time in England, university presses became for profit making increasingly. Oxford university press has to make a profit of a 100 million (dollars) every year to take to the university. So it’s easy to take something that was basically very good, not for profit structure, and turn it into for-profit – which is what’s happened in the England and the US. So it would be good to have them up, but then it has to be protected from this kind of pressure, otherwise it becomes like a revenue house.

Do you think, despite this, at the end of the day, these presses are publishing research and quality material from the university? Is it positive?
It really depends on what the university wants to do. If they simply want to publish research of their own scholars, then, it’s useful to a limited degree, but it’s not going to change the world in any way. If it wants to be the centre of serious publishing, then of course it should be marvellous. And I agree I am surprised that there hasn’t been anything like the university press system. And it would be nice if one develops it as something intellectually and financially independent.

Do self publishing platforms like script or online publishing world or world of blogs – a very vocal medium to talk about what papers don’t – impact the publishing world of papers?
I am afraid that we have discovered that no one looks at these things. It could (help voicing things that are not spoken of). But it’s very difficult. I think there are 10 million blogs in China. Who is going to know what to look at? It’s very hard.

I read in an interview of yours that there is a way to continue publishing newspapers without advertisements too. Could you please explain that a little? 
It’s a very small book, I have given very concrete solutions in it. I think they could survive the way BBC is surviving – to get a specific tax – they survive because there is a specific tax on television. I am suggesting that there should be a tax on Google or on advertising on the internet. That, in my view, should help the newspapers.

A downside exists to everything that is there. Is there any downside to the not-for-profit platform?
The university presses were suppose to be not-for-profit, and they did very well in that framework. They work less well when they have to make money. The problem is the risk that you always have in publishing the books that people will not read – those you think they should read. And you can lose money doing that. But those are the very books that matter most of all.

In yet another interview of yours I read your comment on how these days’ heads of publishing houses do not read all the books that come out of their bag. Is that possible or expected?
No, it is not possible in a large house that publishes hundreds of books. But you need to have editors who have the freedom to make decisions, who support what they are showing.

Are you aware about Little Magazine culture in India?
A bit. I met Caravan people… (a magazine published from New Delhi)

But Caravan is not a Little Magazine…
But every issue of theirs has a run of 40,000 copies. That’s also a printed magazine. I have nothing against people who are doing a good job for profit. I have objected when the larger ones try to peter out everybody else and control the market. If you do that, what is the ultimate scene?

The New Press has not published many Indians, apart from Naiyar Masud I guess…
We have not published any Indian I guess, but may be yes – as I said it is not possible to read all the works. Am sorry but as I said you can’t read everything. But on the whole we haven’t had many books from India though we tried very hard. Could you tell me the name of the book please?

Am sorry Sir, I just cannot recollect the name of the book, but I am sure of the author’s name. (In an email interaction post this session, when I shared the name of Masud’s book – Essence of Camphor – Mr. Schiffrin wrote that he believed Masud was a Sri Lankan. 🙂 )Moving on…

You do commission a lot of works. Have you ever thought of commissioning works to Indian writers/authors. Have you thought of exploring the Indian market?
Indian market – no, Indian intellectuals – yes. We have tried to find people who can write books. But part of the problem is that there are very few people in India who do comparative work that can be of direct interest to Europeans or Americans.

You are a supporter of the non-fiction genre.
Hmm…

Is there any fiction you like to read? Could you share a few names from your list of favourite authors/books?
Yes, I do nothing but read fiction, and I do read a certain amount of Indian fiction. But most of my time is spent reading on fiction. Too long a list to share a few names!

Interview ends here. Post a fabulous lecture, I got the chance to ask Mr. Schiffrin the following question during the Q&A round:
Can’t the profit and the non-profit publishing models exist side by side in the industry?
If you look at Harper Collins back in 1950-60’s, they look like Harvard University Press. They published in every field – philosophy, science, art history, you name it. And had good books. All of those fields have disappeared now. Now even the better houses in America will hardly publish any translation because translations hugely lose money. So you get the phenomenon, which had developed in the cinema too: that out of all American cinemas 10% films shown were foreign films earlier. But now less than 1% form this category. That is because of the multiplex system. The multiplex system is another form of the bookstore – a phenomenon that books that books which sell the best, you put them in the front, and if they don’t sell, you put them back in a few days.

I thank Dr.  Krishna Sen, professor at University of Calcutta, for having shared her views on education with me about 18 months back, for a TOI article. They shaped two of my questions for Mr. Schiffrin. 🙂

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