Book publisherAndré Schiffrin

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Born in Paris, Schiffrin was the son of a book publisher who had to flee the Nazis. The family settled in the United States, and André followed in his father’s footsteps: in 1961 he became the managing director of publishing at Pantheon Books, which was established in 1942 by several Europeans who fled the Nazis — including his father. They introduced American audiences to such European works as The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (who would go on to receive a Nobel Prize for his work), Madness and Civilization by Michel Foucault, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, and Adieux by Simone de Beauvoir. Then they returned the favor by bringing American writers to European readers, including Noam Chomsky, James Loewen, and Studs Terkel. (Terkel, who said André was his inspiration for all his books, went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for his oral history of World War II, The Good War.)

But Schiffrin’s bosses were concerned about the bottom line, and pushed him to go for more profits at the expense, Schiffrin thought, of quality. Schiffrin resisted, and in 1990, after 28 years, he was fired. Most of the company’s editors quit in protest, and 350 authors, agents, and book lovers picketed the company. Intent on producing high-quality books, Schiffrin and former Pantheon colleague Diane Wachtell founded The New Press, devoted to “the intellectual bottom line” — forming it as a non-profit, “a new structure for publishing in much the same way that PBS created an alternative to commercial television,” he said. “No one did so much,” said Melville House Books co-founder Dennis Johnson, “to define the term ‘independent publisher’ coming into the 21st century.” In an ironic footnote, Pantheon had been acquired by Random House, which was eventually absorbed by Bertlesmann AG — a German company. Schiffrin was also a writer of note: his best known is The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read, published in 2000. Schiffrin never retired from The New Press. He spent time in both New York and Paris to continue to find the best new writers, and died in Paris on December 1, from pancreatic cancer. He was 78.

From This is True for 8 December 2013