Sunday, March 16, 2008

Reflections-preface postscript

The other day I complained about Leon Wieseltier's preface to the new edition of Walter Benjamin's Reflections. Reflections is published by Schocken, which is a Random House imprint. In that post I almost expressed disappointment in Schocken for including the preface from Wieseltier. It seemed odd that anyone would see it as appropriate. André Schiffrin, founder of The New Press, and former head of Pantheon and Schocken, provides a little background. In a letter to the editor in the April issue of Harper's, responding to Ursula K. Le Guin's essay from the February issue on the decline of reading ("Staying Awake") (I didn't read Le Guin's piece: these semi-regular laments about reading rarely say anything new and thus tend to bore me), Schiffrin's says the following:
Le Guin is also correct in spotting the hostility of the conglomerates to the books themselves. One of the first signs that warned me of Random House's agenda when I was directing Pantheon and Schocken Books, both of which were once independent presses, was a memo warning that any backlist paperback selling under 2,000 copies a year would be pulped. This would have destroyed our backlist sales, sales on which any serious publisher must depend in order to survive. When my colleagues and I left in protest of this and other diktats, most of the books we had published by Cortázar, Duras, de Beauvoir and many others were eliminated--presumably on the fallacious assumption that all energies should be focused on the very few titles that might become bestsellers. This policy led, in part, to Random's losing unprecedented sums and eventually being sold by S. I. Newhouse, who had approved these maneuvers, to Bertelsmann.
This is familiar stuff, and as Schiffrin implies, Schocken is not quite the Schocken of old, though it may indeed maintain the same general array of titles, the same general focus on Judaica. . .

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