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Apocalypse Now?

BOOK BUSINESS Publishing Past Present and Future By Jason Epstein; W.W. Norton: 188 pp., $21.95

THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read By Andre Schiffrin; Verso: 182 pp., $23

February 25, 2001|RICHARD SEAVER | Richard Seaver, an editor and publisher for more than 40 years, is president of Arcade Publishing, an independent house distributed by AOL Time Warner. His many past posts include managing editor of Evergreen Review, editor-in-chief of Grove Press and publisher of the trade division of Holt, Rinehart & Winston (while it was a subsidiary of CBS Inc.). He has edited and published many authors, including Samuel Beckett, John Berger, William Burroughs, E.M. Cioran, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco and Andrei Makine. He is also the translator of Pauline Reage's "Story of O" and the works of the Marquis de Sade, among other writers

Schiffrin further accuses two of his former colleagues at Random House, Epstein himself and Ashbel Green, of instigating the statement circulated at the time of the author's dismissal declaring his position--not to modify his list--to be unreasonable. I carefully checked with several sources, and again found that charge to be false. Later, Schiffrin claims that when, after his ouster from Pantheon, he was being considered for the post of director of Harvard University Press, two senior colleagues of his--Knopf editors--made phone calls to the university to queer the deal. But having made that very serious accusation, he fails to name the presumed culprits, a glaring act of omission. One could also question his lament about today's publishing playing field not being level: With his generous foundation funding, he competes in the marketplace against small independent publishers that operate without the benefit of any such financial help.

Equally baffling and upsetting from the pure publishing viewpoint are the myriad errors in "The Business of Books." To name but a few, in no particular order: He calls the late William Shawn, the distinguished editor of The New Yorker, Wallace Shawn (confusing him with his son, a playwright and actor). The publisher Dalkey Archive has on its list the novels of Leonard Moseley, Schiffrin reports; it publishes Nicholas Moseley. James Branch Cabell comes out, in Schiffrin's version, as James Branch Campbell (I suppose he could counter that two out of three ain't bad). John P. Marquand becomes James P. Marquand, and Thomas Costain is metamorphosed into Frank, while the title of his 1945 bestselling novel "The Black Rose" becomes "Black Robe." The Dutch publisher Wolter Kluwer becomes Walter Kluwers. Schiffrin cannot for the life of him spell two important publishers' names: Barney Rosset, the former head of Grove Press; and Michael Lynton, former head of Hyperion and Penguin Putnam. (He gets them wrong both in the text and in the index.) And he's totally bollixed the relationship between Viacom and its publishing entity Simon and Schuster.

As for the index, it is simply appalling. Names that appear in the text do not show up in the index; conversely, names in the index are nowhere to be found in the text. Those that are rarely appear on the page to which the reader is sent. Curiously, two of Schiffrin's former Random House colleagues--Elizabeth Sifton and Carol Janeway--appear in the index but not in the text. Why?

Far from being an even-handed assessment of book publishing today, "The Business of Books" is, as Schiffrin rightly says, "a book of revenge." And that's unfortunate. For unlike Epstein's work, which I would recommend unreservedly not only to those in the profession but also to anyone interested in the world of books, Schiffrin's is too biased and self-serving to be truly insightful. In fact, I fail to understand how someone whose major lament throughout his book is the serious decline of quality in his chosen profession and who clearly sets himself up as a paragon could have allowed such a flawed work to appear under his name.

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