André Schiffrin, founder of the New Press and former editor-in-chief of Pantheon Books, died on December 1, in Paris. He was 78.
Schiffrin, who died of pancreatic cancer, was the son of a distinguished European literary publisher. After a long tenure at Pantheon--he was fired in a dispute over the house’s profitability and management--he went on to found The New Press, an innovative nonprofit publisher.
At Pantheon, Random House’s acclaimed literary imprint, for nearly 30 years, Schiffrin was virtually groomed for the position. His father Jacques Schiffrin founded the French publishing house of La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, and moved his family to New York in 1941 to escape the Nazi occupation. Schiffrin’s father eventually became an editor and v-p at Pantheon, founded by German emigres Kurt and Helen Wolf, and Andre grew up in the leftist cosmopolitan world of 1950s literary New York, working summers at the imprint. Schiffrin went on to study at Yale and Cambridge; at the latter, he met his wife Maria Elena de Las Iglesias (known as Leina).
In 1962, Schiffrin joined Pantheon; he quickly rose up the editorial ranks. He became known for publishing literary fiction and serious nonfiction by such distinguished European authors as Gunter Grass, Michel Foucault, and Simon de Beauvoir. He also published such notable American authors and thinkers as Noam Chomsky, James Loewen, Studs Terkel, and Art Speigelman.
Thoughtful, much-influenced by the intellectual left, educated at the most prestigious universities, and groomed in the multi-lingual publishing tradition of his European parents, it should come as no surprise that Schiffrin saw his role as champion of high literary culture and social activism. Pantheon had been acquired by Random house in 1961, just before Schiffrin joined the house, and his literary ideals eventually came into conflict with the rise of conglomerate publishing in the 1980s.
After 28 years running Pantheon, Schiffrin was fired in 1990 by Random House CEO Alberto Vitale, who claimed Schiffrin held Pantheon above accountability, and ran huge annual deficits while refusing to cut titles or staff. Schiffrin countered that Pantheon’s independence was critical as both a literary standard and an outlet for important, often controversial, political viewpoints. Schiffrin believed his imprint should not be subjected to financial cuts, or arbitrary profit margins.
Schiffrin’s firing led to an uproar in New York, and international, literary circles. Of Schiffrin's firing, PW editor-in-chief John Baker wrote in an editorial that it "cannot help but appall anyone who believes in book publishing as ultimately something more than a plain act of commerce.” Schiffrin’s departure was followed by the resignations of several senior editors at Pantheon and petitions (and street picket lines) in support of Schiffrin. There were also substantial counter protests from Random House editors who supported Vitale, and also believed Schiffrin’s position was fiscally irresponsible.
The result of the conflict was the New Press, which marked a new kind of business model in publishing. Created in 1992, the New Press was intended to address the issues around Schiffrin’s departure from Pantheon. In an interview with PW, Schiffrin compared the New Press to the public television model of PBS. A nonprofit publishing house launched as “an independent publishing house in the public interest,” The New Press offered an innovative business model that included grant support in addition to publishing revenue; academic partnerships; staff diversity; and an ongoing commitment to recruit minorities into the industry.
In a way, the New Press became a kind of Pantheon Books in exile, looking to publish the same kinds of literary books Pantheon was known for, but working under different financial constraints. In many ways, the New Press, under Schiffrin (and Diane Wachtell his longtime associate director), preceded the digital transition as the original publishing disrupter, seeking out and creating new ways to publish to new audiences.
In the years since its founding, the New Press has thrived; it celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2012. Schiffrin directed the New Press until about 2003, and his last position at the house was founding director and editor-at-large. He continued to acquire books—Prix Goncourt winner Jean Echenoz’s new novel 1914 will be published by The New Press in Spring 2014—and lived half the year at his spacious, book-filled apartment on W. 94th Street in New York. (The other half of the year he lived in Paris, where he died.) Aside from his wife Leina, Schiffrin is survived by their two daughters, Anya Schiffrin (who is married to Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz), and Natalia Schiffrin (who is married to human rights lawyer Philippe Sands), and their children.