Publisher André Schiffrin died Dec. 1 at age 78. After running Random House’s Pantheon Books imprint for 28 years, Schiffrin was fired in 1990, and two years later he started the New Press. Schiffrin’s departure from Random caused a great debate within publishing over art versus commerce, an issue that came up in obituaries for the late publisher. In the letter below, Schiffrin’s one-time boss, former Random House chairman Robert Bernstein, defends Schiffrin’s record as a businessman, which was questioned in Schiffrin’s obituary in the New York Times.—Editor’s note
It’s sad to see the paper of record get the facts wrong in pursuit of a story; it’s truly unfortunate when it happens in an obituary.
The New York Times gave André Schiffrin appropriate tribute for his ability to earn the affection and loyalty of so many of his authors—an unusually varied and prominent group. The portrait of him as a bad businessman, however, is not only wrong, but unfair to him, and also to Si Newhouse. André was a cherished and valuable part of Random House for the entire 25 years that I headed the firm.
During a period of tremendous change in the industry as small, independent publishers yielded to conglomerates of every kind, Random House grew and prospered enormously. One major reason for this was because we kept our imprints very separate from each other so that brilliant editors like Bob Gottlieb, Jim Silberman, Bob Loomis, Albert Erskine, Judith Jones, Susan Petersen Kennedy, Toni Morrison, Jason Epstein, Wendy Wolff, and, of course, André Schiffrin, could build each one with total editorial independence. That approach appealed to authors who appreciated our concern for their individuality.
After the Newhouse family bought Random House in 1980, Si Newhouse never once questioned the profit or loss of Pantheon. Once or twice he might have grumbled about the opinions of some of André’s authors—as did others—but never in a heavy-handed way. To say that Si Newhouse was “accused of blocking a channel for contrary voices in favor of lucrative self-help books and ghost-written memoirs for the sale of the bottom line” is just not the case.
When financial people asked André to cut back expenses, he carefully explained that he was being charged too much for overhead. He didn’t need to be in an uptown skyscraper, nor did he need a large sales force. He explained how Dr. Zhivago became a bestseller before Random House purchased Pantheon—and that it relied on only two salesmen.
In fact, after André left Pantheon, this “terrible businessman” was one of the very few to found a bold, new, successful publishing house, the New Press. He put all the pieces together himself, the financing, the warehousing, the selling, the publicity, and advertising—parts of the business that require tremendous business acumen. But perhaps the ultimate tribute to André was when Studs Terkel, Pantheon’s bestselling author, turned down a huge advance offer from Random House to go to New Press for a much smaller up-front payment.