Publisher driven by public interest

André Schiffrin: June 14th, 1935-December 1st, 2013

Andre Schiffrin in France in April , 1999.

Andre Schiffrin in France in April , 1999.


André Schiffrin, who has died in Paris aged 78, was a force in the American book world for more than 50 years. His passion for editorial independence produced shelves of serious books, a titanic clash with a publishing conglomerate and a late-in-life comeback as a non-profit publisher.

Schiffrin grew up in the left-wing literary world of New York and became one of America’s most influential men of letters. As editor-in-chief and managing director of Pantheon Books, a Random House imprint where making money was never the main point, he published novels and books of cultural, social and political significance by an international array of writers including Jean-Paul Sartre, Günter Grass, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Anita Brookner, RD Laing and many others.

But in 1990, after 28 years at the firm, he was fired by Random House’s chief executive in a dispute over chronic losses and his refusal to accept cutbacks and other changes. His departure made headlines, prompted resignations by colleagues, led to a protest march joined by world-renowned authors, and reverberated across the publishing industry in articles and debates.

Multicultural environment
Schiffrin was born in June 1935 in Paris to Jacques and Simone Heymann Schiffrin. His father, a Russian émigré, founded La Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, which published editions of the classics. After the German invasion in 1940 Jacques Schiffrin was abruptly sacked, as a Jew, by the Gallimard firm which had taken over his Pléiade imprint and in 1941 forced to flee France, escaping through Marseille, Casablanca and Lisbon to reach New York.

The young André grew up in a multicultural household, immersed in languages and literature in a milieu of Jewish socialist intellectuals. He worked summer jobs at Pantheon, a prestigious house founded in 1942 by the German émigrés Kyrill Schabert and Kurt and Helen Wolff, and knew the book list “the same way another boy would know the stock of his father’s candy store”. In 1949 he returned on a visit to France, where he met his father’s great friend and correspondent the writer André Gide.

Graduating with a degree in history from Yale in 1957, he went on to study at Clare College, Cambridge University, where he became the first American to edit the prestigious Granta literary magazine.

In 1961 he married Maria Elena de la Iglesia, known as Leina. They were to have two daughters, Natalia and Anya. In 1962 Schiffrin joined Pantheon, which had been bought by Random House a year earlier. He edited his first best-seller, The Tin Drum by Grass, shortly after his arrival.

He became editor-in-chief in 1963 and managing director in 1969, often subsidising important works with profits from commercially successful books. In 1980, after an acquisition, Pantheon and other Random House units came under increasing pressure to raise their profit margins. In 1990, Random House said Schiffrin was “asked to resign after he refused to reduce the number of titles published or to trim Pantheon’s 30-member staff”.

In 1992, he and Diane Wachtell, a former Pantheon editor, founded the New Press as an independent, non-profit publisher of books “in the public interest”, funded by major foundations, an activity he likened to public service television and radio. The enterprise flourished, and Schiffrin, its editor-in-chief for more than a decade, remained as founding director and editor-at-large until his death.

At the New Press, he published best-selling fiction and books on race relations, civil rights, Aids, black culture, history, economics, the environment, feminism and other subjects. He wrote for the Nation, the New Republic and various European magazines and was the author of A Political Education: Growing Up in Paris and New York (2007) and Words and Money (2010).

In The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2000) he offered a gloomy assessment of publishing.

“Books today have become mere adjuncts to the world of mass media, offering light entertainment and reassurances that all is for the best in this, the best of all possible worlds.” The effect on the spread of ideas, he argued, is greater than would have been thought possible in a free society.

Apart from his publishing and writing, Schiffrin also taught at Princeton and the New School in New York and served on the boards of the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Council of the Smithsonian Institution and the New York Council on the Humanities. Since 2005, he and his wife divided their time between homes in Manhattan and Paris.

André Schiffrin is survived by his wife, Leina, daughters Natalia and Anya, and three grandchildren.