Eurozine on the Free Press and Publishing Models

Scott Esposito referenced this earlier today, but Eurozine has a fascinating article today by André Schiffrin, former head of Pantheon, and founder and editor-at-large of The New Press.

His main focus is on free speech and the need for independent presses that challenge the status quo, but in addition to the political dimension, his piece touches on some interesting aspects of the financial workings of independent presses, and possible models to sustain them.

Various models been tried around the world. The most famous is Raisons d’Agir, which Pierre Bourdieu started after his studies of publishing proved that the larger houses had severely restrained their political and intellectual content. Bourdieu started his firm in his office in the College de France and he and his assistant were its staff. Many books he published did extremely well, some selling hundreds of thousands. A university space (and a professor’s salary) have been misused elsewhere with excellent results.

Amen. This is similar to the model we have in place here at UR, a model that is fairly unique, merging aspects of traditional nonprofit trade presses and university programs. Schiffrin seems to see university presses as a great possible alternative to commercial presses, but one that’s gotten bogged down:

The US and Britain have a range of university presses (over 100 in the US, though they account for a mere 1% of books sold). In theory, these could be a vibrant alternative to commercial presses, but they have too often reflected the conservatism of their faculties. They are also under profit-making pressures because universities have followed the capitalist model.

Less that 1% of books sold are from university presses?!? I thought it would be a bit higher than that. . . .

Going back to his argument about the need for indie presses to preserve free speech, he concludes with a hopeful, yet realistic statement:

Newspapers and book publishers that belong to independent, not-for-profit foundations or cooperatives may be the best way to preserve political and cultural autonomy. This solution might have saved such major publishers as Le Seuil and Einaudi from being sold to conglomerates whose primary objective is profitability. For centuries publishing averaged an annual profit of 3-4%; the conglomerates want at least l0%, if not l5%, which changes the nature of what can be published.

That increase in ROI is one of the reasons that there aren’t a lot of literary translations being published these days . . . Although conversely, the fact that conglomerates function with these goals in mind means that there’s a lot of great books out there that indie presses can scoop up. . .

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