Obituary: Andre Schiffrin / Book publishing force, founder of New Press

June 14, 1935 - Dec. 1, 2013

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Andre Schiffrin, a publishing force for 50 years, whose passion for editorial independence produced shelves of serious books, a titanic collision with a conglomerate that forced him out to stem losses, and a late-in-life comeback as a nonprofit publisher, died Sunday in Paris. He was 78.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, his daughter Natalia Schiffrin said.

The son of a distinguished Paris publisher who fled Nazi-occupied France during World War II, Mr. Schiffrin grew up in a socialist New York City literary world 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 mostly highbrow, left-leaning authors.

Taking risks, running losses, resisting financial pressures and compromises, Mr. Schiffrin championed the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Guenter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortazar, Marguerite Duras, Roy Medvedev, Gunnar Myrdal, George Kennan, Anita Brookner, R.D. Laing and many others.

But in 1990, after 28 years at Pantheon, Mr. Schiffrin was fired by Alberto Vitale, the chief executive of Random House, in a dispute over chronic losses and Mr. Schiffrin's 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.

Many in publishing spoke against the dismissal, calling it an assault on American culture by Random House's billionaire owner, S.I. Newhouse Jr., who was accused of blocking a channel for contrary voices in favor of lucrative self-help books and ghostwritten memoirs for the sake of the bottom line. Mr. Schiffrin was conspicuously silent, his severance package barring him for a time from discussing the issue publicly.

But Mr. Vitale and others in publishing called his dismissal an inevitable result of Pantheon's losses, which Mr. Vitale said reached $3 million in Mr. Schiffrin's final year, and his refusal to adjust his list to turn the imprint around.

In 1992, Mr. Schiffrin and Diane Wachtell, a former Pantheon editor, founded the New Press as an independent, nonprofit publisher of books "in the public interest," funded by major foundations.

The author of several books of his own, Mr. Schiffrin offered a gloomy assessment of publishing in his polemical memoir, "The Business of Books: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read" (2000).

Andre Schiffrin was born on June 14, 1935, in Paris to Jacques and Simone Heymann Schiffrin. His father, a Russian emigre, founded La Bibliotheque de la Pleiade, which published editions of the classics, and in 1941 fled from the Nazis with his family and settled in New York City, where from 1943 until his death in 1950 he was editor and vice president of production at Pantheon Books.


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