André Schiffrin, Publishing Force and a Founder of New Press, Is Dead at 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 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, Günter Grass, Studs Terkel, Michel Foucault, Simone de Beauvoir, Noam Chomsky, Julio Cortázar, 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 an Op-Ed article in The New York Times, Erroll McDonald, Pantheon’s executive editor, disputed what he called the “sense of entitlement” by those protesting Mr. Schiffrin’s dismissal. He said Pantheon would continue to publish serious books.

The contretemps over cultural integrity versus business imperatives had been building for years. While Pantheon accounted for a small percentage of Random House’s revenues, it had always had a special place within the company. Bennett Cerf, a founder of Random House, regarded it as a vehicle for distinguished rather than lucrative books. But mounting losses in the 1980s had eroded the corporate magnanimity.

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. He likened it to public television and radio, a house to supplement university presses in publishing riskier books. The enterprise flourished, and Mr. Schiffrin, its editor in chief for more than a decade, remained as founding director and editor at large until his death.

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).

“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,” Mr. Schiffrin wrote. “The resulting control on the spread of ideas is stricter than anyone would have thought possible in a free society.”

André Schiffrin was born on June 14, 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, and in 1941 fled from the Nazis with his family and settled in New York, where from 1943 until his death in 1950 he was editor and vice president of production at Pantheon Books.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: December 1, 2013

An earlier version of this article misstated André Schiffrin’s date of birth. It is June 14, 1935, not June 12.

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