“Behind the paradox of being a Jewish publisher in America is the
paradox of being Jewish in America. We want a Jewish bookshelf in every
bookstore in America. We don’t want our books on it. We want a Jewish
community, but we don’t want to be ghettoized. The paradox is that if you
want to reach the Jews, you can’t reach them as Jews.”
Since 1997, I have been asking notable book
people about the business of publishing and the remarkable, disturbing
alteration we have seen in its structure in the last decade or so.
Generously, they have told me how they entered the book trade; spoken
about writers they’ve published – and declined to publish; described the
(changing) class structure of their domain; talked straight about money,
commerce, and corporate capitalism; described their way of practicing
responsible publishing. They have taken us into the precarious business of
selling books, and have traced the advent and threat/promise of electronic
publishing. Without exception they have been serious readers, usually of
more than one language. They have recognized that times have changed. They
have observed with wary friendliness the generations coming up. They have
spoken out of the old values and honorable traditions of book-publishing.
They, and I, have wondered whether these can still exist in corporate
publishing. Several eminent editors recently published books doubting it.
It’s been difficult not to agree.
Several issues ago, I thought it was time to look closely at a single
publishing company, one that had played a significant role in European and
American Jewish – and non-Jewish – culture and thought. I would follow its
fortunes from the days of its cultivated founder, through his death and
the sale of his company to a privately-owned corporation, to its being
re-organized as a small sub-division of a gigantic media conglomerate. Its
existence is full of twists and ironies, of displacement across
continents, its founder’s intention revered but re-interpreted in a new
time. Its story is corporate but, also, is composed of the intersection of
enlightened personalities and the works of great writers with the most
awful events of the twentieth century. Following it, I would examine the
play of high culture with corporate mind-sets and see how it worked.
These new conversations have appeared across three numbers of this
journal. The present installment culminates this entire series. It has
been my hope that it will serve as an opening into an institutional memory
contrasting itself with the current corporate structure, reflecting on
glories of its own, revealing what remains constant amid the flux. The
people speaking here are strong-minded characters engaged with their
historical circumstances. Out of that engagement have appeared, and
continue to be published, a number of books that we can say, rightly,
belong to literature.
A Conversation with Marion
Vol. 1 No. 3
A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol. 1
No. 4 and Vol. 2, No. 1
A Conversation with William
Strachan, Vol. 2, No. 4
A Conversation with Samuel H.
Vaughan, Vol. 3, No. 2
Reminiscence: Lee Goerner
(1947-1995), Vol. 3, No. 3
A Conversation with Odile
Hellier, Vol. 4, No. 1
A Conversation with Calvin Reid about Electronic Publishing, Vol. 4,
A Conversation with Altie Karper about Schocken Books, Vol. 5, No. 2
A Conversation with Susan Ralston about Schocken Books, Vol. 5, No. 3
Schocken Books: A Brief History of a Publishing Company
See also Parts I and
Salman Schocken, a German Jewish magnate and philanthropist,
established the Schocken Verlag in Berlin, in 1931.
During the seven years his company existed – was allowed to exist – in
Weimar, then Nazi, Germany, it published 225 titles
of classic Hebrew works important to the cultivated, assimilated Jews of
its founder’s class and generation. Owner of a chain of department stores,
Schocken was a man of wealth and leisure who devoted himself to collecting
fine art and literature. While re-investigating his Jewish roots – he was
“greatly influenced” by the TALES OF RABBI NACHMAN OF
BRATZLAW, translated by Martin Buber, whose friend he was – he
became convinced that the great works of sacred and secular Hebrew writing
should be translated into German and published for the sake of his fellow
In 1934, Salman Schocken emigrated to Palestine,
while Lambert Schneider, his managing editor, and Moritz Spitzer,
editor-in-chief, remained in Berlin, operating the company by virtue of an
active exchange of letters with him. In Palestine, Schocken established
the Schocken Publishing House, Ltd., under the direction of his son
Gerschom. In 1940, Schocken and his family, except
for that son, took ship for the United States, where he immediately joined
the widening circle of brilliant German Jewish refugees adding their
luster to American cultural and intellectual life. Five years later,
enlisting Hannah Arendt and Nahum Glatzer as editors, he founded Schocken
Books in New York.
Salman Schocken died in 1959. The firm continued
under the direction of his son Theodore and son-in-law, Herzl Rome, until
the younger Schocken also died, in 1975. The heirs
managed to continue publishing for some years, until they, too, began to
age. When the company’s revenues went into decline, they let it be known
that Schocken Books was for sale. André Schiffrin, managing director of
Pantheon Books, an imprint of Random House, Inc., was especially
interested and in 1987, persuaded Random House to
buy Schocken Books and place it under his direction. Random House, Inc.,
which included Random House, Knopf, and Pantheon, was by then owned by
Advance Publications, a privately-held corporation of the Newhouse family,
which also owned Condé Nast, the magazine publishing company.
The Newhouse family was particularly concerned by the rate of return on
their investment, which it considered inadequate.* In
1989, when “the first waves of change swept over the
place,” Random House, Inc., (or “Big Random,” the publishing imprint being
“Little Random”) was organized as follows. The president of “big” Random
House was Robert Bernstein. The directors of the various imprints reported
directly and separately to him. (Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief of
Knopf, had left for the New Yorker in early 1987,
following the firing of William Shawn – The New Yorker is also
owned by Advance Publications – and been replaced by Sonny Mehta,
publisher of Pan, in London. At that time, Knopf, Pantheon, and “little”
Random House were separate entities within “big” Random House.) In
1989, S.I. Newhouse fired
Robert Bernstein and brought in a new CEO, Alberto
Vitale, from the Bertelsmann-owned Bantam Books, part of
During the early- to mid-‘90s, Vitale reorganized
“big” Random House. He neatly tri-sected the trade division. Having
consisted of between eleven and sixteen imprints, it was now re-arranged
into three groups: the Knopf Group, the Random Group, and the Crown Group.
The Knopf Group, under the aegis of Sonny Mehta; included Alfred
A. Knopf, Pantheon, Schocken, Vintage, and several
smaller imprints. The editorial directors of Pantheon, Schocken, and
Vintage would thus report to Sonny Mehta, president of the Knopf Group,
rather than directly to the president of the corporation, Alberto Vitale.
In 1998, when S.I. Newhouse
sold Random House, Inc., to Bertelsmann Gmbh., that structure was kept in
place. (Later, Anchor Books and Everyman’s Library, which had been part of
Doubleday, also owned by Bertelsmann, were moved into the Knopf Group.)
The fourth, separate division of Bertelsmann in the U.S.
is the Bantam-Doubleday-Westside Group.
Thus is Random House, Inc., now organized, or was, at the time of this
Following André Schiffrin as editor-in-chief of Pantheon/Schocken was
Fred Jordan, who remained in place until 1993, when
Arthur Samuelson became editorial director of Schocken Books. Samuelson
proposed an ambitious plan to refresh the backlist, commission new
translations, and publicize Schocken books “in a kind of quasi-commercial
mode.” During that time, Dan Frank, formerly an editor at Viking, then at
Pantheon, was named as his counterpart at Pantheon, and the two imprints
worked separately. In 1999, Arthur Samuelson left
Schocken and was replaced by Altie Karper and Susan Ralston, as
co-directors. Having come from inside the Knopf Group, these newest
directors wove their operation back into the workings of Pantheon and
Knopf, warding off functional isolation of their small imprint within the
In the first of these conversations devoted to the history and presence
of Schocken Books, I spoke with Altie Karper, then managing editor of
Schocken Books and Pantheon, now sole director of Schocken. The second was
with Susan Ralston, then editorial director of Schocken and a senior
editor at Alfred A. Knopf. She has since retired.
This third, last talk is with Arthur Samuelson, the former editorial
director of Schocken Books, who left the company in 1999,
intending to organize a multi-media company devoted to the subject of
food, with his wife, Molly O’Neill, former food writer for the New York
Times. We talked in May 2001, in his comfortable
loft on the West Side. Our conversation lasted about three hours and
covered the diverse subjects of Salman Schocken and the history of his
company, Jewish identity in the present time, electronic publishing in the
present and the future, translation and its possibilities, the job of the
“niche publisher” as Samuelson had tried to practice it. What follows is
an excerpt that will give readers quite another perspective on the
evolution of Schocken Books as a corporate entity, but also, an
un-corporate – but cooperative – view of how small publishing might
be able to work around conglomeration. Arthur Samuelson’s view of the
situation is that of the former insider, or, critical, knowing, combative,
defensive, retrospective, and – perhaps – idealistic, but not impossible.
He began by asking me about Archipelago and how I had come to
found it; this of course led into a lively discussion about the promise of
electronic production and dissemination, the Web, and printing-on-demand,
for the future of the book industry.
Electronic publishing and the 19th
century distribution system
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: I think that the electronics is going to
change everything, it’s going to change relationships between everybody.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: It’s already done it.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: I guess what I am saying is that we are at the
very beginning of a change no less significant than the changes that
followed the invention of the printing press. Today the publishing
industry is a slave to an inefficient distribution system.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Would you describe what you mean?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: It’s a 19th
century system. They call it the “carriage trade” for a reason. You can
make an argument that the system of distribution of books in America today
is designed to prevent the distribution of books. It’s this huge sieve
KATHERINE McNAMARA: …that funnels down to…
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: …that funnels down to a bookseller, not the
individual customer or book buyer. Now, part of what the Internet allows
you to do is to redefine who the customer is, and that means a completely
different relationship with the public than you have now. The tremendous
need for capital of this inefficient distribution system means that what
are essentially ancillary functions of publishing come to dominate it:
printing, manufacturing, warehousing. In other words, the weakness in the
system dominates it. What determines the difference between publishers is
not necessarily that one publishes better books than another, it’s the
distribution system. I think the Web can return publishing to its core
functions, which are editorial, rights, and publicity. Editorially,
companies are weak because they’re dependent on agents, and whoever
controls product controls price. It’s a very simple economic principle.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Say more about the dependence on agents,
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Because their time is so filled with the
mechanics of publishing and distribution, few editors have the time to
find and nurture talent; therefore, they have to depend on literary
agents. I don’t have much experience personally, because I spent much of
my career in “niche” publishing, where direct relationships with authors
was everything, and I had the time to cultivate those relationships, to
find my own writers and help develop them. It was a collaboration. I
shared the publishing gamble with the writer, and I didn’t pay big
advances. I was known as a cheapskate. But I was able to nurture long
careers and help create books that earned handsome royalties for the
writer and neat profits for the house. One of the biggest books I ever
published, I paid $2500 for, and made many millions
KATHERINE McNAMARA: What was the book?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: It’s called WHEN BAD THINGS
HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE [by Harold Kushner]. And I did that when I
was first at Schocken.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: When did you first go to Schocken?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: 1979,
1980. It was my first publishing job. I was fortunate to be hired
as an editor there. I had been involved with political things here and in
Israel, involved in selling difficult political ideas. In those days, to
talk about having a Palestinian state next to Israel was not a comfortable
position to take. It was more comfortable in Israel, where there were many
people willing to consider it, including generals and people in
government, but here it was much more difficult. There was a kind of
“Israel right or wrong” mentality.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Has that changed?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Everything has changed. But in those days, to
take a position different from the government of Israel was considered
heretical. Ironically, going from selling difficult political ideas to
selling books was a lot easier. But when I left Schocken and went to Simon
& Schuster, I’d had this big home run. I’d been in
publishing maybe six months when I found that book. I knew that book would
become a best seller. I didn’t know enough to see any reason that the book
couldn’t be a best seller.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: All the things you know now that tell you…?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: This is a profession where one of the most
important things you need to do is protect yourself from experience. What
you don’t know can help you. It can help you a great deal. Schocken had
never had a best seller. I got people to see that it could happen. In
fact, Schocken didn’t want to publish that book. They were embarrassed by
it, because they thought it was not intellectual enough.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Whom did you have to convince at Schocken?
Who was in charge then?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Well, Peter Bedrich was there, and
Chava Schocken – Chava Glazer – who was the sister of Ted Schocken,
Salman Schocken’s son. Everybody is dead now, except Peter and David Rome,
Chava’s son, either of whom can tell you about the family and what it was
like. In fact, Peter worked with Ted. The Random House part of Schocken’s
history is the smallest part, and perhaps the least interesting part of
its story. Random House has functioned as a responsible steward, and I
would describe much of my work the same way, sustaining but not expanding
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I spent hours in the Schocken/Pantheon
library looking at titles, and noted how many of the newer titles I didn’t
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: There are not many books on that list now that
could not have been published elsewhere, I think. More importantly, if you
look at the most important Jewish books that were published in the last
fifty years, you won’t find many that came from Schocken. although many
found their final resting place there, on the backlist. One of the things
that has happened in the last several decades is that Jewish books are no
longer “ghettoized.” I do not think that there is a single publisher that
does not have some on their list. I’d like to think that I might have put
one or two on the list, but there are a number of other publishers that
have published very fine Jewish books.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: In the last fifty years, you say?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Yes.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Since 1950. Just at
the time Ted Schocken said they were starting to cut back the list.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Well, they needed to protect the Jewish books
by bringing in other kinds of things, but what also began to happen was
that non-Jewish, ah, regular publishers began publishing Jewish books.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: So, what books would you…
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: …say were the most important Jewish books in
this period? I’d say Isaac Bashevis Singer, who was not published by
Schocken, along with a few other great Jewish novelists.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Aaron Appelfeld was published there.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Yes, I brought him to Schocken. I brought [Elie]
Wiesel to Schocken. But we didn’t discover Appelfeld. I picked up
Appelfeld from Random House, which had overpaid for a book and, not
knowing what to do with it, just wanted to cut its losses. I bought the
contract for half the price they’d paid, and at that price, I could afford
to give the book the attention it needed to be published successfully.
You know, the biggest problem in book publishing is, if everybody did
what they were supposed to do, nobody could do their job. There are just
too many books being published. That’s because of the needs of this
distribution system: you’ve got to keep feeding this machine. I was lucky
at Schocken that I had a backlist. I was lucky at Schocken that I knew
that backlist intimately and I could revive it. I mean, we repackaged it,
we changed titles, we did all sorts of things to try to give it new life.
The backlist could support the house, so I wasn’t under any pressure in
terms of P&Ls [profit and loss statements], I
had a kind of cushion. We were profitable. I increased our profitability
significantly. Random House wanted me to publish more books. I would have
preferred to publish fewer books and to put more effort into their
KATHERINE McNAMARA: So you were interested in keeping Schocken
fairly small, in hand?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: I came from small-end print publishing. My
skills have always been not at working inside a building, but outside of
that building. Schocken within Random House was an imprint that was
backlist-oriented in a frontlist house. It was niche-oriented, in a
general-interest house. And so, whatever I did that would require the
assistance of the organization would always be limited by the fact that,
in sales, when my books were measured against a mass-market standard, and
despite the fact that they made money, the number of books sold would
always look insignificant in comparison. But that’s where I came from,
making things happen, that was my job. As a niche publisher, I could make
things happen that the larger organization could not make happen. When we
published the Bible in its new translation [THE SCHOCKEN
BIBLE, tr. from the Hebrew by Edward Fox], it closed many circles:
it closed a personal circle for me, because I had acquired that book when
I was there in 1980; it closed the circle for
Schocken, because they’d published the Buber-Rosenzweig translation in
Germany. I think it may be one of the more important Jewish books to be
published, to take the Bible back, for the Jews, to Hebrew, to show that
English was not the language of the Bible. I published that volume as if I
were conducting a political campaign. I co-published it with one of the
largest evangelical publishers, which shocked a lot of people and turned
the publication into a national, interfaith event, a big deal, teaching
both Jews and Christians about their Bible. We were invited to the White
House to present a Schocken Bible to Mrs. Clinton and created an event,
“Bible Live,” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. People at Random
House thought it was insane to do it at a cathedral: why not at a
KATHERINE McNAMARA: David Marks, in his new novel
[THIS IS NOT A NOVEL], writes that the word synagogue is Greek, and
meant a Christian gathering.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Hm. Do you think if we dig deep enough we’ll
find that the word cathedral means Jewish gathering? Anyway, I know that,
because the Bible belonged to everybody, it had the potential of reaching
an extremely wide audience and, in doing so, re-educating Jews about their
KATHERINE McNAMARA: That seems to me very like the situation of
Salman Schocken in Berlin, in the late ‘20s and
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Yes, he had an agenda and so did I, and it was
all I thought about. We got five thousand people to come out to that
cathedral, everybody from Jesse Jackson to James Earl Jones. We turned it
into an enormous celebration – I mean you could see the tapes someday, it
was on CBS – five thousand people, black, white,
Christian, Jewish, acknowledging Hanukkah and the release of this
A lot of this has to do with making a virtue out of necessity. If we
didn’t do it this way, the book wouldn’t work. There was no other way. I
needed something that was going to make this translation stand out above
everything else. I knew that once I had done that on the outside, my
people inside would take interest, but until then, they wouldn’t – they
couldn’t, they had too much to do to notice another Bible. One of the
advantages I had was that Schocken gave me connections throughout the
world. I had people for whom this book was not a commodity. Really,
all I had to do as the publisher was to work that advantage. If you are a
general interest publisher – and I’ve done that too, I worked at Simon
& Schuster, I worked at HarperCollins – you simply
cannot afford to develop the depth of relationships you develop as a niche
publisher. As a niche publisher you are, often, selling an idea, not a
commodity so, people will help you. The other advantage of niche
publishing is that everything you do is, by definition, connected to
everything else you do. It’s all the same niche, and therefore each
publication feeds the other. One of the problems in general trade
publishing is that there is no institutional memory, and what is best
remembered are mistakes, and the aversion to repeating them.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Right. It’s like television.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: They will tell you, “We tried this once before
and it didn’t work.” There simply isn’t time to think about why it didn’t
work – whether it was the wrong time, whether the idea was implemented
incorrectly, or whether, in fact, the idea is simply wrong.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Or even if they know what they tried
and what didn’t work…
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: In some publishing houses I’ve worked in –
this is not true at Random House – there is the idea that every book is
guilty until proven innocent. And that is not true. That is one of
the things special about the Knopf Group: there is a willingness to risk
failure. Every book is a challenge, and identifying the obstacles to
marketing a book is not the same thing as having a marketing plan.
Identifying the obstacles is the first step; then you’ve got to do
something about those obstacles. In the case of what I did, the obstacles
were so apparent that I used to joke that my job was made easy by the fact
that it was so hard. I could also use books strategically.
Another thing: behind the paradox of being a Jewish publisher in
America is the paradox of being Jewish in America. We want a Jewish
bookshelf in every bookstore in America. We don’t want our books on it. We
want a Jewish community, but we don’t want to be ghettoized. The irony is,
if I were to publish a book at Schocken, and Knopf published the same
book, we would do it in exactly the opposite fashion. They would figure
that it’s a Jewish book, they would target it to the Jewish audience. I
would figure I’ve got to get it out of the Jewish ghetto, so how do I do
that? How do I make it bigger than that? How do I get it out of that
category? And that’s the advantage of a category publisher.
The disadvantage of general-interest publishers is that all they can
think of is categories. The paradox is that if you want to reach the Jews,
you can’t reach them as Jews.
If WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPENED TO
GOOD PEOPLE had come to me when I was a general-interest publisher,
I would have to have seen it as a sort of Jewish self-help book. But it
came to me when I was a niche publisher and therefore, I published it as a
book for everybody and put together a range of quotes to prove it, from
Art Linkletter to Archibald McLeish, and from every different religion. We
had a whole array of quotes, because I had this theory of publishing, of
promotion, that I call cognitive dissonance. You have to overcome people’s
natural reluctance to do anything for your book. The first thing you need
is for them to listen. And the way you do that is to confuse them. Having
Archibald McLeish and Art Linkletter is confusing if you think
WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE is a Jewish
book. That is when they start listening.
The entire effort of publishing is knocking down a series of dominos.
Each line of dominoes speaks to the line in front of it; each word is a
knock-down. The hardest dominoes to knock down are your colleagues. But
they speak to people in front of them, who will speak to people in front
of them, so, knocking down the collegial dominoes, getting the
internal buzz going, is essential. It’s the hardest thing to do, but it is
the most important; nothing happens until you’ve done that. The easiest
domino is the customer. But you’ve got to go through rows and rows of
dominos before you get to the customer. You’ve got to create a tremendous
amount of energy to overcome the resistance, because everybody is
confronted by thousands of people saying the same kinds of things to get
their attention. I’ve worked as the marketing director in a bookstore.
I’ve sat with buyers, and I’ve sat with the salesmen, and I’ve seen them
come in and sell. If you’ve got a catalog with three hundred books, and if
you give every book one minute of presentation, that’s five hours, and
nobody’s got five hours. So the triage is committed within the publishing
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I was in my local bookshop when the rep from
the company that distributes my publisher’s list called in. I introduced
myself, but if I hadn’t, I doubt my book would have been mentioned. He had
a very thick catalog, and he represented perhaps a dozen publishers.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: You’re probably right, it boils down to time,
not necessarily the merits of any individual book. When I first started in
book publishing, I had this idea, this naÔve idea, that salesmen were like
knights. They would go out and do battle for you, they’d go out into the
market place and champion your books.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Don’t you think they were that, when they
had only one line to represent?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: They may have been, I don’t know; but I know
that I came to look at it differently. I figured out that instead of
making it possible for them to do their jobs, that is, by writing great
catalog copy, creating a must-have look in a cover, I had to make it
impossible for them not to do their jobs. And the way I did that
was by making things happen, first outside the house, then inside the
house. I had to create a situation in which the bookseller asked the
salesman about my books. I used quotes, editorial mention, buzz; I sold
foreign and serial rights; basically, I did everything. I was a one-man
operation, and I really liked it. Yes, I had the Pantheon people to help
me; but the fact is that, measured against what they had to do, I was
insignificant. So I made a virtue out of necessity. I felt free to do
whatever I could, whatever I wanted, and nobody got in my way, because
nobody had time to care. At least, nobody had time to care as much as I
. And so, for me, publishing is by itself a kind of organic enterprise.
For me, buying and selling both come from the same impulse. My job as a
publisher and editor is not to know what you want to read. My job as a
publisher is to tell you what I’ve read and why I like it. And that
means I need to understand myself as a reader. One of the great pleasures
of book publishing is that, no matter how good you are, you’re going to
fail eighty percent of the time. And I think that’s a great opportunity to
learn things. You don’t learn a lot from the books that succeed. They make
you think you’re smart, they make you feel good about yourself, but you
don’t learn a lot from that, you learn a lot more from the books that
fail. In a certain way, they’re more valuable to you because of what
you’ve learned from them.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: How do you mean, fail? Critically? In terms
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Either, or both. When I was at Simon
& Schuster, I started doing a mental retroactive
profit-and-loss: “What did I do? What worked? What didn’t work? What can I
get from this to take some place else?” Every book was a learning
experience in publishing well, or publishing badly.
Marketing people and sales people can’t think of it quite like that.
For them, it’s an assembly line; and for me, it’s a garden. The list is
something I’m growing, and if this crop didn’t come up right, then I’ve
got another one in the ground, and I’ve got to learn from what didn’t work
and try and make this one work. And again, because I’ve been a niche
publisher, I can take everything I have and apply it to everything else,
so that if one book really succeeds, I can then take advantage of the new
doors that have opened up, and then try to bring other things though that
door. It was, in a way, jujitsu: I tried to use the strength that came
from our weakness. I did some things that I could never have done at a
KATHERINE McNAMARA: For example?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: The way I published the Bible: I let my
captive audience help me build a bigger and bigger audience, which is
exactly what the Internet can, in theory, do for any publisher. What I
started to say in the beginning was that most of publishing today is
determined not by the economics of book publishing, but by the
economics of an old-fashioned distribution system. The Internet is going
to change this distribution system. It’s not going to change if we’ve
assimilated Amazon as just another book store, just another customer, but
if we recognize the revolution that has already begun. Soon, Amazon –
heck, any bookstore – will be able to manufacture its own books.
The future is rivers, not oceans
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Six years ago, in Paris, I met Odile Hellier
of the Village Voice Bookshop. She introduced me to a stringer for the
Financial Times who had something to say she thought would interest
me. What he told me was, there was a machine and it made books. You booted
up a disk in one end; a book came out the other! A paperback book! He said
to Odile, “You know, in x number of years, this machine is going to be in
your shop. This is how you’re going to sell books.” Odile was skeptical.
But that’s what you’re saying too: the print-on-demand machine will change
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Absolutely, a bookseller will be able to
replenish her inventory overnight. And that’s going to change everything.
What it means is that you no longer need this huge distribution apparatus.
It means that publishing gets thrown back to its beginnings, but also onto
what has become its weakest foot, discovering and nurturing talent. I am
not sure big institutions will be able to meet this challenge, as it is
all about individual taste, not monolithic taste. It’s all about thousands
of small niche markets, not a giant monolithic market. Corporate
publishing as we know it, I think, is going to disappear. And it’s going
to disappear in one of two ways. The first is, the playing field will be
leveled because the cost of distribution is no longer going to be so high,
which will remove the advantage that big publishing houses have had. The
second is, these companies are themselves a part of larger media
conglomerates, which need to reinvent themselves, need to be reinvented. I
think the whole concept of intellectual property and its exploitation
could be changed, to where a book is no longer something in and of itself.
It may be part of something larger.
That’s the thing that excited me and that I’m still thinking a great
deal about. These large publishing houses — Bertelsmann is like the
world’s largest aircraft carrier. It’s a very powerful ship and it takes
enormous amounts of energy from the people who run it and keep the ship
going. But what if there’s not going to be an ocean? What if it’s going to
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Or what if they even have to make a little
bit of a turn? Not easy.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Well, there’s that, but its one thing to steer
a big boat and another thing altogether to turn a big boat into a flotilla
of little boats. If the future is rivers, not an ocean, you need thousands
of tiny river boats, not a gigantic aircraft carrier.
We have less and less of a reading public, less and less
of a culture. Period.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: And that speaks to a third aspect: the changes
that have happened in the reading public. The real weakness in the
publishing industry is not from the corporate side. The real weakness
comes from the culture. We have less and less of a reading public,
less and less of a culture. Period. And I happen to think that actually
this is a great time to be a writer. If anybody has something to say, he
can get heard. There’s more and more product, but less and less that has
any value, and anybody, now, who has something to say can easily rise
above that noise.
This is an issue that also concerns me, and it’s been drawing me more
and more towards education. I’m much more interested in education now than
I am in now in book publishing.
Listen, the Web has no front door
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Education: what do you mean by that?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: People wanting to learn. Wanting to learn new
KATHERINE McNAMARA: So you are becoming a teacher, let’s say?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: No, I mean as a business. Education is selling
information. Our whole notion of education can also change as a result of
the Internet and of all these cultural forces. I think that the Internet
is still, despite the financial bubble that burst, the most radical,
revolutionary tool in our, in our lifetime. It is a tool that if you pick
up, changes you.
I’ll give you another example of something at Schocken. I was very
excited about the Internet for Schocken. Schocken was a company that had,
could have, a relationship with individual customers. People would call me
up and complain if a book was out of print. There were people out there
who felt they owned me. As annoying as that was, it was a great asset. And
so, the Internet: in the old days of Schocken, in the ‘30s,
they actually published a magazine, they published a little quarterly.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Oh, did they?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: They published a little journal that Martin
Buber edited. In those days book publishers often published little
magazines. There was Scribner’s, Harper’s. They all had
these little, intimate connections. That’s not financially feasible, now;
but the Internet makes it financially feasible. So I make the argument:
Schocken and Random House are spending millions of dollars on,
essentially, a vanity website. It was, basically, promoting books in a new
way that is exactly the same way as before, and costing millions of
dollars. I went to them and said, “Look, Schocken has the grass-roots
audience that each part of Random House needs, so why don’t you make us
the prototype for Random House’s website.” They laughed. There were big
issues Random House had to confront when it was doing a website. One of
them was that Random House itself isn’t one house, it’s one roof over many
KATHERINE McNAMARA: “A house of many mansions”?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Mansions, rooms, whatever we call them, each
aspect of the company sees itself as a world unto itself. And so, when you
put yourself up on the Web as “Random House,” you have to decide if you
are going to present yourself as one, all-inclusive thing, or as a series
of discrete imprints. You have to decide if consumers want to be dazzled
by the full range of the possibilities within Random House, or if they
want an intimate connection with like-minded people.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You’ve asked an interesting question. What
do you think these consumers – do you mean readers? – care about?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: This is really an interesting question,
because booksellers care about the imprint. Consumers don’t care about the
imprint. So here’s the big issue: if the Internet is a consumer tool; and
if consumers don’t care about the imprint, what they care about is the
subject areas; then, we should put out a website that is subject-oriented.
It doesn’t matter what the imprint was. But who’s going to do it? So the
website was run from the chairman’s office.
There were limited resources, limited...
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Your chairman then being Alberto Vitale, the
man who thought that by the year 2000 and something,
books would be finished: we all were going to be reading electronic texts
at a glowing podium.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Yes. It was run from his office. – The thing
is that Random House, to use another metaphor, has a very small federal
government. It’s very big on states’ rights but has a very small federal
government. This is the pre-Bertelsmann Random House; I don’t know how it
works now. But, the Web is a federal program. But the “federal government”
has no resources. In the end, each imprint began to compete for those
small resources and, eventually, began to do their own stuff. Sheer
economics forced us all to focus on the booksellers rather than the
individual customers. On top of that, Alberto refused to let us sell books
on-line, because a manufacturer does not compete with his retail
customers. So we spent a lot of money without selling a book. That kind of
math doesn’t work in publishing any more.
So I said, “Look, for me this is a great tool to reach my audience. If
I can build a cyber sandbox for my existing audience, I will expand my
audience. There are search engines, there are thousands of people looking
for particular playgrounds, and my books can act like little corners in a
very particular playground.”
This is where I first started thinking about publishing in a completely
different fashion: I need an audience; I have programming. We can put
these two pieces together. I can use the Web. I said, “Let me go up as a
website that is not commercially-focused. It’s educationally focused. Let
me go up, and I will treat it like a magazine. I will find people all over
the country or the world to make this their playground. If they want to
build a section on “women and Judaism,” I’ll find the people who are
interested in that area, and they will build. And along the way, we will
use our books as programming The viewers will be exposed to our
ethos, maybe to our advertising, or maybe not; but just having them play
in our sites is really important. But that means thinking about ourselves
Now, nobody in Random House was going to touch this, because it meant
giving away parts of books, giving away what we made our living from, and
it also meant beginning to think of ourselves differently, beginning to
imagine new ways of making money – and the truth is, all of us barely had
enough time or enough money to do what we were already doing, forget
adding a whole other aspect.
I figured, Okay, how can I do this cheaply and well? I found a kid. The
great thing about the Internet is that the gap between the professional
and the amateur is about six months. I found a kid who designed some
really nice websites and I hired him for a thousand dollars to sort of
create this prototype for me. As an experiment. When we looked at it
together, we were all flummoxed. I couldn’t go up as an individual imprint
on the Random House site, because the decision had been made not to
feature individual imprints – but I couldn’t go up as Schocken.com because
I was part of Random House! I pointed out that it doesn’t matter, the Web
has no front door, I could put up links. But the dilemma was too
freighted, too complex. In the end, I had to figure out a way to use the
Web to benefit Schocken by making alliances outside of Random House.
I found other Jewish websites and non-Jewish websites that needed
programming, and I created it from our backlist books. See, for me, the
whole concept of “frontlist” and “backlist” is a retail concept. It has
nothing to do with the way readers think about books. It’s the way stores
think about books. Once you get out of that mindset, once you no longer
have to think in those terms, you’re free to do all sorts of cool things
that you couldn’t do before. I treated my backlist and my frontlist
evenly, because everything I sold was an opportunity to sell something
else. Frontlist opened the door to backlist. Backlist opened the door to
frontlist. I entered into alliances with several web companies. In a
perfect world, they would have charged me for the advertising they were
giving me, and I would have charged them for the intellectual content I
was giving them. But, since this was a new world and nobody knew who the
buyer and seller was, and neither of us had any money, we both helped each
other. And so I began experimenting with the Web to do these kinds of
things, things that allowed me to bypass the dilemma of corporate identity
and to stop competing for scarce resources. So that, when I published
THE MONK AND THE PHILOSOPHER…
KATHERINE McNAMARA: The book by Jean-Claud Revel and his son…
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Yeah. By that time, I had a relationship with
the Internet that allowed me to turn a commodity – the book – into an idea
– insert here what the “idea” is – which in turn allowed me to sell more
books. I really like selling books. I never lost money for anybody I ever
worked for. I do not believe there is this sort of divide between good
books and profitability. I believe that you can make money selling good
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Well, does that depend, say, on how much
overhead you have to support?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: It depends on a lot of factors, but I’m saying
that there’s no physiological divide, you know, an unchangeable
thing. I have been very successful publishing books that other people
might not have thought of as commercial, by treating them as commercial
books. Sometimes the fact that a book is not commercial makes it
commercial. All right? The Bible is a really good example. I was able to
create all of these coalitions and alliances and get us into places we’d
never thought we could go before, because I wasn’t selling a book, I was
selling the Bible. And there were a lot of people who wanted to help me.
When we published Kafka in new translations, it was the same thing. A
lot of people wanted to help me. What we did with Jean-Claud Ravel and his
son was this. I went to Harper’s magazine and said, “Let’s create a
traveling road show at the universities.” Harper’s was looking for
ways to reach into that audience, and I worked with them to create a tour
of, I think, sixteen universities. At each of those universities, five or
six organizations came together to sponsor the event. So, as a result,
maybe 50,000 pieces of mail
went out to support this book, none of which came from me, none of which
cost me anything. All of which helped me, helped Harper's, and
helped the local organizations. The universities had an audience. I had a
product. Harper’s was interested in reaching that audience. They
could use my product to reach that audience. By doing it, they were
helping me expose the book to a good audience. This synergy worked really,
really well. It was a non-traditional kind of publicity promotion. It
wasn’t something that a publicist would be able to pull off. There was
nobody within Random House who really knew the universities, who could
call up and say, “How would you like to do this program?” Because I was
niche publisher, I had those connections. That’s the thing about niche
publishing: you have to spend your time figuring out how to turn apparent
disadvantage into advantage, not trying to figure out how to do what
general interest publishers do. If you’re playing on their ground, you’re
weak. But if you play on your ground, you’re stronger than they
are. The Web is a constantly expanding conglomerate of tiny niches. No
part of the publishing industry is better suited to take advantage of what
it offers than niche publishers.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Let me ask you this then. Do you think that
a niche publisher, on his or her own, can do what you’re talking about
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Depends on what the niche is. Jewish books
have a lower ceiling than, let’s say, food does. Food is a really
interesting category. I’ve spent a lot of time on food the last couple of
years. We all eat. We all have varying degrees of information about food
and various degrees of interest in it, and so it’s a niche category that
can support enormous sales as well as consistent small sales. If you look
at the way cookbooks are published within large publishing houses, you’ll
see they’re published like niche books. Simon &
Schuster has a publicity department that only works on cookbooks;
HarperCollins may have one, also. That’s an example of a niche that has a
very high ceiling.
Look, I knew the numbers at Schocken. When I worked at Schocken in
1988, I knew that list intimately, because I had
read most of those books. When I came back in 1995,
many of those books were still there. Not all of them; a lot of the list
had been trimmed down. But many of them were, and I can tell you that the
numbers had not changed much. In other words, the books published by
Schocken as an independent publisher with a commissioned sales force, sold
in about the same numbers under big Random House. Random House increased
Schocken’s reach, but the Random House sales force had a lot more books
than Schocken’s to sell. I cannot say that, if a Jewish book was published
by Random House, it wouldn’t have been done better than if I had published
it at Schocken. I can say, with relative certainty, that we would
publish the book differently and would keep it in print and selling
longer. Our advantage was the way in which we might publish that
book. At least that was my philosophy. Could it be done independently? I
don’t think there’s a need for Schocken, independently. When Schocken was
started, there were not many publishers of Jewish books. Now, the
university presses publish Jewish books. Some of the most important Jewish
scholarship in this century has been published by the big university
Who needs Schocken Books?
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Is there a need, then, for Schocken to exist
besides, let’s say, for Bertelsmann’s prestige?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: I don’t think Bertelsmann needs prestige. It
has plenty of prestigious imprints. I think that, like being Jewish,
Schocken needs to be reinvented every generation. As I said to you before,
I believe you can only reach people where they live. The majority of the
American Jews of my generation don’t live in a ghetto called Jewtown. They
live someplace else, My job has been to expand, not contract the category.
And, as I said, it’s a kind of a dialectical thing – we want the category
and then we want to be out of it.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Right.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: But being Jewish means something different to
kids in their twenties or thirties today, and will mean something
different, again, to my daughter, who is ten. My generation is no longer
necessarily the core audience for this subject area.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: What generation is that audience?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: The people who are the age you were when you
read Kafka or Buber for the first time.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: If you mean me, I was in high school when I
read Kafka – my parents gave me AMERIKA for
Christmas! – and an undergraduate when I read Buber. I read Buber
seriously and wrote papers about his teaching. And when I was in grad
school, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s,
a great many books on my shelf were Schocken books. It’s an interesting
question, though, because I’m not Jewish, you see, and at the time, I had
no idea Schocken was a “Jewish” publisher. I just knew they published
books I wanted, even needed, to read.
Those were the years, as I’ve learned, when the editorial agenda was to
expand the list. – In fact, let me quote a passage from Ted Schocken’s
little essay about Schocken’s 25th
anniversary. He was talking about their publishing program and why they
expanded it. “A major part of the program is played by the Jewish
paperback,” he wrote. He goes on, “The ambition to put Jewish books of
high intellectual caliber into the hands of the young Jewish reader, which
played such an important part in our traditional program, is being largely
fulfilled through the Schocken paperbacks. The young American Jew arriving
for the first time on the college campus finds the Schocken paperbacks in
his university bookstore and is assigned by professors in a variety of
courses – sociology, history, literature, comparative religion. Thus
convinced that they have general acceptance, he often ‘discovers’ the
Jewish books, which in the past his parents or his rabbi had tried in vain
to interest him in.”
I love this because those books reached me, too, and many other readers
like me. So, if Ted Schocken was reinventing the list in order to reach
more Jewish university students, a most honorable desire, perhaps one
unexpected result was that that list was “reinventing” readers like me,
too. But the purpose of Schocken books, after all, is to publish books of
Jewish interest – and that means something different, now.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Of course, this constant re-invention is not
exclusive to Jewish publishing, or even niche publishing. Just as my
generation of Jews only felt comfortable within a larger context, lots of
particular readers needed to feel part of a whole, rather than isolated.
Sonny recognized this and turned Knopf into what Random House was. Dan
Frank [editorial director of Pantheon Books] recognized this and
turned Pantheon into what Knopf was. Inevitably, the demands of the
audience gradually change the identity of any publisher.
What we are seeing now is that technology can also change a publisher’s
identity. I suspect that the need to be part of a larger something is
giving way to a need to feel connected to something smaller and
particular. This is part a cultural reaction to the largeness and
complexity of life. It is partly a possibility afforded by new media.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I think you are saying something like this:
that any publishing concern must inevitably re-think its purpose. I mean,
the people in charge, whoever sets the agenda, have to understand their
reason for existence – but also, they have to know how to stay in
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: These changes are cyclical, but they are
constant. Look at what happened between Basic Books and HarperCollins. The
more successful Basic became, the more it began to publish books like
HarperCollins, and the less reason there was for Basic Books to exist. The
reason for Basic Books to exist was to publish books that Harper couldn’t
do. You look at what happened to HarperSan Francisco. HarperSan Francisco
owned religion! They owned religion, but then they began living off it.
They began by publishing religion. Then religion became hot: all of a
sudden, anybody could publish it, including HarperCollins. Once you become
that kind of publisher, what do we need you for? And so, I thought I
needed a reason for Schocken to exist, and that was to be this: not that
the books that we published would be different, but that the way we
published those books would be different. That the whole could become
greater than the sum of its parts. That’s not an American style of
publishing, it’s a European style of publishing and, really, what Pantheon
represented under André [Schiffrin, formerly director of Pantheon
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Was André Schiffrin there when you were?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: André bought Schocken. Schocken was actually
bought for Random House by Pantheon. That closed a personal circle, for
André, whose father had been involved in publishing Kafka. [Jacques
Schiffrin had been an editor at Kurt Wolff Verlag, one of Kafka’s original
publishers, then at Pantheon, when Kurt Wolff opened that publishing house
in New York, in 1940.]
KATHERINE McNAMARA: When Kurt Wolff published Kafka; then the
rights went to Schocken Verlag.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: At the time, André was also looking for a
paperback line to be an alternative to Vintage. But that’s a question
you’ll have to ask him: what his agenda was. [See endnote.] But he
bought Schocken, and then he was gone; and I’m not quite sure anybody knew
what to do with it, then. I tried to give it a reason to exist. As long as
you’re making money you are free to figure out the larger, deeper cultural
purpose of the enterprise. No one is going to stop you.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You mean, nobody else in the company?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Yes. When Bertelsmann bought us, a lot of
people joked that I was the safest person in Random House, because they
wouldn’t dare upset the Jews. I found that personally insulting, to tell
you the truth. That’s like living on the reservation. If Schocken can’t
make money for them, then there is no reason for it to exist as a
business. Very simple. I wanted to play by the same rules as everybody
else. I don’t believe in affirmative action – at least, I don’t want it
for myself. And certainly not affirmative action that’s fueled by guilt. I
have no problems with Schocken’s being owned by a German company. I have
no problems with that German company’s being a large holder of American
publishing. We have been a large holder of European and other worldly and
cultural resources for a long time. We’re the last ones to talk about
cultural hegemony. The fact is that Germans care more about books than
KATHERINE McNAMARA: That’s what Marion Boyars said, too. [See
Vol. 1, No. 3.]
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: They do care about them more. When people talk
about Bertelsmann buying Random House, I think they are more interested in
the merger between Doubleday and Random House. Doubleday had basically
been taken over by Bantam. Bertelsmann was run by mass-market people. The
sensibility of the company was dominated by them. Random House was run by
hardcover people. The real importance of that merger was that you now had
mass-market people running hardcover people, in a way that those hardcover
people had never been run before. The systems they put in place come from
mass marketing. The sensibility comes from there. I imagine that that
changes things for the publishers of hardcover books.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: For all of them, or at Random specifically?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: All of them. All of them. It’s another
sensibility – another philosophy of publishing. It’s not that we didn’t
have mass-market lists within Random House – we had two.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: But mass-market was subordinate?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: No. It wasn’t subordinate, it was an
accompaniment. I would say they probably felt they were under the thumb of
hardcover publishers. People calling the shots were the people who cared
about hardcover books
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Those were books, after all.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Well. Also, it was their P&L
that won. That may not be the case anymore. As I said earlier, there were
many houses under this one roof. It’s not just that they’ve added more
rooms: it’s that some people on the top floor weren’t there before. As far
as Schocken is concerned, I said to myself that if the reason to exist is
to publish Jewish books, well, that’s not a reason to exist. There is no
publisher that doesn’t publish Jewish books. If the reason to exist is to
publish intellectual books, maybe that’s not a good enough reason, either.
I don’t think guilt or nostalgia are good enough reasons, either. The only
reason to exist is because you can do something better than someone else.
But as I said to you before, I take that all as a metaphor: it’s like
being Jewish in America. One of the great things about living in this time
is that you can take on this identity, you can take it off.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: And it doesn’t sound like it’s a clearly
defined identity, always.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: No, you have to constantly reinvent it. And
that, personally, is what makes it interesting to me. On one hand, it
creates tremendous freedom; on the other, it creates tremendous pressure
to reinvent constantly. That can be very healthy, but it means you’ve got
to stay alive. To stay alive, you have to be alive. And what I
tried to bring into Schocken was some of that liveliness. “If there’s a
reason to be Jewish, it had better be interesting, because if it’s not
interesting, well, peoples come and peoples go. There are many peoples
that can’t trace themselves back as far as the Jews can. When you reach a
point where there’s no reason to be Jewish anymore, where enough people
don’t want to be, or it doesn’t mean anything to them, there won’t be
Jews. That’s evolution. I mean, it’s not worth preserving just for its own
sake.” Those were the thoughts that went through my head when I ran
They are not exactly publishing thoughts, and they’re probably not the
kind of things that concern my colleagues at other imprints. But that’s
part of what makes Schocken so interesting. It wasn’t just about
publishing books and making money.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: As I listen to you I think of something
Michael Bessie [see Vol. 1, No. 4]
told me. I didn’t understand why Atheneum had been shut down after Simon
& Schuster bought it. Lee [Goerner, last
editor and publisher of Atheneum] and I didn’t talk about publishing.
Afterward, I asked Michael, “What did it mean when they said Atheneum
wasn’t making enough return on investment?” He said simply, “You know,
perhaps Lee acted like an owner rather than an employee.” At last, I
understood, sort of. The editor was an employee of a gigantic,
many-layered conglomerate that had no interest in his values and
accomplishment. What did the conglomerate have to do with literature,
except to make publishing it more difficult? As a writer, I still think
that; but as a publisher, you seem to see it differently.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: As I said, I think that the divide between Art
and Commerce is a false one, or can be a false one. I think that fine work
can be profitable. It is true that really fine publishing is
idiosyncratic, and when it works commercially, it tends to be because
there is a strong entrepreneurial sense of ownership on the part of the
editor or publisher. There is an obvious conflict between feeling like an
entrepreneur and feeling like an employee, but from that tension great
opportunities do arise. I mean, Random House hired me because they didn’t
know what to do with Schocken, and it was so small that it wasn’t really
all that interesting. To me, it was a great opportunity that just fell
into my hands. The paradox is, the more successful I became, the more
interested they got.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: And then they...
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: …learned a lot about the power of niche
publishing. Did that mean that the larger corporation became more
interfering? As I became more successful, did I also have to jump over
more hurdles? Not really. I suppose that, ultimately, any large business
becomes conservative about anything that is a profit center. Perhaps it
could have become more difficult to reinvent Schocken. But that wasn’t my
experience, nor was it why I left. Ultimately, I found that I’d done what
I’d set out to do and had been changed by that experience, had become,
increasingly, less interested in the art of words and ideas, and more
interested in marketing and business as an art form. I felt far more
burdened by Schocken’s constituents and its history, by my own sense of
responsibility to each of those things, than I ever did by Knopf or by
Random House. As I said, one of the most stunning things about an imprint
like Schocken is that its readers really feel that they own it.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Which is right, isn’t it, because you’re in
service to readers.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Okay, I had this opportunity to be a
publisher, and in that there is a little bit of leading and a little bit
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Yes?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: And I could see myself connected to a larger
culture and a larger content. I’m not sure my colleagues in general
publishing have that. You know, money can be incredibly liberating. You
know what Marx said about how under capitalism everything melts into air.
Well, one of the great advantages of modern commercial publishing is that
it frees us from all those things of tradition, it frees you from all
those higher demands; that, ultimately, it’s about making money. If you
can sell poetry and make money, that’s fine! If you can do that, it opens
up all sorts of things. I used to make a joke that André saw himself as
being like a European socialist political party and would never publish
something he couldn’t agree with personally. That’s a very European
concept of publishing – and it’s very non-American. I’ve published lots of
books I didn’t agree with, but, nonetheless, they reflected something that
interested me. There is a lot of freedom in just being expected to make
money. You don’t get held back by all these other things you know.
I’ll never forget the conversation that I had with Mrs. Glazer who was,
as I said, a living Schocken. They, the Schockens, were, sort of, all hung
up on what Salman Schocken had done, and on reputation, and on “what good
does it mean?”, and all of this stuff. So, when I came with a book that I
thought could sell millions of copies, they weren’t sure they wanted to
publish it, because they thought it might, somehow, damage the reputation
of the house.
I said: “Mrs. Glazer, how do you think your father would feel if we
managed to put a rabbi on the bestseller list?” I mean, I didn’t want to
make the obvious argument, which was, “If we make millions of dollars
selling this book, just think of all the other books that we can publish
that may not be able to make that kind of money.”
Somehow, that argument didn’t seem like it would be successful. But
what might work was putting it in terms of her father, and what her
father had all the time stood for. What he was most interested in showing
was what the Jews had to offer the world. Teaching the Jews what the Jews
had to offer the world. And, in its own way, in its own modest way,
WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE did that. It
touched people in many ways. Not only did it reach more people than any
book we published, but it also touched them more deeply. Twenty years
later, that book still is one of the top-selling religious books, and
that’s entirely due to the book itself. As the publisher, we’re like
parents, you know: we can give the book a start, we can give it good genes
and good nutrition, we can give it a good environment, but then it’s on
its own. Finally, that will determine how it’s going to make its way in
the world. And that prevailed: the book did enormously well.
Again, the paradox: I’m sure I couldn’t have made that book successful
at Simon & Schuster, because they would have
categorized it. They would have seen it as a “Jewish” book. They would not
have believed me when I said it could become a bestseller, because they
knew what bestsellers were, and I didn’t. And so, my great advantage at
Schocken was that I could put intense energy into a book. I worked on
creating a market for that book for about a year before we published it. I
could do that at Schocken even when it was part of Random House. At Random
House, nobody begins working on a book until three months before it’s
KATHERINE McNAMARA: A book has a “publishing cycle,” doesn’t it.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Yes, because they’re working on a cycle. It’s
like a conveyor belt: the needs of distribution. I could start working on
a book a year before it was published, and I could continue working on it
a year after it was published, because I didn’t have that many books to
work on. It’s not that I am better than anybody else, it’s that I had the
opportunity to give the books the attention they required to be
What I enjoyed about publishing was coming home at the end of the day
and telling my wife, “I made something happen today. I did something.” The
needs of distribution make it so that publishers are looking for books
that need the least amount of help. That come pre-sold – that’s the best,
the ones they don’t have to do anything for; they’ll throw the most
resources behind those. When I was at Simon &
Schuster, I told Dick Snyder [former publisher of Simon
& Schuster, then Golden Books] once, “Look, you have your most
expensive people in publicity working on books we know are going to be
bestsellers. You have your least experienced people working on the books
that need the most help. Why not reverse that? Why not put the junior
people on the big books and put the senior people on the little books.”
KATHERINE McNAMARA: I can imagine his response.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: He thought that was really funny. Impractical,
but a point to be taken. There isn’t anyone in publishing who is not
trying to figure out what comes next, particularly the potential of
KATHERINE McNAMARA: It seemed obvious, early, that publishers
didn’t know the technology of computers or what they did and could do. The
language about computers – “download, “interface” – is only a referential
language. And if you learn it secondhand and try to use it, you sound
phony, because you are speaking this jargon and you don’t know what it
means. They talked about what they didn’t know, in a language they
didn’t understand. It was it was the language of fear that they used. They
used a jargon, but the animation of it was fear.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Well.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Whereas, if you come in underneath the
conventions, not with a lot of money but with an idea, then you can figure
out a way to make it happen.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: I’ve tried and wasn’t successful.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Well, not yet.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: That’s true, none of this is going to go away.
Gradually, gradually, we are all figuring out how to make it work, how to
make it profitable, or even just sustainable. The entire world is under
that pressure right now, not just the publishing industry.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: The difficulty, too, is that when you’re
rushing forward, that’s just when you need to stop and learn this stuff.
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Well, that’s why innovation so often comes
from outside, has to be done outside. Corporations like General Electric,
and others: what they do is set up companies outside for precisely that
purpose. But book publishers haven’t done that yet. Let me put it this
way: it may be that the problem in traditional book publishing is not
that they are being run like businesses whereas publishing is maybe not a
business. The problem may be that they are not being run enough
like businesses, like traditional businesses. It may be that publishers
can learn from the software industry, which is also another form of
intellectual property that invented its own distribution system, that
invented its relationship to its customers. There may be all sorts of new
things to learn. Other manufacturers threatened or challenged by
technological change have adapted different kinds of strategies, as well.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: You spent some time working on developing a
website and company with your wife, Molly O’Neill, the former food-writer
for the Times, and you’ve been away from book publishing for a
little while. In this new sort of life, what are you reading?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: Publishers should give editors sabbaticals
every seven years, so they can read. I’m reading now, but what I learned
was, I had to learn to read all over again. In publishing, you read
differently – you don’t read, in a way; you’re scanning, you’re reading
for something; you’re looking for what you can get out of the book. But in
reading, the book takes you. It takes you to places you’ve never been. You
give yourself to the book. In publishing, I rarely read for fun. Then,
when I started to read again, I realized I had forgotten how.
KATHERINE McNAMARA: How did you start again?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON: I read Hebrew.I am fluent but I read it more
slowly than English. I had to teach my eyes to slow down to read, and
reading Hebrew was a good way to do that..
KATHERINE McNAMARA: Do you know Milosz’s poem about reading the
Gospels in Greek? These lines: “…it is proper that we move our finger /
Along letters more enduring than those carved in stone, / And that, slowly
pronouncing each syllable, / We discover the true dignity of speech.”
Perhaps this is the true nature of reading, a kind of recollection?
ARTHUR SAMUELSON That is very nicely said.
In late February of this year, in New York,. I was informed that Altie
Karper was now the sole director of Schocken Books. Susan Ralston
officially had retired though would serve as the consulting editor of
books for which she had been responsible. At Random House, corporate
managers were trying to cut costs – by reducing the editorial staff, the
heart of the enterprise! Certain senior editors and members of related
departments had been invited to limit their working week to four days,
with attendant reduction in salary – while, I gathered, not likely having
to do less work, given the nature of their task. Some of them had taken
retirement instead. My source was not an official spokesperson. Therefore,
and yet again, I caught the haze of dismay, anger, and a kind of
resignation circulating through the book-filled offices. I note that
Bertelsmann has announced it is going to become a publicly-held
*André Schiffrin, who moved to acquire Schocken
Books, has written a widely-remarked-upon polemic on the enormous changes
in the book business. In the following passage he describes his
acquisition of Schocken Books as a hoped-for outlet for pressure from the
Newhouse family to increase return on investment:
For a while, I thought we might be able to break out
of the trap of Newhouse’s profit expectations by expanding Pantheon
through acquisitions…. If we could find the right firm, however, and
could integrate it successfully, Pantheon might make more money. I was
therefore very interested when, in 1987, I was approached by lawyers
asking if we would take on Schocken Books….
Schocken had never been very profitable and had been
maintained by the family’s holdings in real estate, just as the original
Schocken had been subsidized by a department store in Berlin. The
purchase price, by Newhouse standards, was small, and I felt it was
important to provide a safe haven for the company. I insisted to
Newhouse’s people that such a deal would make sense and, after months of
detailed investigation, an agreement was made. It later struck me as
ironic that a purchase that entailed so little risk should have been
made with such care, while the far more dubious purchase of Crown was
made so peremptorily.
With the financial pressures from Newhouse
intensifying, the thought of relaunching Schocken gave me a new lease on
life. We decided not merely to reissue the old books, but to deal with
them in a manner worthy of their importance. New translations of Kafka’s
work were commissioned, under the editorship of Mark Anderson of
Columbia University’s German department. Previously untranslated
material from Kafka’s oeuvre was included. We took on a series of
books, some dealing with Israel and Eastern Europe, and others on the
history of World War II. Schocken’s excellent list on the Holocaust was
brought back into print, though I was shocked to hear from one of Random
House’s (Jewish) vice-presidents, Bruce Harris, that he wished "we would
stop hitting him over the head with all these Holocaust titles" because
they were not going to make enough money.
By the fall of 1989, our joint list [Pantheon/Schocken]
had grown substantially, and I was proud of the books we had added to
the imprint. But because we wanted to remain faithful to the company’s
history and its authors, the possibility of quick profits was ruled out.
In the first years our investment lost money, since the repackaging of
the list and the retranslation of Kafka were expensive undertakings.
In the end what appeared at first to be a temporary
solution to Pantheon’s problems with Random House became, in fact, the
source of additional pressure on an already strained relationship.
-André Schiffrin, THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS: How
International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We
Read (London and New York: Verso, 2000, pp. 85-87)
series of conversations about Schocken Books is made possible by the
Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy.
Authors and Books Mentioned (published by Schocken Books, unless
Aharon Appelfeld, THE CONVERSION, THE IRON
TRACKS, THE RETREAT, UNTO THE SOUL
Martin Buber, TALES OF THE HASIDIM; ON JUDAISM
(with Franz Rosenzweig)
DIE SCHRIFT DIE FUNF
BÜCHEN DER WEISUNG (Berlin: Schocken Verlag,
1925); (with F.R.) DIE SCHRIFT
(Berlin: Schocken Verlag: 1936)
Everett Fox, tr., THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES:
The Schocken Bible, Vol. I.
Franz Kafka, AMERIKA, THE CASTLE
(tr. Mark Harmon), THE METAMORPHOSIS,
IN THE PENAL COLONY, AND OTHER STORIES, THE SONS, THE TRIAL
(tr. Breon Mitchell)
Harold Kushner, WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD
David Marks, THIS IS NOT A NOVEL
Jean-François Revel and Matthieu Ricard, THE MONK
AND THE PHILOSOPHER
Isaac Bashevis Singer, IN MY FATHER’S COURT
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
André Schiffrin, THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS:
How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing
and Changed the Way We Read (Verso)
Elie Wiesel, THE LANGUAGE OF LIFE, THE ACCIDENT,
ALL RIVERS RUN TO THE SEA,
AND THE SEA IS NEVER FULL, A BEGGER IN JERUSALEM,
On the Schocken
Bible and Everett Fox; regarding his translation
Schocken Books Teachers Guide to
THE FIVE BOOKS
OF MOSES, tr. Edward Fox
A Kafka For The 21st Century by Arthur Samuelson, publisher, Schocken
Kafka: the new translations:
“On the occasion of the publication by Schocken Books of a new translation
based on the restored text of THE CASTLE,
PEN … sponsored an evening of tribute, reflection, and re-examination of
the work of Franz Kafka. The evening, directed by Tom Palumbo, took place
on Thursday, March 26, 1998, 8:00 p.m. in The Town Hall, New York City.”
Jewish Heritage Online Magazine broadcasts recordings of that
A Conversation with Marion
Vol. 1 No. 3
A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol. 1
No. 4 and Vol. 2, No. 1
A Conversation with William
Strachan, Vol. 2, No. 4
A Conversation with Samuel H.
Vaughan, Vol. 3, No. 2
Reminiscence: Lee Goerner
(1947-1995), Vol. 3, No. 3
A Conversation with Odile
Hellier, Vol. 4, No. 1
A Conversation with Calvin Reid about Electronic Publishing, Vol. 4,
A Conversation with Altie Karper about Schocken Books, Vol. 5, No. 2
A Conversation with Susan Ralston about Schocken Books, Vol. 5, No. 3