André Schiffrin: Literary editor whose departure from Random House sparked a protest by more than 200 writers


André Schiffrin was a literary editor who gave readers Art Spiegelman, Michel Foucault and Studs Terkel before he was forced out of commercial publishing in a defining battle between profits and literature. Schiffrin, who died of pancreatic cancer, sought out authors until his final days, dividing his time between New York and Paris as founding editor and editor at large of the non-profit New Press.

He founded the New Press after his highly public departure from Pantheon Books in 1990. At least four other Pantheon editors walked out with him, as did many authors. He said he feared for the future of independent ideas in a publishing world driven by advertising and profits. He believed the best hope for literature was small- and medium-sized publishers.

"The main thing is they decide a book on its merit and not its potential contribution to overhead and profit expectation," he said. He argued that corporate control was incompatible with literature and threatened free expression. His Schiffrin's tastes were not incompatible with readership, however. Pantheon, where his father Jacques was among the founders, married the avant-garde left and the mainstream. The two were held together by Schiffrin's belief that a good book will always find readers.

He was born into a Jewish family in Paris in 1935. The Nazis marched in on his fifth birthday, and the following year the family fled to the US. He began working at Pantheon shortly after Random House bought it in 1961.

Terkel described Schiffrin as his "muse", but most of Pantheon's books reached a narrower audience. The Random House CEO at the time said he was "publishing a lot of books that no one wanted to read." Schiffrin was asked to cut back staff and titles. Instead, he resigned. The response was unprecedented. Arthur Miller, Nadine Gordimer and Amy Tan were among authors to sign an advertisement critical of Schiffrin's treatment. More than 200 writers protested outside Random House headquarters, including Kurt Vonnegut, EL Doctorow and Terkel.

Schiffrin likened his new venture, the New Press, to public television and radio, and it flourished despite his predictions for the future of publishing. In 2010 he said: "Now publishing is almost entirely a matter of profitability, meaning that if you want to publish something that is immediately profitable, it's very rare that it will turn out to be predicated on strong ideas, or dissident ideas."

Andre Schiffrin, publisher: born Paris 14 June 1935; married (two daughters); died Paris 1 December 2013.