THE $7.5 billion United States book publishing industry saw the launch of a new publisher today, The New Press.
Established for the public interest, it is the first independent, not for profit, fully professional New York book publisher of its kind; a nonprofit David in a field of commercial Goliaths.
New Press seeks to replicate in publishing what the Public Broadcasting Service did some 20 years ago in the shadow of commercial television create an alternative that isn't dominated by commercial values," says Andre Schiffrin, founder of The New Press and former managing director and editor in chief of Pantheon Books.
When asked in a telephone interview "Why begin as a nonprofit?" Mr. Schiffrin's answer cuts across cultural and sociological bounds: "The structural change is essential," he says. "With increasing conglomerate control of publishing, it seemed essential to create a new structure for publishing books with important, new ideas, books often rejected by the large houses as 'risky' or 'insufficiently profitable.
"How many audiences are neglected, not as a matter of censorship or exclusion, but as a matter of economics?" asks Schiffrin. "We still have to pay our bills, of course, and we hope that in time the books we publish will cover most of our costs, but we can now address issues we deem most important, yet most neglected."
The venture is funded by more than a dozen major foundations, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Even the French ministry of culture contributed to the $3 million raised by the New Press.
"This represents an evolution in American society of responding to changes in publishing markets," says Ted Hearne, a spokesman for the MacArthur foundation. "We believe this has the potential to be an excellent means of dissemination of education materials to individuals and groups who are traditionally underserved by mainstream publishers," he says.
In a period of concern about multicultural issues and poor performance by the nation's school children, the fact that a new publisher has the ability to respond to changes in American culture and society independent of market forces was what most interested MacArthur to make a two-year financial commitment to the New Press, Mr. Hearne says.
The New Press will commission books rather than rely on manuscripts submitted by authors or their agents, the standard practice of big publishing houses. The emphasis will be on works about America's diverse cultural traditions. Some books are directly aimed at education and curriculum development. New Press books will be distributed to the trade and educational community by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
A quick rundown of some of the titles in its spring catalog indicates how the New Press intends to complement rather than compete with the many alternative and university presses. Included is a book on "Native American Art for Children" printed in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum of Fine Art; a text for teaching elementary and middle school without tracking students by ability; a collection of writings on the great migration of blacks out of the rural American South from 1910 to 1960 as well as the w orks of African-American photographers from 1840 to 1940.
Other publishers will particularly watch how New Press "is structured to make this enterprise endure for the long term," says Brad Miner, former book editor of "National Review" and long-term observer of New York's big publishing houses. Few industry analysts have doubts about Schiffrin's talent, but the question remains whether the venture will continue beyond him.
For MacArthur's Hearne, the answer to that question is five years out. In the interim, the US has a new, distinguished publishing house committed to underrepresented voices and readers.