Publishing politicized me. With a degree in comparative literature, I went to work for André Schiffrin at Pantheon Books in 1985. I had started at Knopf, but jumped at the chance to work at Pantheon, whose list struck me as more international. In addition to editing some international fiction, my job as André’s right-hand person involved typing all of his dictated correspondence: letters to a global array of intellectual and political giants including E.P. Thompson, Marguerite Duras, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Gunnar Myrdal, Eric Hobsbawm, Juliet Mitchell, and an assortment of Chinese and Russian dissidents. Tom Engelhardt and André published Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking work Maus then, but that book was perceived at the time as a genre-busting work of art, not a political lightning rod.
The New Press story
What truly politicized me was an event that came to symbolize a watershed moment in the industry. For a combination of questionable financial and political reasons, in late 1989, at the height of Reaganism, when extreme consolidation was sweeping through industries including publishing, André was asked to downsize Pantheon significantly; it soon became clear that he was being pushed out. The ensuing battle with Random House’s owners and management culminated in a “lunch hour of rage,” during which such luminaries as Studs Terkel, Barbara Ehrenreich, Kurt Vonnegut, and Princeton historian Arno Mayer took to a podium with bullhorns on the sidewalk outside the Random House building on East 50th Street. The verb “to be Newhoused” came into the lexicon, connoting the sacrifice of quality for financial return on the corporate bottom line. Some 350 authors, agents, Random House employees, and other supporters picketed, sporting signs decrying “Literary Plant Closings,” declaring “Publish and Perish,” and calling on the Newhouse family to “open their [accounting] books.” In an unprecedented move, the entire senior editorial team of Pantheon—the “Pantheon Five” as some called them—quit in solidarity with André.
Publishers Weekly ran a rare editorial by then editor-in-chief John F. Baker headlined “A Sad Day for André Schiffrin—and for Publishing.” Baker published the rumors of political censorship, writing, “We hear one of the complaints directed by current Random management against Pantheon, apart from its too large list and unprofitability, was that it published too many left-wing books, and why could these not be better balanced by some right-wing ones?” Petitions and an advertisement signed by Czesław Miłosz, Nadine Gordimer, William Styron, Arthur Miller, Robert Stone, and dozens of other prominent writers came out in support of André and the Pantheon list. At the National Book Critics Circle awards ceremony that year, Ed Doctorow, winner of the award for best novel, described Pantheon as having been “beheaded,” and noted that “even if no censorship was intended... the perceived effect is indeed to still a voice.” New Directions founder James Laughlin, another honoree, also referenced a “decapitation,” which he characterized as a “disgusting scandal.”
In this highly charged political atmosphere, I remained “behind enemy lines” for a month or two after the senior editors had left, to ensure authors with books in progress were well served and to access helpful information for those editors starting new jobs elsewhere, including Sara Bershtel at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (now senior v-p, publisher, at Henry Holt) and Wendy Wolf at Harper (now v-p and associate publisher at PRH). (I think André would have been very pleased to see the recent appointment of Lisa Lucas to run Pantheon.)
André, unlike me, was a thoroughly political creature, and had thought even before the dismantling of Pantheon that the country needed a public interest publishing house, analogous to PBS and NPR in their respective media. I don’t believe he ever thought he would be the person to do it, but following our departures, in 1990 he and I began meeting on his rooftop terrace on West 94th Street to plan what would become the New Press. We were joined over the following two years by former Pantheon editor David Sternbach, who helped draft the New Press mission statement, and shortly thereafter by Dawn Davis, who came to us from the banking program at First Boston—as the only one of us who knew how to use an Excel spreadsheet, Dawn was instrumental in formulating our first five-year plan. We had huge assists from former Random House senior v-p Tony Schulte, who had been pushed out along with Random House president Bob Bernstein, and Jane Isay, then publisher of Grosset Books at Putnam, two key New Press founding board members.
The publishing world we were entering as a new, independent press was completely foreign to us. I’m sorry to report that in my five years at first Knopf and then Pantheon, I wasn’t much aware of Graywolf, Copper Canyon, Seal, Curbstone, Spinsters/Aunt Lute, Mercury House, Four Walls Eight Windows, Coffee House, Island Press, Theater Communications Group, Thunder’s Mouth, Soho Press, or the dozens of other smaller indies. We were operating in parallel universes. When we started the New Press, André and I thought of ourselves as filling a gap in the publishing landscape between the large conglomerates, the university presses, and what we perceived as a large number of very small, niche, not-for-profits (many of which we could not actually name).
While we experienced a bit of competitive wariness from some of the university presses, to our surprise and delight we were embraced by the incredible independent and small press community. Led by visionaries including Scott Walker at Graywolf, this set of publishers met regularly, and very early on invited André and me to a meeting in Minneapolis to get to know us and share their collective wisdom about operating outside the publishing mainstream. Conversations ranged from marketing strategies to royalty platforms, health insurance, and fund-raising tips—many of these independent presses operate as not-for-profits, as does the New Press.
During those first heady years, the New Press had a handful of notable successes, many of them related to race relations in the country, that helped establish us as a player in the progressive publishing world. Our first book out the gate in 1992, Studs Terkel’s Race, was published at the height of the furor over the riots after Rodney King’s arrest and hit the New York Times bestseller list. Two 1995 titles—Lisa Delpit’s Other People’s Children and Jim Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me—gave us immediate street cred in progressive education circles. (Jim told us that over 20 publishers had rejected his book before we took it on; it’s been a staple of our backlist ever since, selling upwards of two million copies since. Progressive education became—and remains—one of our core categories.)
The year of 1995 also saw the publication of two New Press books that have dramatically resurfaced more than 25 years later: Kimberlé Crenshaw et al.’s Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement, and Paradise by Abdulrazak Gurnah, who this past November won the 2021 Nobel Prize for Literature.
By the end of our first decade in 2002, and around the time that André stepped back and I became executive director, it had become clear that, in addition to filling a gap in the publishing landscape, we were very much a progressive publishing house with an explicitly political agenda. As we worked to address issues we felt were absent in commercial publishing, this aspect of our mission became more focused and intentional.
The progressive landscape
While dozens of very small and independent publishers work at the progressive end of the spectrum, the number of expressly political, progressive publishers in the country with revenues over half a million dollars has been modest. These presses span a range of left-of-center philosophies, from the explicitly radical, 50-year-old Verso and the Chicago-based Haymarket to the more mainstream PublicAffairs Press (recently becoming a part of Hachette), which was created in 1997 by Peter Osnos, the former Times Books publisher at Random House, in honor of three of his heroes: Bob Bernstein, I.F. Stone, and Benjamin Bradlee.
Progressive presses seem to spring up in waves corresponding to the prevailing political winds. The ’60s and ’70s, not surprisingly, saw a blossoming, with many presses focused on specific demographics; several of these continue to publish robustly a half-century later. Haki Madhubuti founded Third World Press Foundation from his basement apartment on Chicago’s South Side in 1967 with $400; describing itself today as the oldest independent publisher of Black thought and literature in the country, Third World has a list that includes work by Derrick Bell, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Marc Lamont Hill, and economist Julianne Malveaux. Feminist Press, founded three years later by Florence Howe, began as “a crucial publishing component of second-wave feminism” and has been lifting up “insurgent and marginalized voices from around the world” for over 50 years, playing a key role in the development of the women’s studies field.
The 1980s saw another burst, corresponding to the culture wars sweeping the country during the Reagan administration. Cleis, Firebrand, and Alyson Press, founded within a few years of each other in the early ’80s, focused on books for LGBTQ audiences. Arte Publico and Cinco Puntos published works by Hispanic authors, in English and Spanish. Kitchen Table and Women of Color Press, the latter founded at the suggestion of poet Audre Lord, focused on different aspects of feminism. Island Press and Chelsea Green, coincidentally both founded in 1984, were early publishers of books on environmentalism and sustainable living.
The turn of the millennium and the George W. Bush years saw yet another surge of new progressive publishers, notably Nation Books (recently renamed Bold Type Books as part of a partnership between the nonprofit Type Media Center and Hachette Book Group), and Melville House, which was initially founded by the wife-and-husband team of Valerie Merians and Dennis Johnson to publish a collection of 9/11 poetry drawn from Johnson’s MobyLives blog. Akashic Books, set up during this period and perhaps best known for its iconoclastic Go the F**k to Sleep, also has a political nonfiction list featuring “authors who are either ignored by the mainstream, or who have no interest in working within the ever-consolidating ranks of the major corporate publishers.”
A more recent entrant to the field, the “platform agnostic” O/R books, founded by former Four Walls Eight Windows publisher John Oakes and former New Press publisher Colin Robinson, was established in the waning days of the Bush II administration. With a mission that includes “embrac[ing] progressive change in politics, culture, and the way we do business,” O/R began in 2009 with a focus on digital and print-on-demand books sold directly to consumers (the business model has since evolved to include more standard trade distribution). OR books span the progressive spectrum, from Julian Assange to climate change.
Many other presses in various parts of the country publish important progressive and radical political books as part of larger publishing programs.
Political publishing naturally draws fire. The New Press received a cease and desist letter from the clerk of the Supreme Court when we published in 1993 May It Please the Court, an unauthorized book-and-tape set of previously unknown recordings of the Court’s oral arguments. (Ironically, the Court backed down when none other than William Safire endorsed our publication and editorialized about why the recordings were in the public interest). NPR wouldn’t partner with us, we were once told by an executive (no longer there), because Noam Chomsky was on the New Press list. A very embarrassed government employee called me to retract an offer to place New Press books in foreign embassies and outposts, once her supervisors had seen our catalogue. We had to join a case against the Treasury Department in order to publish Literature from the Axis of Evil during the first Bush administration. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) has been banned in various prisons, prompting the New York Times to headline a piece “Why Are American Prisons So Afraid of This Book.” That book, along with more than 800 others, many published by independent, progressive houses, is currently on the list that a Texas lawmaker is working to ban from Texas school libraries. And Kimberlé Crenshaw and her coeditors of Critical Race Theory have spent the past year in the nation’s cultural crosshairs.
At the start of the Covid-19 epidemic, all of the progressive, independent publishers I’m in touch with went through the same near-death experience the New Press did. The kinds of bricks-and-mortar stores that typically feature our books operate on thin margins in the best of economic times. Before Bookshop.org geared up for the pandemic, and until a critical mass of stores got their websites and curbside delivery systems in order, sales through those outlets all but ceased. Amazon prioritized shipping essential goods over books, and many of us were hanging on by a thread.
Progressive publishing houses often experience their biggest successes when their books tie into social movements, either those that readers are participating in, or those they are seeking to understand. Books on multiculturalism took flight during the ’80s and early ’90s; books on Islam and radical extremism followed 9/11; works on the rise of the Tea Party and the far Right, such as Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, a National Book Award finalist that sold over 100,000 copies, helped the country to understand Trumpism. Many progressive publishers saw a spike in sales corresponding to the Black Lives Matter movement.
And the fate of almost every progressive publisher changed dramatically with the murder of George Floyd and the protests that ensued. In our 30 years of publishing, we had never seen that kind of demand for our books—particularly the difficult ones on racial and economic justice, including deep backlist titles. As Americans struggled to understand structural injustice, they turned to progressive books and authors for explanations. Though it remains to be seen how sustained the interest in racial and social justice will be, the surge of deep backlist titles at the New Press and many other publishers was thrilling to witness.
As the New Press celebrates its 30th anniversary in 2022, we are trying mightily to put in process a series of books that may seem outré today: books calling for mandatory voting to solve the problem of voter suppression, attention to the problem of lack of sanitation in rural America, eradication of the “tipped” subminimum wage, “no more police,” and the abolition of juvenile detention centers. Our hope is that these books will be published and at the ready when the country is ready for them.
Diane Wachtell is executive director at the New Press.