Publish or Perish

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In the belly of Hell's Kitchen, just south of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, the Cupcake Cafe whips up baked wonders. Sunflowers and pansies, once mere sugar and coloring, lace the signature cupcakes that later today will be delivered to restaurants and homes across Manhattan.

An air of pride and independence fills this small, crowded space. Behind glass counters, the sales clerks smile confidently, knowing their wares are unusual, satisfying, and in demand.

The same could be said for the staff members of the New Press who frequent this neighborhood bakery. A not-for-profit publisher, the New Press is an anomaly in the multimillion-dollar textbook business. Fourteen full-time employees and a handful of interns run its $2.9 million-a-year operations from the sixth floor of a weathered Hunter College building.

Rather than publish textbooks, the New Press specializes in supplemental and multicultural materials. Although its not-for-profit status is unusual, the New Press is one of a growing number of trade and niche publishers responding to changing demands from educators and students.

"There is a flourishing industry in supplemental materials," says Gilbert T. Sewall, the director of the American Textbook Council, an independent group that monitors history and social-studies texts. "This is a developing trend of the 1990s. It is a vast cafeteria that runs across the political and cultural spectrum."

The New Press offices, which were donated by the City University of New York, face the backside of Manhattan. Two publishing landmarks--the former corporate offices of McGraw-Hill and the flagship sign of The New Yorker--punctuate the otherwise grubby panorama. The perspective seems fitting, however, given the trade publisher's unusual (some might even say contrarian) mission to disseminate ideas rather than concoct moneymakers.

In keeping with its offbeat location, the New Press positions itself as a refreshing alternative to the large trade and textbook houses. Its founding five years ago was a bittersweet event, at once a defiant rejection of the industry's commercialism and a principled experiment in education publishing.

"I don't think Random House expected us to leave," says Andr‚ Schiffrin, the quiet-spoken director of the New Press. "They thought we'd say OK and keep our corner offices and salaries."

Schiffrin is referring to a now-infamous event in the publishing world. In 1990, S.I. Newhouse, the owner of Random House Inc., unexpectedly ousted Robert Bernstein, his longtime chief executive officer, to bring in Alberto Vitale, an unabashed numbers man.

Within months, Vitale told Schiffrin, then in his 29th year of heading the literary imprint Pantheon, he had to contribute more to the bottom line, suggesting that he slash the number of titles Pantheon published--books that rarely made the commercial bestseller lists. Schiffrin refused and left the imprint his father had helped run after its founding in 1942. Eight editors followed. And countless authors, including Kurt Vonnegut, protested Newhouse's financial change of heart.

Because of Schiffrin's legendary reputation as an editor to such authors as Studs Terkel and Simone de Beauvoir, other publishers rushed to invite him to start his own imprint at their houses. But to avoid compromising his editorial integrity, he decided to build an independent, not-for-profit press instead.

With Diane Wachtell, a former Pantheon editor, Schiffrin lobbied foundations for support, noting that there was no parallel organization to National Public Radio or the Public Broadcasting Service in book publishing. Traditionally, foundations don't support book publishing, but Schiffrin convinced them that a not-for-profit publisher could multiply the impact of their projects.

After a year and a half of ambitious, at times depressing, fund raising, the New Press published its first book in 1992. With that accomplishment, Schiffrin and his editorial team dubbed the new organization "the first full-scale publisher in the public interest."

"The scope of what Andr‚ and Diane have set out to do as an independent press is quite unusual and new," says Jim Sitter, the executive director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York. "If you put university presses aside, in many respects, it's a newphenomenon."

Other small for-profit publishers, however, are also sharing in this piece of the education publishing pie.

"The extent of our publishing has grown tremendously in the past 15 years," says Toby Gordon, the publishing director of Heinemann, based in Portsmouth, N.H. "That is what the reform movement is doing, trying to find alternatives to textbooks because textbooks imply rote memorization, and that's not working."

Five years and 100 books later, the New Press has published a spectrum of titles, from The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Terror to the bestselling Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Education titles account for a quarter of the house's list and fall into two categories: books about education reform and supplemental materials, such as art portfolios, anthologies, and wall charts.

"There is an odd situation now where the bigger publishers are becoming more timid, and some states are unhappy with the choices available to them," Schiffrin says. "We see it as a great opportunity for us to produce alternatives to the castrated--is that too strong a word?--textbook."

Educators' Think Tank

It's after 6 p.m. when the education-advisory committee settles around the brown-veneered tables in the New Press de facto conference room. The 20 teachers and administrators ACT as an informal think tank for Schiffrin and Ellen Reeves, the education editor. They listen thoughtfully as Reeves, a former teacher, describes several potential projects. Asking the group for feedback, she opens the way for a lively editorial brainstorming session that lasts over an hour.

Reeves, who shares a joint appointment with the American Council of Learned Societies, explains how her experiences in the classroom shape editorial decisions. "As a teacher, I found a tone from textbook publishers that was condescending to me and my students," she says. "I didn't want someone else's curriculum and always created my own materials."

With Schiffrin, she seeks to reproduce the authentic voices of those who have been traditionally left out of textbooks. They include portraits of American Indians, memoirs and letters written by slaves during the Civil War, and ethnic folktales. "Primary sources are the evidence," she says. "How to teach and interpret them are up to the individual teacher."

Increasingly, educators are choosing supplemental materials to make their lessons more relevant and multidimensional, says Andrew Dunning, the director of school and library sales at Barron's Educational Series. "Textbooks are still the first source of reference. But in a society that is having to pay more attention to the rest of the world, people are now looking for answers beyond the scope of an average textbook."

Linda Gold, an English teacher at Packer Collegiate Institute, a private school in Brooklyn for preschoolers to 12th graders, uses Free At Last: A Documentary of Slavery, Freedom, and the Civil War to teach African-American literature. "The New Press is interested in the marginalized experience," Gold says. "The kids are really able to gain access to the silenced voices. Teachers need to be aware of these books, especially in this political climate and with all of the budget cuts."

Some books, like Lisa Delpit's Other People's Children, offer important professional reality checks, says Mark Weiss, the principal of the School for the Physical City, a public high school in Manhattan. "They publish about subjects that are challenging to us, such as what it means for white teachers to teach predominantly minority kids. Those are questions we need to ask ourselves and be sensitive to."

But some teachers have criticized the New Press for being biased. Reeves recalls a complaint she heard at a New York education conference last year. "A teacher came up to me after looking at our gay literary anthology and said 'Why don't you publish books for normal people?' "

"We are liberal and progressive, that's why we're special," acknowledges Lisa Bernstein, the publishing house's marketing director. "But we're not publishing to the fringe; we're publishing to a large segment of the country."

Mary Beth P. Gowland, an elementary school teacher in Metairie, La., is one of many educators who relies on trade books and supplemental materials almost exclusively. She doesn't worry about bias in any particular book, however, because she buys them from so many different sources. "It balances out," she says.

Redlined Readers

The fact that New Press titles are sold through bookstores, not directly to school districts, has meant staff members have had to work extra hard just to reach the educators they're publishing for. To bring their books to a broader audience, the New Press has sponsored events such as a back-to-school symposium held earlier this month at the Boston Public Library. "Teaching Against the Text: The Dilemma of Textbooks in Education" featured authors Howard Zinn, Herbert Kohl, and James W. Loewen.

Last year, thousands of educators were invited to submit essays and reviews about multicultural materials for possible inclusion in The New Press Multicultural Catalog, a two-volume reference book that will be published next year.

Rather than the exception, this give-and-take relationship with its audience is a key editorial and marketing strategy. "If teachers have an idea for a book or have been grappling with an idea," Bernstein says, "I want them to feel they can contact us anytime."

These outreach efforts are working, says Bill Rusin, the director of trade sales and marketing for W.W. Norton & Co., which distributes New Press titles. "They're doing one of the best jobs I've seen in the industry of reaching educators," he says. "It takes a while to establish credibility, and they've done a phenomenal job in two to three years to do that."

Foundation support allows the press to underprice its books, making them more affordable to educators. "That's a big part of our mission--to disseminate information to the public," says Dorothy Regan, the business manager. "If we were for-profit, we just wouldn't be doing these books."

Schiffrin, however, shies away from being labeled a niche publisher. "We are facing more of a desert than a niche," he says. "Huge areas have been abandoned by traditional publishing. The Murdochs and Newhouses have redlined entire audiences. As a result, there is a real thirst for our books." Rupert Murdoch, an international media mogul, owns HarperCollins, the parent company of textbook publisher Scott Foresman.

Given demographic projections, Schiffrin is betting that the demand for multicultural materials will only increase. Andrew Dunning of Barron's agrees, citing several other reasons: the high cost of textbooks, the increase in multicultural policies among school districts, and the influx of immigrants.

But William J. Bennetta, the editor of The Textbook Letter, a bimonthly publication that observes and critiques the textbook industry, suggests textbooks could work, if done properly. "I would like to see a not-for-profit publisher actually publish a textbook," he says. "It could do a more competent job without having to worry about pleasing everybody, offending nobody, and therefore teaching nothing."

As the New Press strives to reinvent publishing, several colleagues think Schiffrin and his press are actually returning to the original, often forgotten, role of publishing.

"The New Press is doing critically important work because commercial presses won't do it. Instead, they cherry pick the projects they can make money off of," says Chuck Savitt, the publisher of Island Press, a not-for-profit environmental publisher based in Washington. "There is less and less pressure to be an intellectual gatekeeper. What Andr‚ is doing is the old-fashioned job of developing ideas and authors."

Vol. 15, Issue 08

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