Immigration and entrepreneurship: the case of the publishing industry

Immigrant publishers: the impact of expatriate publishers in Britain and America in the 20th century (Transaction, 2009) comprises article written for the publishing journal. Logos, to which has been added some fresh supplementary material. The expatriates studied, nearly all of them Jewish, emigrated from Germany and Mitteleuropa.

The book provides a series of biographical essays on such resourceful and influential characters as Andre Deutsch, Paul Hamlyn, George Weidenfeld, and (the bad, but also great) Robert Maxwell. For me, the essays provided three kinds of interest. They shed light on:

1. The nature of entrepreneurship: In particular, the book can be read as an exploration of the contribution of three types of capital — financial, social, and human. Some of the expatriate publishers were able to access financial capital: others managed to bootstrap. Overall, financial capital features here as helpful but not entirely essential. Some of the expatriates were able to access social capital in the form of contacts in the countries they’d emigrated to: many, though, had no networks to draw on. I find this point fascinating: social capital is traditionally felt to be important in book publishing (and my experience tallies with that), but many of the publishers featured in this book managed to overcome a lack of social capital by dint of their human capital — especially their knowledge, adaptability, energy, and resilience.

2. The contribution made to the creative economy by immigrants: As Gordon Graham, one of the book’s editors, notes: “Unfortunately, the word immigration took on a slightly pejorative cast in the later years of the 20th century…In Great Britain today, immigration carries the aura of ‘problem'” (p. 209). Immigration debates often revolve around the movement of one factor of production, namely labour: this book vividly brings home how a second factor, namely enterprise, is involved.

3. The relationship between entrepreneurship and immigration: It would take an entire essay to tease out the way these two themes interweave in the book. One of the most interesting aspects is articulated by Graham as follows:

“Once established, all of them [i.e. the expatriate publishers in Britain or America] opened branches on the opposite side of the Atlantic…[they] were not lumbered by the belief that the US market itself was large enough to satisfy the most ambitious, or with the traditional reliance on imperial export markets by the British publishers. They were instead transnational thinkers. Nor did these new publishers feel any loyalty to the printing industry within their home markets. They produced their books wherever there were competent printers and paper suppliers at competitive costs. And they did not feel bound to publish only in the English language…They all spoke at least two other languages, and sometimes four of five” (p. 211).

Globalisation in publishing would no doubt have occurred anyway, but it’s fascinating to consider how the publishers studied here acted as a catalyst — and somehow satisfying to think that persecution by the Nazis inadvertently laid the foundations of greater cosmopolitanism.

I don’t normally find much interest in publishing history (I’d rather read about where we’re heading than where we’ve come from), but this book fascinated me. In fact. it left me wanting to hear even more.  Graham notes towards the end of his epilogue that “We could have spread the net wider, for example, to include booksellers. Publishers travelling in Latin America in the years following the Second World War could not fail to have observed the many highly professional booksellers of German-Jewish origin” (pp. 210-11).

Well; I hope someone does indeed spread the net wider.


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