Jason Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing, Past, Present, and Future is based on three lectures given in October, 1999, at the New York Public Library’s Center for Scholars and Writers. His story traces the evolution of publishing from the earliest means of communicating (through sound, rhythm, and movement) to Gutenberg and beyond—ending with today’s electronic advances and their implications for the future of the written word. Epstein has seen the business at its best—during what most consider the Golden Age of publishing in the 1960’s—and at its worst—during the profit-driven mergers of the late 1980’s and the devastation of independently owned bookstores. “The book business as I have known it is already obsolete,” Epstein contends, yet what he makes eminently clear is that “the defining human art of storytelling will survive the evolution of cultures . . . as it always has. New technologies change the world but they do not erase the past.”
Epstein’s odyssey often seems like a series of colorful episodes of the surreal 1950’s television series You Are There. He reminisces in an engaging and immediate fashion; the reader feels like a fly on the wall when Epstein tells of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) reciting Green Eggs and Ham, of Ralph Ellison discussing jazz, or of his conversations with Edmund Wilson about an American version of the French Pleiade editions which led to the Library of America series. Then there was an unusual Nabokov manuscript, which Epstein read and hoped to publish, only to be told it would never happen at Doubleday. The manuscript was Lolita (1955), which Epstein serialized in the Anchor Review when most publishers would not touch it.
Epstein began his editorial career not intending to have one; he wanted to be a great American author, and his foray into publishing at Doubleday in 1950, after graduating from Columbia College, was supposed to be a temporary respite. Yet this happenstance turned into years; while at Doubleday he was instrumental in bringing trade or “quality” paperbacks into the mainstream by initiating the Anchor Books series in 1952. He left Doubleday for Random House, with Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, in 1959, in part because of Doubleday’s pervading censorship, but also because he wanted to branch out. Given the opportunity to do virtually as he pleased by Cerf and Klopfer, who respected his insight, Epstein headed up Random House’s editorial department and brought works by E. L. Doctorow, William Faulkner, Norman Mailer, Nabokov, Philip Roth, and Gore Vidal to American readers.
In 1962, during a New York Times strike in which the venerable New York Times Book Reviewwas out of production, Epstein, his wife Barbara, Elizabeth Hardwick, and her then-husband Robert Lowell cofounded The New York Review of Books to espouse a new, no-frills, and independent approach to book reviewing. Amazingly, despite the return of the well-supportedNew York Times Book Review, The New York Review of Books survived. It began running in the black by its third year and has been profitable ever since. Epstein was also the critical force in getting Edmund Wilson’s dream, the nonprofit, scholarly Library of America series, off the ground in 1982 (twenty-five years after the idea’s conception). He then went on to create the two-thousand-page Reader’s Catalog in 1989, a huge tome listing over forty thousand book titles of every kind, a forerunner to Amazon.com, where books were to be warehoused and shipped directly to customers.
The fall of publishing, from Epstein’s point of view, was due to several factors. Among these were the huge corporations that bought into publishing because of runaway bestsellers, seeing dollar signs instead of the many unsung authors who do not sell in the millions but are part of the backlist, the backbone of the industry. With ever-larger advances paid to what Epstein calls brand-name authors, a vast majority of writers were often ignored, and some pushed out of the picture completely. Robert Gottlieb, editor of The New Yorker from 1987 to 1992 but formerly of Alfred A. Knopf, disagrees, telling the magazine Commentary in May, 2001, “Conglomerates haven’t stifled individual publishing or the publishing of books of quality—in fact, both fiction and nonfiction of quality tends to sell better today than comparable books did years ago.”
(The entire section is 1841 words.)