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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1841

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.”

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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 ReviewThe 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, 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.”

Nevertheless, Epstein also blames the chains and superstores, either freestanding or in high-rent malls, who cannibalized the market and offered deep discounts that independent bookstores could not afford. When many of the mom-and-pop operations were driven out of business, the majority of the remaining bookstores catered to the brand-name authors and little else, which in turn lent greater clout to the powerful authors who already had a stranglehold on the market. These brand-namers, among them Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Danielle Steel, account for nearly two-thirds of any given year’s top one hundred bestsellers. These writers, Epstein says, are “a mixed blessing to publishers,” who often lose a slice of their own profits and will suffer losses to keep such high-profile authors on board. Many worthy works, Epstein counters, get left by the wayside: “Many valuable books—most, in fact—are not meant to be best-sellers, and these tend to be slighted in the triage of contemporary publishing and bookselling.”

Epsteins contends that in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, most editors and publishers considered best-sellers as “lucky accidents” or “like winning a lottery.” Random House and most other houses were heavily dependent on their backlists to pay the bills and a surprise hit was simply that: a surprise. Not so in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, when megacorporations instituted strict profit margins yet paid exorbitant advances to a select few for their bestselling potential. It is ironic, then, that Epstein left Doubleday because of censorship and went to Random House for editorial freedom, only to see the latter bought by RCA, then sold to S. I. Newhouse, and sold again to the German Bertelsmann empire, which had also acquired Doubleday (then called Bantam Doubleday Dell) along the way.

While Epstein laments the death of many independent booksellers, such as the Eighth Street Bookstore where he used to while away the hours on a regular basis, he is optimistic about their future. He believes many of the chain stores and superstores (such as Crown and SuperCrown) will fade away, and smaller, intimate book shops owned by people who love books will reappear: “[A] civilization without retail booksellers is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature. The feel of a book taken from a shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader.” Scott Stossel, writing in the magazine American Prospect, agrees, “Books are, for some people, like religion—bookstores are hallowed ground.”

Throughout his literary travels, Epstein has witnessed flawed vision, wrestled with enormous egos, and seen firsthand how pride goeth before a fall in an industry many believe may be in a terminal decline. Are editors a dying breed when authors can self-publish on the World Wide Web? Stephen King’s phenomenal success with Riding the Bullet, which sold over 400,000 copies on the World Wide Web, is exactly what Epstein prophesied, though King did work in conjunction with his publisher, Simon & Schuster. Will bookstores survive the advent of handheld electronic readers or point-of-purchase printing machines popping up all over the globe for on-demand publishing? There are no definitive answers, but Epstein believes the World Wide Web will help publishing survive, not signal its complete demise.

Epstein writes with a credibility earned over five decades and is well respected in the publishing world. He was awarded the Curtis Benjamin Award for Creative Publishing in 1993 as a tribute to his “profound influence” upon publishing. In several articles in Publishers Weekly, the premier trade magazine of the industry, Epstein was variously called a pioneer, entrepreneur, and a “genuine elder statesman of the industry.” Gayle Feldman, writing in The Nation, declared, “He had a reputation as a brilliant editor but went beyond that to envisage change and make it happen, and in the process made himself into a pillar of the New York intellectual establishment.”American Prospect’s Stossel cited him as one of the “two most esteemed editors in the business.” The other editor Stossel referred to was André Schiffrin, founder and director/editor of the New Press, whose own book chronicling the past and future of book publishing, The Business of Books (2000), was similar in scope to Epstein’s. Yet the two editors, who had worked together at Random House for years, parted ways in 1990 when Schriffin claims he was forced out of his post as managing director at Pantheon, an imprint founded by his father.

The two books, however, differ vastly in one crucial area according to Stossel: “Epstein’s book is witty, humane, clear-headed, and at times brilliant; yet because he’s on the inside (still plying his trade at Random House, part of the German-owned Bertelsmann conglomerate), his view is naturally informed and constrained by his position. Schiffrin, on the other hand, has no such constraints. His book is a fierce jeremiad. It aims to right wrongs and settle old scores.” If Schriffin’s look at publishing is at times heavy handed and a left-leaning polemic, Epstein’s is an evenhanded chronicle in sober yet affectionate language. Schiffrin openly attacks his real and perceived enemies; Epstein is not silent but follows the time-honored tradition of using honey rather than vinegar to make his point.

Epstein takes the reader full circle from publishing’s infancy to its uncertain future in the electronic age, where the legendary publishing houses of the twentieth century may be replaced by enterprising authors with or without multimedia agents in the twenty-first century and beyond. He has created institutions to honor the words of his forebears; to allow the gifted to survive the ages to delight again and again. In his role as creator of Anchor Books, the Library of America, the New York Review of Books, and The Reader’s Catalog, he realizes, “Though I have been responsible for several innovations in the publishing business, I see now that each of them was intended to recapture the fleeting past.” He readily admits these instincts and honors the “god Janus, who faces backward and forward at once. Without a vivid link to the past, the present is chaos, and the future is unreadable.” Yet perhaps the most important information to be gleaned from Book Business: Publishing, Past, Present, and Future is that publishing will survive and evolve. Epstein more than delivers on his book’s title; he provides readers with a well-written treatise linking the past and the present, and offers a supportive view of the future. Publishers Weekly concurred in a starred review, stating, “Congenial, erudite, electrifying, this book is a must read for anyone who cares about books and their business.”

Sources for Further Study

The American Prospect 12 (January 29, 2001): 41.

Booklist 97 (January 1, 2001): 876.

Commentary 111 (May, 2001): 32.

The Nation 272 (February 12, 2001): 35.

New Statesman 130 (April 23, 2001): 55.

The New York Times Book Review 106 (February 4, 2001): 6.

Publishers Weekly 247 (December 11, 2000): 74.

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