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Book Business: Publishing: Past, Present, and Future [Hardcover]

Jason Epstein
3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Book Description

January 2001 0393049841 978-0393049848
Jason Epstein has led arguably the most creative career in book publishing during the past-century. In 1952 he created Anchor Books, which launched the so-called quality paperback revolution and established the trade paperback format. In the following decade he was co-founder of the New York Review of Books. In the 1980s he created The Library of America and The Reader's Catalog, the precursor of on-line bookselling.

In this short book, based on his W. W. Norton Lectures given at the New York Public Library in October 1999, he discusses the severe crisis facing the book business today -- a crisis that affects writers and readers as well as publisher -- and looks ahead to the radically transformed industry that will revolutionize the idea of the book as profoundly as the introduction of movable type did five centuries ago.

Editorial Reviews Review

As editor-publisher to some of the 20th-century's greatest writers (Edmund Wilson, Vladimir Nabokov, Jane Jacobs) as well as the virtual inventor of the trade paperback (meaning the "quality" type, as opposed to the drugstore mass-market), Jason Epstein is one of those rare publishing-world types who is as invested in the editorial creation of a good book as in its marketing and sales. It is that dual perspective that has guided his half-century-long publishing career and that makes this compact yet expansive professional memoir such a lively, illuminating read for anyone curious how current trade publishing--basically popular general-interest fiction and nonfiction--became obsessed with a narrow pool of quickie bestsellers to the neglect of the far greater mass of slow-burners (known in the biz as "midlist") or of the perennial sellers from years past ("backlist"). But, Epstein follows up with great enthusiasm, the time is not long before the book biz will morph into a new cyberversion of the quirky, intimate "cottage industry" that it was in its precorporate era.

It was in that era that Epstein came of age as a publisher, first at Doubleday in the 1950s, where he founded the successful Anchor Books, the first line of high-quality paperback reissues of classics. The four succeeding decades he spent at Random House, which in that time grew from a family-type shop into one of the largest and most profitable trade publishing houses in the U.S. (currently owned by the German media titan Bertelsmann). Epstein's chronicle of New York publishing jumps around nimbly in time--at one point, all the way back to the 19th century--but it is in recounting the heady, culturally efflorescent postwar years that he waxes most tender, regaling us with vignettes of Ralph Ellison, Mary McCarthy, John O'Hara, Frank O'Hara, W.H. Auden, Chester Kallman, and John Ashbery. Throughout, his entrepreneurial spirit in the service of good books is evident--first in the founding (along with, among others, his wife Barbara) of the still-extant New York Review of Books, then in the thorny 30-year process of publishing the classics imprint Library of America, and in the launching of The Reader's Catalog, a mail-order service from which customers could choose from what nearly every book on the planet in print--and which deservedly has been called the hard-copy precursor to the very site you're browsing right now.

Like The Business of Books, the recent memoir from former Pantheon Books head Andre Schiffrin (Epstein's longtime colleague within Random House), Epstein's book decries the extent to which superstores like Barnes & Noble have forced the high-stakes (and seldom fruitful) corporatization of book publishing. But Epstein prefers to look past the current situation to an imminent day when writers will sell directly to readers over the Internet, a format that will still demand the services of editors, publicists, and marketers but will cut out the costly middlemen of publishing companies, distributors, and superstores (though not small booksellers, he assures us, which nurture bonds among booklovers that even the Web can't sever). Yes, there's money to be made in trade books, Epstein asserts, but not necessarily overnight. And in this brisk, affable, and forward-looking volume, Epstein's own broad-ranging experience in the book biz seems to bear out his recurring theme: do it for love, not money, and the money (if not necessarily the millions) will eventually follow. --Timothy Murphy

From Publishers Weekly

In October 1999, Epstein, former editorial director of Random House, delivered a series of lectures at the New York Public Library that galvanized the publishing world. This book is based on those lectures. A genuine elder statesman of the industry, Epstein has spent about 50 years in publishing, during which he helped create the "paperback revolution," the New York Review of Books and the Library of America. Here, short, magisterial chapters describe the recent past of American publishing through the lens of Epstein's career, and lookDnow fearfully, now hopefullyDat the spirit of book publishing to come. Epstein explains that, in his youth, the book trade was as much vocation as business, bringing to the world the fruits of literary modernism. In more recent decades, by contrast, investors and conglomerates, he says, seeking "name-brand authors" and economies of scale, have treated books as a product like any other. New technologies, however, might reverse these baleful (as seen by Epstein) trends. This forceful if hardly startling analysis introduces Epstein's compact and compelling reminiscences, which form the bulk of the book. Each chapter includes famous names (Auden, Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, Bennett Cerf, cyber-pioneer Norbert Weiner); revealing, amusing anecdotes; and clear accounts of who paid the bills for what, and how, and why. Most strikingly, Epstein looks forward to the "worldwide village green" the digital age might createDone in which books, he says, will keep a place, and publishing will "become once more a cottage industry of diverse, creative, autonomous" work, albeit at the expense of many of the middlemen who stand between author and reader, including today's big publishers. Congenial, erudite, electrifying, this book is a must read for anyone who cares about books and their business. (Jan. 15)
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 188 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (January 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393049841
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393049848
  • Product Dimensions: 8.5 x 5.7 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,124,286 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
"Technologies change the world but human nature remains the same." That quote sums up the theme of the 7 essays in this interesting book. Mr. Epstein makes a persuasive case for electronics reducing the costs of reaching readers in ways so that authors and their readers will interact more directly, as they did before the 20th century. The bulk of the book is an anecdotal history of publishing and book retailing in the United States over the last 150 years. In most cases, Mr. Epstein uses his own career for examples of the changes that have occurred in the last 50 years.
Mr. Epstein takes on this challenge from a position of considerable authority. He been a top editor, working with authors like Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, and Gore Vidal. Beyond that, he has been an important industry innovator, having helped introduce the quality paperback through Anchor Books, being a founder of The New York Review of books, and helping establish the Library of America (featuring authentic versions of important American works in paperback). When time-shared computer services were first expanding, he helped develop the "Reader's Catalog" for getting backlist books.... He was the first recipient of the National Book Award for Distinguished Service for American Letters for "inventing new kinds of publishing and editing."
Basically, the economics of creating a book involve getting the book edited and produced at the lowest possible fixed cost, and then being able to create copies at low marginal cost rates. Anything you can do to avoid any other overhead is all to the good. If an author simply publishes his own work electronically (as Stephen King has started doing), both costs reach a bare bones minimum.
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26 of 28 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not a Thorough Enough Analysis March 17, 2001
After reading the New York Times Book Review write-up and a review in Newsday about Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future, I was excited that someone had finally written a book about the business in which I work. However, readers need to heed the warning: "Don't judge a book by its cover" (or, in this case, its title). I have worked in the book publishing industry for 15 years, and have seen firsthand a great deal of what the author describes in this book. It seemed that the beginning of each chapter captured me, as I personally related to what was being discussed. But after a few paragraphs in each chapter, the author digresses into biographical issues that lend no value or substantial insight into aspects of the general history of the book publishing business, which might affect or interest someone in the industry. With all due respect to the author (and I truly appreciate his attempt at such a work), the book is much too brief to live up to the hype I read in reviews touting it as some type of benchmark work. The author's analyses of the various aspects of the industry are simply not profound enough. He begins a discussion of a particular aspect of the business, and then maunders into a personal story, which is far from relative to general interest.
The book is a very quick-and-easy read considering the author's style, which was obviously maintained throughout (leading me to believe that he was probably his own editor; some sentences are nearly a paragraph long). His use of a William F. Buckley-like vocabulary was probably not necessary for the typical reader. As an editor, I was, however, impressed that I could find but one typographical error in the entire book.
I would not recommend this book for someone interested in starting a career in the publishing industry. It does, however, serve as an amusing little folk tale for those of us already in the business.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What the Web Does to Old Fashioned Publishing! August 13, 2001
Like the hedgehog of legend, Jason Epstein in this book has one big idea: The Internet, he says, changes everything! All the rest of this book is commentary, memoir and historical anecdote recalled from a lifetime of experience in the hermetically sealed world of New York publishing.

In fact, Mr. Epstein has written an interesting if only moderately useful book about the changes he has witnessed in the publishing arena, a book which, regrettably, does not offer much beyond an earlier essay he presented on-line about these same issues, although it is fleshed out here by the anecdotal descriptions of his personal experiences in the field. His basic thesis is that the publishing industry, by rights, ought to be a small scale business, but has grown, over time, into an unpromising corporate behemoth which cannot, in the end, sustain itself. However, the advent of the Internet should bring this chapter of the business to a resounding close, he suggests, as authors discover how to reach readers directly and, thereby, marginalize publishers.

What, after all, do publishers do, he asks? They make books available to the public by investing in titles through a selection and editing process and then by financing the books' production (editing, layout/design, printing and binding), distribution (warehousing, linking with distributors and re-sellers) and promotion (advertising, networking with the review community and sales outreach to retailers). This is not very much, in the end, says Mr. Epstein, given the powers conferred upon authors through the Web.

Thanks to modern e-publishing (on-line electronic publication and print-on-demand), authors can now do much of this themselves through on-line service providers at very minimal cost.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Lots of digging required.
Although Epstein gets his points across about the changing face of publishing, they are buried beneath personal tales which are interesting but distract from the pertinent... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Amazon Customer
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting
The book was a requirement for my class about publishing. I found the information very informative, even interesting. Read more
Published 18 months ago by B. Ybarra
4.0 out of 5 stars Publishing Past, Present, and Future
I met Jason Epstein in person when the Espresso Book Machine was unveiled at Harvard Book Store this fall. Read more
Published on May 18, 2010 by JypsyJBook
5.0 out of 5 stars Book Publishing Business past present and future
Book Business Publishing Past Present and Future written by Jason Epstein
founder of Anchor Books and former editorial director of Random House
gives you his experiencs... Read more
Published on May 9, 2010 by JEFF SHAPIRO
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable autobiography of a passionate & entrepreneurial publisher
Though I picked up this book to learn about the publishing business (and I did learn, just a little), I really enjoyed it as a story of how passion, perspective, perseverance, and... Read more
Published on May 5, 2009 by Amit Jain
5.0 out of 5 stars Look into the past to understand today, the future
Jason Epstein paints a picture of the transition of the book publishing and selling trade as it transitioned from independent book sellers and publishers to today's fully-optimized... Read more
Published on March 14, 2009 by Richard
2.0 out of 5 stars Decent memoir of a by-gone era, poor analysis of a paradigm shift
Given that this was the compilation of 3 lectures given in 1999, that the Afterwards was from an article in 2001 and that the `Preface to the Paperback Edition' was written in... Read more
Published on April 7, 2008 by Greg Beesch
3.0 out of 5 stars Two Incomplete Books in One
Jason Epstein has had an extraordinary career in literary publishing, and if he ever writes a full-blown memoir of that career, it would make interesting reading. Read more
Published on March 6, 2005 by A. Bowdoin Van Riper
4.0 out of 5 stars Gone With The Card Catalog
The preface of BOOK BUSINESS mentions the very origins of written language: cutting or "scoring" a mark onto a board. Read more
Published on February 21, 2004 by Timothy Ritter
4.0 out of 5 stars Neat book, if you're interested in books and bookmen.
Just a quick note recommending this short book. Epstein, who spent most of his career at Random House, remarks on how publishing... Read more
Published on January 28, 2004 by Peter D. Tillman
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