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Cri de Coeur

Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future

by Jason Epstein
Norton, 188 pp., $21.95


When I am feeling optimistic about the prospects for literary culture, I imagine a book like the one everybody ran around trying to steal in Neal Stephenson’s 1995 sci-fi novel The Diamond Age. Called a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, this “propaedeutic enchiridion” came with its own power pack, a voice-recognition interface, “smart paper” computer pages, “nanoreceptors” to measure the reader’s pulse, and a database that amounted to “a catalogue of the collective unconscious.” Until you could read it on your own, it told you stories in a lovely contralto, even while you slept, about what you dreamed. Designed to grow up alongside feisty four-year-old girls, it encouraged heroic behavior and subversive thinking.

When, on the other hand, I am feeling realistic, the future looks a lot more like Huxley’s Brave New World, full of sex-hormone chewing gum, super-Prozac soma, lots of “feelies,” the occasional orgy-porgy, and a monthly flush of “Violent Passion Surrogate,” where our kidstuffs will be hatched from gene samples, according to a color-coded caste system, and then conditioned at naptime in nightmare dormitories, by “hypnopaedia,” into “elementary class consciousness” and a hatred of botany and books.

The big surprise about Book Business, an elegant cri de coeur fashioned by Jason Epstein from a lecture series he gave at the New York Public Library in October 1999, is its optimism. From Epstein, who has edited books for fifty years—most of those years at Random House before, during, and after its successive sackings by vandals, visigoths, huns, and agents; and most of them downhill for principled publishing in general, from Parnassus to the mall, from Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, and Eliot to How I Lost Weight, Got Rich, Found God, and Changed My Sexual Preference in the Bermuda Triangle—we might have expected weeping-willow lamentations or arrows from a wounded bow.

He’d have earned that right. The manufacture of best sellers instead of literature has to look obscene to someone who was present at the creation, a divine rainmaker, of three different American literary institutions (about which, more in a minute). Someone who, through a golden mist, remembers watching home movies of Thomas Mann after Sunday brunch at Alfred Knopf’s house in Purchase. Someone who recalls W.H. Auden in a torn overcoat and carpet slippers at his publisher in the old Villard mansion on Madison and 50th, with William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison, and Dr. Seuss, across the hall from a Cardinal Spellman who actually wrote poems that Random House actually published. Someone who was off-and-on buddies, depending on the thermostatic reading of the dis-tempered times, with the vanished likes of Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov, lower Bloomsbury bohemians like John Ashbery and Frank O’Hara, and the truculent Partisan Review crowd. And, especially, someone who has seen some of the best minds of his generation, not starving, not hysterical, not naked, but dragging themselves through the first-class seats looking for a stipend from the Congress for Cultural Freedom.

Nor does looking on the bright side come with the territory when you realize that some of the best books you published would never have seen the black of ink and the dignity of binding had their sales projections been run by the marketing people who count the beans today at the major houses, where each new book is expected to be by Tom Clancy or Danielle Steel, small printings are a waste of time, unknowns a risky flyer, and still they manage to lose money, because they don’t know what they’re doing. In wry passing, Epstein notes: “When General Electric, a famously well-run company, acquired RCA in 1986, it immediately expelled two divisions that didn’t meet its standard of profitability: a poultry grower and Random House. Twelve years later Advance Publications, the new owner of Random House, came to the same conclusion.” Book publishing “is by nature a cottage industry, decentralized, improvisational, personal,” he reminds us, “best performed by small groups of like-minded people, devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy”—like makers of Shaker baskets, Navajo rugs, Amish quilts, jade tigers, or cornhusk dolls: “If money were their primary goal, these people would probably have chosen other careers.”

Certainly Epstein would have. He went into publishing—less “a conventional business” than “a vocation or an amateur sport”—when he realized that his literary standards were so high that “I knew that I could not become a writer equal to my expectations.” To survive and thrive in the warrior cultures of conglomerates like RCA, Newhouse, and Bertelsmann, he had to have been part Talleyrand and part Puck, but certainly not any Mary Poppins: “I am skeptical of progress. My instincts are archaeological. I favor the god Janus, who faces backward and forward at once.” Moreover, “Unlike [my intellectual] friends, I had never been interested in socialism, which presupposes an overoptimistic view of human nature.” So certain is he of the downward slope of the century—Ulysses and The Waste Land “were monuments, to be studied but never surpassed”; Alfred Knopf, in his dark shirt and Cossack mustache, could only be emulated, never “toppled”—that he settles for quoting with approval the Yeats response to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach”: “Though the great song return no more/There’s keen delight in what we have:/The rattle of pebbles on the shore/Under the receding wave.”

Nevertheless, this is a man who has surfed the Web. And once he’d done so, like Don DeLillo’s Sister Edgar, the jewels rolled out of his eyes and he saw God. Although books as physical objects will not pass away, or bookstores vanish, both will coexist hereafter “with a vast multilingual directory of digitized texts, assembled from a multitude of sources, perhaps ‘tagged’ for easy reference, and distributed electronically.” From this directory, readers will be able to download whatever we want on a Palm Pilot, or transfer materials from a playstation “to machines capable of printing and binding single copies on demand at innumerable remote sites.” Epstein imagines one such location as a kiosk on his corner, and others at the headwaters of the Nile or in the foothills of the Himalayas: “The appropriate technology, in embryo, is already at hand and I have seen it. The future that it implies cannot be evaded. I await it with wonder and trepidation.”

That’s in the preface. He will later describe and admire machinery capable of scanning, digitizing, and storing “virtually any text ever created so that other machines can retrieve this content and reproduce copies on demand instantly anywhere in the world, ei-ther in electronic form, downloaded for a fee into a so-called e-book or similar device, or printed and bound for a few dollars a copy.” Already, machines that print and bind these digitized texts have been deployed by Ingram, a leading books wholesaler, and are on their way to publishers’ warehouses and Barnes and Noble distri-bution centers. Future, less expensive versions are likely to be housed in public libraries, schools, and universities, perhaps post offices, and maybe even Kinko’s and Staples, “allowing readers to bypass retail bookstores completely.” Just insert a credit card to order any text ever written: “Readers in Ulan Bator, Samoa, and Nome will have the same access to books as readers in Berkeley and Cambridge.”

And then there is afflatus:

Dante’s decision seven hundred years ago to write his great poem not in Latin but in what he called the vulgar eloquence—Italian, the language of the people—and the innovation in the following century of printing from movable type are landmarks in the secu-larization of literacy, and the liberalization of society, as well as an affront to the hegemony of priests and tyrants. The impact of today’s emerging technologies promises to be no less revolutionary, perhaps more so. The technology of the printing press enhanced the value of literacy, encouraged widespread learning, and became the sine qua non of modern civilization. New technologies will have an even greater effect, narrowing the notorious gap between the educated rich and the unlettered poor and distributing the benefits as well as the hazards of our civilization to everyone on earth…. That these technologies have emerged just as the publishing industry has fallen into terminal decrepitude is providential, one might even say miraculous.

This is not Epstein the sophisticate, Epstein the epicure, or Epstein the Talleyrand. This is the childlike Jason who would insist on publishing, quite apart from Random House, a Looking Glass Library of nineteenth- and early- twentieth-century children’s books; who wanted to bring back into print such “propaedeutic enchiridions” as E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It.

Only last October, a Times reporter at the Frankfurt Book Fair, stopping by at one of the many booths of the Bertelsmann conglomerate that now owns Random House, spotted a machine “about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle” turning out single-copy hardbacks at a rate of a thousand books an hour, seven dollars each. Practically every issue of TV Guide features a two-page spread advertising Gemstar eBooks—TV Guide‘s parent company, RCA, which used to own Random House—with instant access to magazines, newspapers, and best sellers by Patricia Cornwall and Robert Ludlum, plus an interactive dictionary: just plug them in to any phone line. Is the radiant future already upon us? It would be pretty to think so, except for the fact that only 20 percent of the human population has thus far migrated into cyberspace. And 40 percent doesn’t have electricity. And 65 percent has never made a telephone call.


Epstein was already a legend when I arrived in New York in the fall of 1967, as a junior editor at The New York Times Book Review. At the unripe age of twenty-two, fresh out of Columbia in 1949, he had talked Doubleday’s Ken McCormick into underwriting an Anchor line of quality trade paperbacks—the American equivalent of the Penguin Classics series—bringing into accessible being a host of dignified, durable, yet inexpensive editions of the brilliant books that made the modern mind. Titles such as Auerbach’s Mimesis, Baudelaire’s The Mirror of Art, Cassirer’s An Essay on Man, Conrad’s The Secret Agent, Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, Freud’s The Future of an Illusion, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, Malinowski’s Magic, Science, and Religion, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, Panofsky’s Meaning in the Visual Arts, and Schrödinger’s What Is Life?, not to mention novels by Colette, Gide, Henry Green, Henry James, Marguerite Yourcenar, and Lady Murasaki, essays by Orwell and plays by Strindberg, George Santayana and Ortega y Gasset, Franz Kafka’s Amerika, D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, and Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, were all of a sudden available to all of us, for $1.25 or less.

Almost immediately, benefiting everybody, Anchor would have competition from similar lines like Vintage. (Today, of course, the same conglomerate, Random House/Bertelsmann, owns both of them.) These books were what all of us who went to college in the Fifties read, along with The Anchor Review, published by Epstein, where the first big chunk of Lolita appeared between essays by F.W. Dupee and Dwight Macdonald. Long before any of us arrived from the provinces of the sullen South, the happy heartland, or the Left Coast, we had already eaten at Jason’s table.

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