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Book Business [Paperback]

Jason Epstein
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 31 2002
Jason Epstein has led arguably the most creative career in book publishing during the past half-century. He founded Anchor Books and launched the quality paperback revolution, cofounded the New York Review of Books, and created of the Library of America, the prestigious publisher of American classics, and The Reader's Catalog, the precursor of online bookselling. In this short book he discusses the severe crisis facing the book business today—a crisis that affects writers and readers as well as publishers—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.


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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 --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Trade book publishing is by nature a cottage industry, decentralized, improvisational, personal; best performed by small groups of like-minded people, devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy, sensitive to the needs of writers and to the diverse interests of readers. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Gone With The Card Catalog Feb. 21 2004
Format:Paperback
The preface of BOOK BUSINESS mentions the very origins of written language: cutting or "scoring" a mark onto a board. He notes that "scorekeepers still keep score on boards". He might also have added that the early scoring was the first expression of binary code, the language understood by the tiny chips that run the giant scoreboards at the Super Bowl, as well as every other scoreboard or "computer" on Earth.
Epstein gives here a curious insider/outsider account of the book business over the last half century. He was decidedly inside when he began in the fifties, working with Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer to "publish" such legends as Nabokov and Faulkner. His anecdote of Nabokov is a gem. He runs into the author in the bar of the Paris Ritz in the early seventies. Nabokov, in a loud Hawaiian shirt and a loud Midwestern accent, raises a toast to Richard Nixon. Why Nixon? Because he believed Nixon would eventually triumph over the Viet Cong and that would lead, dominolike, to the fall of the Soviet Union, enabling him to return to his beloved homeland.
By the eighties Epstein and his ilk are being overwhelmed by mass market forces. Chain bookstores seem to be taking over the industry and reducing drastically the numbers of titles available for sale (and by extension able to be published). The pressure of real estate costs at the malls steadily reduced the selection at bookstores to a handful of bestsellers, "whose faithful readers are addicted to their formulaic melodramas". Publishers who in Epstein's early years were like intellectual families had by the eighties been reduced to mere distributors and advertisers. Between 1986 and 1996, he relates, "63 of the 100 bestselling titles were written by a mere 6 writers".
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Format:Paperback
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Just a quick note recommending this short book. Epstein, who spent most of his career at Random House, remarks on how publishing has changed over the years, with plenty of juicy anecdotes. Forex, the Dickens:
As you may know, the US was a book-pirate haven in the 19th century, and Harper Bros. grew to be the nation's largest publisher by pirating Dickens, Thackeray, the Brontes, Macauley -- really, the entire roster of bestselling British authors. Macauley's (pirated) History of England sold a remarkable 400,000 copies here.
Charles Dickens, who kept a close eye on revenues, made a trip to the US in the 1840's, to protest the theft of his work. His plea was ignored, and he didn't much like the country, either. He wrote a short, glum account of his visit, _American Notes_, which Harpers promptly pirated.
Dickens recounts a train trip from Washington to Philadelphia through what he thought was a storm of feathers, but which proved to be spittle from passengers in the forward coached. He also reported that US Senators spit so wide of the cuspidors that the carpets were "like swamps".
WH Auden, Epstein reports, had the disconcerting habit of showing up an hour or so early for parties and dinner invitations, so he could be home in bed by 9 PM.
Epstein was the first to publish a line of quality paperbacks (Doubleday Anchor) in 1952, and was a founder of the NY Review of Books. From his memoir, I'd say he had an interesting and fun career in publishing .
Happy reading!
Pete Tillman
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5.0 out of 5 stars The customer (reader) will decide ! ! ! Oct. 8 2003
Format:Paperback
A very enjoyable,well written read. As with most things the reader will be the one who makes the decision on how the book business will go,not the authors, publishers or the booksellers.This has happened in most fields and the industry stalwarts have,with the best of intentions,tried to control the changes,or at least tried to keep up in their own way.However; the "tried,true and knowledgeable" have usually been swept aside by forces "outside" the industry.This has happened with all forms of marketing as evidenced by "box stores" ,restaurant chains,the cars we drive,the clothes we drive,the music we listen to,etc. The book industry is like any other where the "establishment knows what's best"and acts like the person whose preference for lunch is cavier,blue cheese and a glass of wine;opens a restaurant and offers it to his clients,gets very little business,seethes,looks on his potential customers as lowbrows when they disagree with his choice;and goes broke.In the meantime another decides to cater to his customers and offers soup,sandwich and "free" coffee and prospers.The diner decides! Like it or not it was the voters who put Schwarzenegger in power in California yesterday;not the political establishment, regardless of stripe.
Socialistic type control by the establishment with grants,in-house editions,best seller lists,establishment, as opposed to reader,awards,etc.remind me of the days when the franchise owners tried to use black-outs to force fans to their games.The fans will decide if they want to go to the stadium,what team they want to watch and how much they want to pay; the same with readers.
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Most recent customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars An intresting journey into the history of book publishing
The world of book publishing and all of its adjunct business like book superstores, are an interesting yet hidden mystery. Read more
Published on Nov. 18 2003 by A. Reza Ruyan
4.0 out of 5 stars A semi-optimistic perspective from a veteran bookmaker
Publishing is a notoriously conservative, unprofitable, non-linear line of business. The most fascinating parts of Epstein's book are his accounts of how he did something a little... Read more
Published on May 25 2003 by Charles S. Houser
3.0 out of 5 stars This is a memoir, not an analysis
Jason Epstein has worked with many of the best writers of the twentieth century. He has helped revolutionize the American book market by introducing the quality trade paperback,... Read more
Published on Nov. 6 2002 by AppleBrownBetty
5.0 out of 5 stars Glimpsing the Future of Books
In book publishing since 1950, Jason Epstein knows firsthand the problems the industry has faced over the years and how recent technological advances are about to bring a... Read more
Published on April 17 2002 by A reader
3.0 out of 5 stars Book Business Not As Usual
Jason Epstein started in publishing fresh out of college at a time when the concept of Quality Paperback was still revolutionary. Read more
Published on Feb. 28 2002 by Maarten van Emden
5.0 out of 5 stars Laudator tempores acti
Similar in some ways to Diana Athill's "Stet" (in which Jason Epstein figures)lamenting the loss of good literature and little bookstores and gentlepersonly ways of doing... Read more
Published on Dec 26 2001 by D. P. Birkett
4.0 out of 5 stars Part Insight, Part Lament
This book is by Jason Epstein who also did a series of lectures on this topic (this is from the introduction). Read more
Published on Nov. 19 2001 by Jeffrey Leeper
4.0 out of 5 stars What the Web Does to Old Fashioned Publishing!
Like the hedgehog of legend, Jason Epstein in this book has one big idea: The Internet, he says, changes everything! Read more
Published on Aug. 13 2001 by Stuart W. Mirsky
5.0 out of 5 stars Just enjoy
Unfortunately it isn't a book that'll help us understand how to set up and run a business sucessfully. Read more
Published on June 26 2001 by "freddybilyk"
5.0 out of 5 stars Fine memoir with insight into the business
Many successful careers are the result of surprising and totally unpredictable turns of events, particularly turns of a psychological kind. Read more
Published on April 10 2001 by Dennis Littrell
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