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Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future

Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future - Jason Epstein Epstein, Jason. Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

Jason Epstein’s résumé reads like a “Who’s Who” of the publishing world: over fifty years in the publishing business including the position of editorial director at Random House; creator of Anchor Books and the “paperback revolution,” as well as the Library of America and The Reader’s Catalog; cofounder of The New York Review of Books; winner of the National Book Award for Distinguished Service to American Letters and the Curtis Benjamin Award by the Association of American Publishers for “inventing new kinds of publishing and editing”. Notably absent from this impressive list is the role of author which Epstein plays in Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future.
Touted as a title that addresses the “severe crisis facing the book business today,” this work is Epstein’s first as creator rather than editor. Based on a series of lectures given to the New York Public Library in October 1999 Book Business discusses several aspects of the publishing profession from the author’s perspective based on his vast experiences in the field. Given his impressive repertoire within publishing, one of the main strengths of Book Business is Epstein’s familiarity with the inner workings of the business. He explains the five major corporate conglomerations or, as he calls them, publishing empires that dominate the field; the importance of a publishing house’s backlists and the unpredictable nature of best-sellers; the commercial corruption of big box stores and bookstore chains with their high turnover, “low quality” mentalities; tensions between authors, agents, publishers and editors; “name brand authors” and self-publishing tactics; issues with the electronic rights of materials in addition to offering a brief overview of the progression of the publishing business from the early 1950’s to 2001 when Book Business was published. What Epstein fails to do however, is address the “severe crisis” that the industry is faced with. He brings up concerns with hyper-commercialized chain stores as well as anticipated issues relating to electronic- and self-publishing, yet falls short of concretely defining them or offering solutions to these problems. Book Business concludes with a premonition of a future where “book ATMs” dispense printed copies of best sellers at every street corner and gas station, and where online book retailers such as Amazon.com struggle to remain afloat amidst competition with big bookstore chains such as Borders and Barnes and Noble.
The lecture-based method from which this book was created has several effects. First and foremost, the author’s descriptive, conversational style of writing is a pleasure to read, as if the reader and Epstein are sitting at the old Princeton Club on Park Avenue in 1970’s New York City, drinking dry martinis and reminiscing about the way things were back in the “good ‘ole days” of publishing. In this manner, Book Business reads more as a memoir than as an historical account of the publishing business. While there are certainly merits to writing memoirs and audiences who thrive on them, the title Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future is misleading. Rather, it should be called Book Business: My (Epstein’s) Past, Present and Future in Publishing.
A second, rather unfortunate, influence of the lectures from which Book Business was written is that the resulting book feels disjointed, jumping to and fro from different topics to people to issues. The flow of the writing is impeded by the attempt to bring together distinct oral presentations into one cohesive written account. Taken separately, the chapters are wonderful short essays from which the reader can catch a fly on the wall’s view of what it was like to be a publisher in the 1950’s, 60’s, 70’s and so on, including specific details from what type of décor a publishing house had to what a certain author’s typical wardrobe consisted of. While these anecdotes are insightful and interesting to read, the chapters seem to be haphazardly jumbled together without thought of how one should segue to the next.
The book does have a few recognizable features that deserve attention, particularly of the reference or biographical nature. The preface is very informational, explaining that the work is the result of the New York Public Library lecture series given by Epstein in 1999. Included at the end of the book is a comprehensive index that encompasses key authors and other persons of interest, places, themes, titles and events that come up during the course of Book Business. In addition there are footnotes found throughout that give additional historical or anecdotal information about the text.
Overall Book Business reads as an enjoyable memoir of a person who has a plethora of experience in the publishing field, who has worked with many influential and recognizable authors, created some of the industry’s most well respected publications, won prestigious awards, and remained a steady constant in an ever evolving profession for more than fifty years. What it lacks in flow of writing it makes up in style and ease of reading. Epstein’s ability to transport a reader to a particular time and place is exceptional, especially given that he has never before authored any books. While it falls short of addressing directly the so-called “crisis” that is affecting the publishing industry, the author does point out several concerns within the field.
Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future could easily be cataloged within the autobiography section of a public library. Although classified under the “Publishers and Publishing-History-20th Century” and “Publishers and Publishing-Forecasting” subject headings, the text reads more as a personal tale of Epstein’s life in the publishing world than as an historic or forecasting work. Book Business would be a complimentary supplement to more recent historical accounts of the publishing industry such as Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future (Public Affairs 2009), John B. Thompson’s Merchant of Culture (Polity Press 2010) and The Late Age of Print: Everyday Book Culture from Consumerism to Control by Ted Striphas (Columbia University Press 2009). It would also serve readers to have Epstein revisit Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future, readdress the concerns mentioned, and reevaluate his predictions of the industry now that eleven years have passed since the book’s publication.