Book business at a crossroads

Print edition : August 04, 2001

Book Business by Jason Epstein; W.W. Norton, New York; pages 188, $21.95.

THE book business in the United States and Europe is at a crossroads following the arrival of e (electronic) books, which account for 15 to 20 per cent of the trade. However, Jason Epstein, one of the most qualified persons to review the transformation of the book business from a cottage industry, believes that the printed book will survive for a long time to come.

Epstein, who started his career with Doubleday as an editor 50 years ago, still loves his job. He says, "A civilisation without retail book sellers is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artefacts of human nature. The feel of a book taken from the shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader." With this attitude, he joined Doubleday and switched to Random House after about eight years.

Epstein set out to elaborate his views on the book business in a series of lectures to the New York Public Library. Book Business is a collection of these lectures. Epstein has not provided charts and statistics. Instead, he has woven his theme with some personal experiences and anecdotes.

In the 1920s some young and enterprising men and women broke with tradition and started aggressively promoting literature and modernism. It was a highly personalised business. The U.S. was in the grip of a cultural revolution, which these young people exploited fully. When Epstein entered the field, he found these revolutionists well established.

Epstein recalls William Faulkner's visits to Random House. The writer used to travel by train to Random House to meet the editor. Faulkner was in financial difficulties and had a drinking problem. The editor and publisher were always there to help him. Faulkner was a native genius, but it was some years before the readers were not ready for him. The atmosphere at Random House was quite informal. The writers could walk in any time and some even slept there at night in a couch. W.H. Auden once turned up in a torn overcoat and carpet slippers to deliver the manuscript of The Dyer's Hand. Thomas Mann would spend a Sunday with Alfred Knopf and enjoy lecturing on the moral collapse of German romanticism.

At Doubleday, Epstein put forth a plan to bring out a series of books on the lines of Oxford Classics. The writers he enjoyed reading in his college days were out of print, but available in expensive editions. After the Korean war Congress passed a Bill on GIs, which gave incentives to young soldiers who wished to pursue higher education. This resulted in a boom in the publishing business. Epstein brought out Anchor books, which immediately became popular and paying. The first list of 12 Anchor titles included Edmond Wilson's To The Finland Station and D.H. Lawrence's Studies in Classic American Literature.

Epstein and Edmond Wilson soon became friends. It was Wilson who gave Epstein the manuscript of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, with the comments that he found it repulsive and that it could not be published legally. But Epstein neither found it repulsive nor considered it a work of genius. He accordingly wrote to his colleagues, acknowledging the legal risks involved but recommending publication of the novel. But Doubleday's legal adviser differed. There was a good deal of discussion on the subject and Epstein thought it was time he quit. He joined Random House. Random House asked him to bring new books and at the same time permitted him to start his own company if he so desired.

In the last two or three decades, the merger mania has caught the publishing industry. Random House is now a huge conglomerate. Book publishing in the U.S. is dominated by five empires, of which three (two of them German) are based outside the U.S. Epstein feels that publishing houses have lost their individuality. As the business is now in the hands of multinationals, the whole structure as well as the culture has undergone a sea change. Big corporations have to make their budgets and projections; the editors and the writers work under the constraints of the budget. But Epstein wonders how a corporate budget is prepared for Norman Mailer's next novel or determines the cash value of such writers as William Faulkner and Cormac McCarthy, whose works languished for years before they became valuable assets on the Random House backlist.

Even the author-editor special relationship is undergoing a change. Authors used to approach the editors through agents. But the role of the agent was limited. Once the editor took the manuscript in his hands, the agent would recede into the background. But with conglomerates taking over the business, the agent has assumed a very important role. Although the agent guards the interests of his writer, he is also particular about making more money for himself. Publishers are forced to accept his demand.

Information Technology has facilitated a reader in the remotest part of the globe to have any book at his desk at any time he wishes. Fifty years ago the publishing business experienced a revolution, and 50 years hence there might be a new revolution, the dimensions of which are difficult to foresee.

Like the publishing industry, the bookselling business has also undergone a radical change. A number of independent bookstores have closed in the face of competition from bookstore chains. These large chains need a large turnover to sustain and make reasonable profits. They, therefore, depend much on bestsellers. Every week they need such books that are hard to go by. Bestselling authors are few, and now find themselves in great demand. But their capacity to produce such books is limited.

With any big organisation comes some bureaucracy. Also such organisations are prone to lose touch with the customers. Epstein gives a telling example. In 1999, Random House published a book on the monumental life of J.P. Morgan. The author of the book, Jean Strouse, had worked for 14 years on the book. Reviewers commended the book as a major study in American economic history. The Los Angeles Times in a year-end list of books of the year, included Morgan. The New York Times did the same. But when the book came out, the Barnes and Noble chain had fewer than a thousand copies in the 530 stores. The bookstore had decided that the book would not be a Christmas gift. With the publication of the year-end list, Barnes and Noble was caught unawares. Meanwhile, independent stores sold copies of the book briskly as their staff knew customer tastes well.

Epstein is not a fanatical opponent of big business, but he points out that book publishing is different from running steel mills or any such enterprises. Here the relationship between the author and the publisher and the seller will remain personal.

Epstein has two other accomplishments to his credit. One is the publication of the New York Review of Books. In 1962, the staff of the New York Times went on a strike. Epstein told his friends, the Lowells, that the absence of The New York Times was a blessing. Along with Bob Silvers, who was then editing Harper's Magazine, and Epstein's future wife Barbara, and Lowell, a list of contributors was drawn. They decided to call the book review New York Review of Books, and collected some money. An experimental copy was received and it was beyond their expectations, and so was the second experimental edition. With such success, the founders had no difficulty in collecting the capital.

Another accomplishment of Epstein is the Library of America series of books, although the idea came from Edmond Wilson who felt that American writers should have a compact volume that could fit into the coat pockets and a uniform series, as in France and other countries. Both Wilson and Epstein drew a list of American writers whose books could be covered in this edition. The prospectus was prepared and was eventually endorsed by several writers. At that time an obscure group of U.S. scholars were working on the correct texts of American and British books. Since they were not a party to the Epstein project, they created trouble. Ultimately, MacGeorge Bundy of the Ford Foundation came to Epstein's rescue. With his help, Epstein could "sell" this idea of bringing out books in the Library of America series for the National Endowment for Humanities, which had a vast establishment. Epstein complains that of late the standard of books in this series has not always been satisfactory. Yet he has not lost hope for the book business.

A letter from the Editor


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