Book publishing -- from a principled insider

January 21, 2001|By Brian D. Weese | By Brian D. Weese,Special to the Sun

"Book Business: Publishing: Past, Present, and Future," by Jason Epstein. W.W. Norton. 188 pages. $21.95

With more than a half-century of experience in book publishing, encompassing its heights as a clubby, small-scale, gentlemanly industry to its decline into abject commercialism, Jason Epstein is well-positioned to offer intriguing insights and commentary about the state of American publishing. In this well-written book that evolved from a series of lectures given by Mr. Epstein at the New York Public Library in October 1999, he avoids the gossip that is typical of many "insiders'" recollections and takes the industry to task for the declining quality of what is published today.

Spread among the chapters in this brief book are highlights of Mr. Epstein's career, which began at Doubleday in 1950. There he learned how to "be" an editor, largely through reading unsolicited manuscripts and chatting with other editors. To his credit, Mr. Epstein recognized early that publishing books of enduring quality was the way to success. He introduced Anchor Books to make quality literature more widely available in paperback. He moved on to Random House, where he continued to edit books, while on the side he started the New York Review of Books in 1962, launched the Library of America, conceived of the Reader's Catalog (through which one could order any of 40,000-plus titles via a toll-free number) and continued to be a keen observer of the industry as it struggled with the competing desire "to find and promote unconventional titles of permanent or even passing value," and the corporate insistence on profitability.

Anyone familiar with bookselling today will sympathize with Mr. Epstein as he laments the rampant commercialism of publishing. As he reminds us throughout his book, it is the search for the next best seller that drives publishers today, and this push is a result of the acquisition of many major American publishing houses by large conglomerates focused on profits, not product. An added impetus was the rise of the mall-based bookstore chains in the 1980s and the superstores in the 1990s, whose primary goal is a rapid turnover in inventory rather than a carefully selected inventory reflecting the community it serves.

While the history of book publishing will be of mild interest to many casual book consumers, Mr. Epstein's most interesting observations are those in which he optimistically assesses the future of publishing and bookselling in light of the Internet and electronic books.

With popular authors like Stephen King able to offer their work directly to consumers, Mr. Epstein notes the increasing direct access between readers and writers, and challenges publishers to "acknowledge their reduced role and adapt accordingly." The ability to deliver content unencumbered by bindings presents new opportunities for publishers willing to be innovative and flexible.

Mr. Epstein has watched publishing go through crisis as it lost its focus on quality and became a victim of the short-term success of super bookstores and their emphasis on commercialism. Given his experience and thoughtfulness, readers would eagerly welcome an even more thorough consideration of electronic books, e-tailing and new bookselling strategies for publishers and booksellers, in a follow-up volume.

Brian D. Weese is co-owner of Bibelot, a bookselling company he founded with his wife in 1995 that now has four stores in the Baltimore region. He is co-publisher of Woodholme House and from 1985 to 1994 ran the Encore Books company.

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