W.W. Norton, 2001
ISBN: 0-393-10376-5
For most readers, the business of publishing books can seem monolithic and static. The major players in the publishing industry have remained unchanged for as long as most of us can remember. The look and feel of a book from fifty years ago is roughly the same as one published today.
         But, like all businesses, the publishing business has evolved over time. In his new work, Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future, one-time Random House Editor Jason Epstein takes a critical look at the publishing business as it evolved in his lifetime and offers some propositions as to where it might go in the future.
          Book Business began as a series of lectures delivered by Mr. Epstein at the New York Public Library. Its beginnings as a lecture series carry through the book, giving it an intimate, almost conversational tone. As a result, the work has the feeling of a man telling his life story. But since Mr. Epstein’s life story parallels that of the publishing business in the last fifty years, he cannot tell its story without telling his own.
        And the stories he tells along the way are remarkable. He remembers Terry Southern sitting in Random House’s mailroom, laughing as he reworked the manuscript of Dr. Strangelove. He remembers Ralph Ellison explaining with his hands how Thelonius Monk developed chords. And he writes at some length about his sometimes-difficult friendship with Vladimir Nabokov.
         But it is his discourses on the development of the publishing industry that form the heart of the book. Mr. Epstein’s central argument is that the book business is by its very nature inefficient, but that as new technologies become available, possibilities to improve the process of manufacturing, distributing and selling books become feasible. Some of the technologies of which he writes, only now in their infancy, are nevertheless beginning to invade the industry. The Rocket e-Book reader, a hand-held electronic device that stores and displays text digitally, is new to publishing. Yet, this review was written from the Rocket e-Book edition of Mr. Epstein’s book. Likewise, the journal in which you are reading this review is made possible by the many technologies that comprise the Internet.
         Mr. Epstein has an intriguing way of borrowing ideas from other disciplines and showing how they apply to the publishing business. His approach is similar to that of James Burke in his book, Connections. For example, he tells the story of a book he edited entitled The Life and Death of Great American Cities, which at first glance might appear to have no relevance. But Mr. Epstein relates the decline of urban centers and the rise of the suburbs to the decline of the urban bookstore and the rise of the suburban megastore. The modern tendency to favor huge sellers and large inventory over modestly selling but higher quality books has brought a certain sameness to the literary landscape, just as suburbanization has given uniformity to the physical landscape.
         Mr. Epstein finds a similar connection in a book by Norbert Weiner, an Electrical Engineering Professor at MIT. Weiner’s book, entitled Cybernetics, deals with the idea of self-regulating mechanisms. Mr. Epstein finds in this book a metaphor for the publishing business. As he sees it, the industry itself will naturally tend to move toward technologies that enable it to survive. The route he takes to arriving at this metaphor, along with a portrait of Norbert Weiner that is as colorful those of any of the famous authors who appear here, is as enlightening as it is entertaining.
         For all of the fundamental problems that Mr. Epstein finds with the publishing industry as it is now, Book Business remains an essentially optimistic work. In Jason Epstein’s view, the future of publishing lies in using the Internet and digital technology to further the written word. He does not foretell the demise of the bookstore or of the printed book. Rather, he sees digital printing technology as a means of producing books economically and the Internet as a means of reaching highly specialized consumers. Mr. Epstein’s view of the future is that of vastly improved world for the written word. His experience and knowledge lend credibility to his optimism.