Digital Reader January 2001

The Believer

The Believer

In Book Business, the publisher Jason Epstein recalls a bygone era in American literary life, and sees hope of a renaissance
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Book Business

Book Business:
Publishing Past, Present, and Future

by Jason Epstein
W. W. Norton & Co.
144 pages, $21.95

When someone asks me why I became a fiction writer, I usually say simply, "Vladimir Nabokov." I had read plenty of great writers before discovering him, but Nabokov wasn't just another writer—he was a magician. Years before anyone had heard the term "virtual worlds," I experienced them in the pitch-perfect prose of the exiled Russian, where artifice and realism dovetail seamlessly into each other, and every phrase is a small narrative miracle. "Esthetic bliss," Nabokov called his goal as a writer, and he delivered it.

One of my most prized literary possessions is nothing more than a paperback: a 1956 issue of The Anchor Review, which was a literary review manufactured as a paperback book and distributed to stores along with individual titles from the Anchor Books imprint. This particular issue contains the first American publication of an excerpt from Lolita. That alone would make it a collector's item, but it's particularly notable because the ostensible premise of Nabokov's best-known novel ("ostensible" because Lolita is not simply about an older man's affair with a preteenage girl) caused a scandal that kept the book itself from finding an American publisher for nearly three more years. Unless you could get your hands on the 1955 edition from Olympia Press, the Paris publisher that originally brought out Joyce's Ulysses, that issue of The Anchor Review was all the Lolita there was in the United States until 1958.

Nothing more than a paperback. We can say that now, but back then such books were small miracles in themselves. My treasured copy of The Anchor Review dates from the "golden age" of literary paperback publishing, when someone had the bright idea to use a disreputable mass-market technology to make serious reading available to, and affordable for, the growing postwar audience that was created in part by the G.I. Bill.

That someone was Jason Epstein. In 1951, at the age of twenty-two, in the first year of his first job in publishing, he created Anchor Books at Doubleday and single-handedly invented the "trade paperback," which the entire industry soon imitated. I thought I knew the whole story behind the publication of Lolita, but I didn't know that amid the phony morality invoked to keep the novel out of print, Jason Epstein was forced to draw an authentic moral line in his professional life. Although he possessed enough editorial autonomy to publish the Lolita excerpt in his Anchor Review, Doubleday refused to publish the novel itself. "For me during these hopeless negotiations over Lolita it was as if I had been mistakenly placed in an asylum," he writes in Book Business, his new memoir and meditation on publishing. "Censorship by the courts was bad enough. Anticipatory censorship by a publisher was outrageous." Eight years after making publishing history by creating Anchor Books at Doubleday, Epstein left the company.

Jason Epstein is now one of the great men of American publishing in our time, having gone on to become the editorial director of Random House, a co-founder of The New York Review of Books, and the creator of such innovations as the Library of America and The Reader's Catalog (an attempt to create the definitive mail-order bookstore). Like me and countless other people, he had a magical encounter with serious books as an undergraduate, and he has now spent fifty years trying to extend that magic through the world while working in an industry determined to go in precisely the opposite direction.

Book Business is a fascinating little memoir of a brilliant career spent at the junction of commercial enterprise and intellectual exhilaration. It's getting a lot of attention in the world of new media, mainly because Epstein spends a couple of its chapters (previously published in The New York Review of Books) discussing the opportunities now offered by digital technology to do what he has been trying to do throughout his career: resuscitate serious publishing and bookselling, and America's literary life itself, even as the material essence of those institutions—paper and ink—begins to recede from the world.

Storytelling—transmitting the wisdom and history of the tribe through word, gesture, and song—is an innate human function. The publishing industry, constrained by obsolete technologies and a constricted marketplace, now implements this transmission poorly. Prospective new technologies foreshadow the possibility of a reconstructed industry, one that will perform its historic task with unprecedented scope and unimaginable consequences.

This has struck many people as an irony worth remarking upon—the gray eminence of printed books talking like a Webhead—but when reading Book Business one sees that it's not ironic or surprising at all. Epstein has always been a hybrid creature, half man of letters, half entrepreneur. In other words, a publisher. Alongside his recollections of Edmund Wilson and W. H. Auden he recounts his fascination with the details of setting up businesses and learning how to run direct-mail campaigns. Not surprisingly, the operations guy in him finds the power of digital production appealing, while most purely literary people find it frightening (if they think about it at all).

But Epstein's interest in digital technology goes beyond operations and into the realm of heroic crusade. In the 1950s, dimestore paperback technology was a sword that he pulled from the stone, and with its power he gave genuine literature to the folk. Since then, there has been a woeful absence of magic in the land, and publishing has "deviated from its true nature," as Epstein puts it, "by assuming, under duress from unfavorable market conditions and the misconceptions of remote managers, the posture of a conventional business. This has led to many difficulties, for book publishing is not a conventional business."

This process reached its logical culmination in the past decade or so as the entire American publishing industry was acquired by three or four multinational media conglomerates that know and care very little about books and reading, and have been "deluded by the false promise of synergy." Publishing, an industry whose true business is to nurture and broadcast truth and beauty, now belongs to corporate masters who have locked it up and demanded that it spin straw into gold. To fulfill this ridiculous demand, publishers have made a lot of very questionable deals with creatures who write the "formulaic melodramas" (Epstein's term) that give the owners what they want. These creatures deliver, but they extract punishing promises in return. Most readers don't know that publishers often lose money on the "brand-name" authors of blockbusters, whose gold-making power enables them to extort huge guarantees from the beleaguered companies that have become little more than their valets.

Unfortunately, saying "Rumpelstiltskin" will not end this particular nightmare. But saying "World Wide Web," "print on demand," and "electronic book" just might. A solid audience for quality reading still exists, and publishers still publish good books. The problem is that market realities force them to publish good books badly. Because of the high rate of turnover required by superstores and mall-based book chains, the shelf-life of quality titles has now grown laughably brief. "When this phenomenon first became apparent some thirty years ago," Epstein writes, "the industry joke was that the shelf life of a book had fallen somewhere between that of milk and yogurt. Since then the situation has worsened and the joke is no longer heard." The cautious optimism of Book Business is based upon the hope that the decentralizing power of the Web, along with digital production and distribution technologies, will mean that no book need ever go out of print; that serious writers will find serious readers in a marketplace unconstrained by a best-seller mentality; that online communities will provide self-reinforcing word-of-mouth promotion for good titles; and that "book publishing may therefore become once more a cottage industry of diverse, creative autonomous units."

It's something we all want to believe. But Book Business does not contain the secret business plan. Rather, it details Epstein's own failed plan for The Reader's Catalog, which the flap copy of Book Business calls "the precursor of on-line bookselling": "I found that our margin would be insufficient no matter how the business grew. The problem was not a matter of size. It was structural. Though we kept no inventories, had no retail premises or salespeople, and received payment in advance, a $25 or $30 average order simply did not produce enough margin to cover the cost of handling it and never would no matter how big the business became, for the more we grew the more infrastructure we would need."

According to Epstein, the business model of Amazon.com is flawed in precisely the same way; it's just that Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos hasn't realized it yet, though Epstein himself tried to explain the problem to Bezos when they met to explore Amazon's possible licensing of the Catalog's listings. Book Business maintains that a profound naiveté informs all Internet retailing to date—a naiveté that could be summed up as "We lose money on every sale but we make it up in volume." Yet after offering this damning criticism, Epstein's only alternative is a disappointingly vague and sketchy description of a "publisher's consortium" that could use the Web to sell front-list and back-list titles directly to readers, and yet somehow not put quality independent retailers out of business.

For all its lack of specificity about the future it envisions, however, Book Business is a charming window on publishing in the past fifty years, and a valuable reminder that there is no necessary dichotomy between the worlds of literary culture and the arts on the one hand, and the worlds of business and technology on the other. All human activity exists on a seamless continuum, even if it's the rare person who straddles any substantial swath of it. My favorite anecdotes in the book concern another old hero of mine, Norbert Wiener, who coined the term "cybernetics" and whose decidedly non-commercial The Human Use of Human Beings was published in paperback by Jason Epstein as an Anchor book. (Thomas Pynchon, who was a student of Nabokov's at Cornell in the late 1950s, and who famously incorporated thermodynamics and information theory into his fiction, is said to have learned about those ideas by reading Wiener's book, and it's quite conceivable that he would never have done so had it not been for Epstein's paperback revolution.)

Epstein's portrait of Wiener is affectionate, but it's the image of the prototypical eccentric geek: a plump, odd-looking man who dressed strangely, wandered into other professors' classrooms to write on their blackboards while they were lecturing, and who suffered from eyesight so poor that "he could see where he was going only by tilting his head up to peer over the tops of the thick, black frames of his glasses," Epstein writes. "As a result he seemed to be gazing at distant planets as we walked across the MIT campus toward the luncheonette where he ordered his habitual midday meal, a carton of milk and a bag of potato chips."

It was over one of those geeky, utterly un-New York lunches in the late 1950s that Wiener foretold, in great detail, the invention of microprocessors, the Internet, and even the networked electronic device later called the "DynaBook" by computer scientist Alan Kay. "One day as we sat in the luncheonette," Epstein recalls,

... Wiener predicted that within a decade or less, computers, which were then room-sized machines, would be miniaturized as solid-state devices replaced vacuum tubes. These miniaturized machines—he held out the palm of his hand to indicate their eventual size—would be linked by wireless or telephone lines to libraries and other sources of information so that everyone on earth could, in theory, have access to all but limitless data in an all-encompassing feedback loop, endlessly correcting and updating itself.

Wiener was slightly wrong about the "decade or less," but Epstein was much more wrong to dismiss Wiener's predictions altogether. Epstein's honesty about that mistake is, for me, the most poignant moment in Book Business:

My failure to take Wiener's prophecies seriously reflected the limitations of my own worldview at the time and that of my intellectual friends who were increasingly absorbed in Cold War issues and felt that the fate of Western civilization depended upon the positions they took in their articles for Partisan Review or in their dinner-party conversations.... I should have seen that Wiener was describing an even more profound technological shift than either [movable type or the internal combustion engine], but I had fallen under the spell of my New York friends. Because Wiener was not one of us, his prophecies seemed unreal to me and I ignored them.
From the archives:

Flashbacks: Prophets of the Computer Age
Two prescient Atlantic articles—Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think" (July 1945) and Martin Greenberger's "The Computers of Tomorrow" (May 1964).

I don't know about you, folks, but I found it absolutely extraordinary to see a co-founder of The New York Review of Books describe himself as being "under the spell of my New York friends," and thus unable to hear the prophecy of the brilliant geek from MIT. But this is the same man who quit a company where he was the young turk because his bosses wouldn't publish Nabokov's Lolita. If we could start with Jason Epstein's unblinking honesty and courage of conviction, I wouldn't worry much about the lack of specific business plans. Get the best editor-geeks in New York dining on potato chips and milk with the best techno-geeks at MIT, and this writer-geek thinks we'll all do plenty of twenty-first-century book business indeed.

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