The “Book Business” from a True Veteran’s Perspective

A publishing career spanning half a century is my dream, and Jason Epstein is the icon and achiever of this goal.

Epstein’s career is illustrious within the publishing world, boasting an impressive breadth and impact. Unlike many of the famous writers with whom he’s worked, including Auden and Nabakov, Epstein is still around to enjoy his accolades.

While his touch can be seen on bookstore shelves in the form of the “quality paperback” and within the foundation of publishing, his professional memoir is encapsulated, appropriately, within a binding in Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future (W.W. Norton, 2002). While slanted toward the niche group of people interested in book publishing, this is also a wonderful tale of history and the way relationships with books have evolved throughout the 1900s.

This iconic career began when Epstein stumbled across an editorial position with Doubleday in his early 20s and stayed a decade. Within that time period, he was the man responsible for the invention of Anchor Books, which made literature more affordable for the masses as opposed to the superior quality, expensive hardcover novels.

After that success, Epstein moved over to Random House. At this time, Random House was a family-style business located within the wing of one New York mansion, which is a much different position than the company currently holds as the world’s largest trade publisher. At this point, the memoir is peppered with allusions to illicit affairs and famous authors delivering manuscripts in slippers and spending the night on couches (and not always alone).

Epstein is a big-picture businessman that is able to look at book publishing from the editorial and quality-of-literature angle, as well as having envisioned new venues for sales and marketing. Responsible for numerous advances in the publishing industry throughout his career, Epstein was among the first to embrace the online retail giant in its struggling years, (ironically, he found fault with Amazon’s business model, which has boomed since the publication of this memoir in 2001).

This enlightening book, surprisingly small in stature considering the wealth of information contained within, cited book publishing to be on the edge of a vast transformation. Originally published in 2000, it may seem as if Epstein had a glimpse of the current challenges.

Since publication of his book, Epstein has capitalized on some of his own visions mentioned, most notably having launched On Demand Books in 2004. With yet another invention on his repertoire, the “Espresso Book Machine” is available at limited locations throughout the United States, Canada, and England for on-demand, affordable printing of books. Though I don’t see this invention having quite the impact Epstein may have once predicted, he was on target with his assumptions that more and more people would be reading from a digital device.

I suggest this title to anyone interested in learning more of the behind-the-scenes tale from a publishing great. The time invested to read it is well worth the decades of information condensed within. Jason Epstein has shared a memoir of an accomplished career, and his entrepreneurial spirit just leaps from the pages.

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