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Publishers Caught in a Web | The Nation

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Publishers Caught in a Web

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Jason Epstein's Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future is the third memoir of a major American life in book publishing to reach print in less than two years. It is at once a sign that the guard is changing and a recognition that the business has already changed. It is also, in the case of the 72-year-old Epstein, an opportunity to gaze into the crystal ball to predict the changes to be, something he has been rather good at during the course of his long career.

Simon & Schuster's Michael Korda got the triumvirate rolling in 1999 with Another Life, gossipy and entertaining and novelistic, like the books Korda often publishes. The New Press's André Schiffrin--famously ousted from Random House's Pantheon Books, the once independent imprint his father started--followed suit more recently with The Business of Books, the kind of polemic he has sometimes featured on his list [see Daniel Simon, "Keepers of the Word," December 25, 2000].

It's not surprising, then, that the tone pervading Epstein's memoir--which began with a series of lectures he gave at the New York Public Library, formed two essays in The New York Review of Books and was coaxed into a book by Norton president Drake McFeely--is cool and elegant and full of the gravitas of a man who wanted to be a great writer and instead ended up publishing many such, Morrison and Mailer and Doctorow among them.

He arrived at Random House in 1958, having deemed it time to leave Doubleday when he was prevented from publishing Lolita there. While at Doubleday he had founded Anchor Books and with it the trade paperback format in America. He retired as Random's editorial director in 1998, and during the four decades in between started the Library of America, a unified series of reprints of great American literature; The Reader's Catalog, a kind of print precursor to Amazon; and The New York Review of Books. He had a reputation as a brilliant editor but went beyond that to envisage change and make it happen, and in the process made himself into a pillar of the New York intellectual establishment.

"If I have any regrets, I can't think what they are," he declared during an interview recently, sipping homemade espresso at his large kitchen table in an opulent downtown apartment that could double as the upscale set for one of Woody Allen's Manhattan tales. He still edits authors he's been associated with but now does it from home. He prefers to be based there rather than in the Random corporate offices, wishes to put space between himself and an "increasingly distressed industry" mired in "severe structural problems." Prominent among them are a chain-driven bookselling system that favors "brand name" authors and often returns other new books to their publishers after only a few weeks on the shelves, before the titles have a chance to establish themselves; and a bestseller-driven system of high royalty advances that often do not earn back the money invested, a system that ratchets up unrealistically high sales expectations for new titles overall, and in so doing makes it increasingly difficult to publish certain kinds of books.

One-third of the way through his slim text, Epstein writes that his career has demonstrated an "ambivalence toward innovation." Ambivalence also pervades this elegiac book. Perhaps it is inevitable when a man looks back to his youth and forward to a future in which he will not play a major part, even if he is hopeful about that future. Perhaps, too, it is inevitable when confronting the distress signals of an industry he has spent his life in and clearly loves. Epstein shares his visions of a publishing future liberated electronically, but that future harks back to a deep-seated nostalgia, a longing for what was. His book seems to predict that technology in the form of the Internet will restore to the book business a certain lost rightness from the past.

His first chapter, like Dickens's Christmas tale, moves back and forth among past, present and future in an attempt to limn the larger changes of the past fifty years and what may yet unfold. The rest of the book is chronologically structured. It follows Epstein's career and the transformation of publishing from primarily small-scale, owner-operated enterprises rooted in the 1920s "golden age" of Liveright and Knopf to the "media empires" of today, which are forced to operate within an "overconcentrated," "undifferentiated" and fatally "rigid" bookselling structure. Now, he says, "there can't be Liverights or Cerfs because the context is so different. Roger Straus is the very last of them," and even he has sold his company to the German firm von Holtzbrinck.

Publishing must return to being "a much smaller business again," Epstein is convinced. "It has to, it's a craft and can't be industrialized any more than writing can. It's about to undergo a huge structural shift and there's nothing the conglomerates can do about it. The marketplace has shifted out from under them: the system of big money bestsellers defeats the possibility of building a sustained backlist. And without a sustained backlist, publishing cannot function in the long term. Providentially, just as the industry was falling into terminal decadence, electronic publishing has come along."

Epstein is in no way predicting the demise of print. Rather, his future is predicated on a kind of universal electronic Reader's Catalog, "much like Amazon" but far beyond it, "multilingual, multinational, and responsibly annotated. People will access it on their computers at home, in the office, and in kiosks like ATMs. It will be possible to browse those books, and downloading technology will eventually solve the problem of making it possible to buy those books. They won't exist in print until they're actually bought.

"There is no room on the Internet for middlemen, who sell the same product as their competitors, competing on the basis of price and service, and in so doing eat up their margins." Epstein is of course speaking of the Amazons and B&N.coms of today. "I think Amazon can't be here that much longer," says the man who sat at this same kitchen table doling out advice to its CEO, Jeff Bezos, a few years back.

As for brick-and-mortar stores, "the chains aren't tenable, either. They never were. The superstores have become what the old mall stores were. There are far too many of them, Waldens with coffee bars, and they will shrink. Stores run by people who love running bookstores will arise spontaneously like mushrooms and find a way to stay in business once the chains begin to recede."

And the conglomerate publishers? "I think they can show some financial progress for some years by cutting costs and cutting out redundancies, but eventually they'll find themselves with expensive traditional facilities that are increasingly irrelevant. They'll have to offload many functions on to specialist firms. In the end, they in turn will look for a buyer if they can find one. They should have noticed that the previous owners were all too happy to sell."

Meanwhile, authors will have found a way to bypass their publishers by going directly to the web. People will start independent authors' websites. Books will be much cheaper. Authors will have a much larger share of the revenue.

Stephen King has already gained notoriety in trying to do so. But the spectacular starting bang of Riding the Bullet, done in conjunction with his publisher, Simon & Schuster, attenuated when he tried to serialize online a novel, The Plant, on his own. A downturn in paying customers for the later chapters led King to abandon the project. Asked about this, Epstein insists, "It's like the days of the early cars that ran off the road into the mud. People said cars would never work. Well, one of these days e-publishing will work."

Of other experiments now being tried Epstein is openly dismissive, and he sees a kind of Darwinian process filtering chaff from grain. Mighty Words and similar online publishers "don't know what a book is," he contends. "But people know what a book is. Human beings are designed to distinguish value, and in my opinion that problem will take care of itself."

He disregards the tremors that have gone through the publishing houses ever since B&N.com announced it was getting into the business of publishing books. Barnes & Noble Digital was formed the first week in January to compete with the new electronic subsidiaries of traditional publishers, which are bringing out digital versions of new titles readable on PCs or dedicated devices, as well as original works specifically created for electronic distribution. In addition, they are digitizing backlist and out-of-print books that can be reprinted in very small quantities in a process known as print-on-demand."It's yet another premature entry," says Epstein. "B&N's publishing experience is limited to a remainder operation. That's entirely different from bringing out original works."

While Epstein criticizes the proverbial naysayers' laughing at those early cars stuck in the mud, at the same time he cautions, "I don't think an author who has worked hard to create something of value will want to risk it in the electronic format at this point." He says bookstores will wind up selling new titles at much lower prices than is now the case, $10 or so, but "can't figure out" how that will be done in the black. His predictions are compelling, but they are also much too vague--for instance, he sets out no time frame or actual mechanics for what he believes will transpire.

The bloat of the superstores is something publishers have worried about for years, almost from their rollout. This holiday season's flat sales at the three biggest chains; the margin-slashing of Amazon; and the re-energizing of the independent stores through a marketing program called Booksense, which includes web-based retailing, all serve to illustrate Epstein's points. Borders went so far as to put itself on the block, but found no willing takers. Recent murmurs about B&N's CEO Len Riggio entertaining a buyout offer from media conglomerate Gemstar-TV Guide International, which has aggressively entered the e-book technology market, did not result in a deal but also were more than simple gossip.

The past twenty years have seen the RCAs, MCAs, Advance Publications and the like learn their lessons and abandon book publishing, as Epstein has noted. Other conglomerates have already tried to offload their publishing components and in time will try again. But it also can't be ignored that companies like the German-based Bertelsmann (which acquired Bantam, Doubleday Dell and Random House and consolidated them) and von Holtzbrinck (which has bought Holt, St. Martin's and Farrar, Straus & Giroux) have their roots in the book business itself. They are therefore not as likely to exit the scene as Epstein would have us believe.

Undoubtedly, many of Epstein's electronic dreams are prescient and will one day come to pass. The companies that first turn them into reality, though, will likely be turning out works in the professional, scholarly, reference and educational sectors rather than in the trade world he knows so well. But although the Internet will change book publishing profoundly and in ways even Jason Epstein can't predict, other forces are at work as well and shouldn't be ignored.

A couple of years ago a brilliant and rich entrepreneur who also happens to be a profoundly bookish man devised a model, not unlike Epstein's nostalgic vision, of devolved companies publishing real books that share a central financial source. It is called the Perseus Group. It is still in its early days, far too soon to know whether it will last. But Epstein's longing for a more civilized, human-scale publishing business is shared by many. The Internet may help bring it about, but it won't do everything.

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