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  February 28, 2001 This month in Lingua Franca  

The Perils of Publishing
by Matthew Price

The gentleman publisher may be going the way of the dodo, but three of the remaining gentlemen of the book trade, at least, are not leaving without a squawk. A few years ago, Michael Korda, supremo of Simon and Schuster and editor of Graham Greene and Harold Robbins, published his gossipy memoir Another Life. More recently, Andre Schiffrin, head of the New Press and former chief of Pantheon, brought out a polemical memoir, The Business of Books, which decried the corporatization of the book trade. Now Jason Epstein has weighed in with the similarly titled Book Business: Publishing, Past, Present and Future (Norton), in which he muses, often nostalgically, on his times in the trade. (Then again, wouldn't you be nostalgic if you had manuscripts delivered to you by Auden in slippers?)

Epstein's résumé is one of the most illustrious in the business. The founder of Anchor Books at age 22, he became the editorial director of Random House and a cofounder of The New York Review of Books. He was, and remains today, a pillar of the New York intellectual establishment. On balance, Epstein's volume fared better with reviewers than Shiffrin's, which was often (and rather unfairly) dismissed out of hand. Though Epstein, too, laments the transformation of the printed book from sacred object into commodity, he is also somewhat hopeful, seeing the Internet as a possible antidote to today's bloated and commercial publishers who keep their eye only on the bottom line.

Still, the mournful notes of Epstein's memoir irritated a few reviewers, as did his (in their eyes) cockamamie schemes to use the Internet to revitalize serious publishing. Judith Shulevitz of Slate used one of her "Culturebox" columns to take on Epstein's thesis. "The man can sound dolorous when calculating the break-even point on a book," Shulevitz jibed. "His account of the past is so glowing, so detailed, so colorful, and his glimpse of the future so vague and contradictory, that I half suspect him of subverting his own message of hope by providing almost no evidence for it." (Epstein responded in kind on the site, fuming "your tendentious essay includes an error or non sequitur in almost very sentence, and degenerates into gibberish."). Of course, one supposes this slanging match was not quite what Epstein had in mind when he praised the liberating effects of the Internet in his book.

In The New York Review of Books, John Leonard, an old literary establishment hand himself, managed at the same time to valorize Epstein and portray him as a big city snob. "An elegant cri de coeur," Leonard called it. But Leonard took issue with Epstein's tendency to blame larger cultural forces and not publishers themselves for selling out: " seems to me that he lets the idiots of the hook by also blaming the agents, adverse market conditions, the internal combustion engine, and the whole idea of suburbs."

For its review, The New York Times Book Review, in an unusual choice, hired Laurence Kirshbaum, chairman of the Time Warner book group. "The reader is swept up by Epstein's fingertip brilliance, " Kirshbaum said, "as he ranges swiftly across the history of publishing, his adventures with authors like his friend Edmund Wilson and his first encounters with the digital future. Reading his book is like enjoying a great jazz impresario: there's a wonderful riff coming at any moment." Kirshbaum then adds: "Not that I agree with much of what he says." This comes as no surprise.

Other reviewers, however, were more amenable to Epstein's message. A "smart book," wrote Larry McMurtry in The New Republic. "Everyone concerned with literature wants to know what is going to happen to the homely old trade of book publishing in the Era of the Net, and who better to help us puzzle it out than Jason Epstein?" And Scott Stosell of the American Prospect praised the book as "witty, humane, clear headed, and at times brilliant." Stossel found that Epstein "vividly captures the flavor pre-1970s publishing--the intellectual perfervidness and the quirky, intimate feel of the Random House office..Epstein conveys the distinctiveness of the business, which was more like academia than industry." In comparison with Shiffrin's book, Stossell noted,"Epstein's arguments for why books are a special case are less high toned but ultimately more convincing."

Matthew Price


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