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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction

Book Business

Jason Epstein

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To purchase Book Business

Title: Book Business
Author: Jason Epstein
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2001
Length: 175 pages
Availability: Book Business - US
Book Business - UK
Book Business - Canada
Vom Geschäft mit Büchern - Deutschland
  • Publishing Past Present and Future
  • An expanded version of three lectures delivered by Epstein at the New York Public Library in October, 1999
  • The first chapter, The Rattle of Pebbles, originally appeared in The New York Review of Books

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Our Assessment:

B+ : well-written account of an interesting life in publishing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The American Prospect A 29/1/2001 Scott Stossel
Brill's Content . 2/2001 James Atlas
Business Week B- 12/2/2001 Karen Angel
The Economist . 8/3/2001 .
The Guardian . 17/3/2001 Steven Poole
Harper's A 4/2001 Michael Korda
The LA Times A+ 25/2/2001 Richard Seaver
London Review of Books . 5/7/2001 John Sutherland
The Nation . 12/2/2001 Gayle Feldman
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 5/2/2002 Michael Schmitt
The New Republic . 1/1/2001 Larry McMurtry
The New Statesman . 23/4/2001 Nicholas Clee
The NY Observer . 8/1/2001 André Bernard
The NY Rev. of Books . 8/2/2001 John Leonard
The NY Times Book Rev. . 4/2/2001 L. J. Kirshbaum
The Times . 31/1/2001 Ion Trewin
TLS . 11/5/2001 Carmen Callil
Wall St. Journal . 11/1/2001 Elizabeth Bukowski

  Review Consensus:

  Generally very positive, though the reviews tend to be descriptive rather than critical

  Note that many of the reviews also consider André Schiffrin's The Business of Books (see our review) at the same time

  See also The Business of the Book Business: Reactions to Schiffrin and Epstein, at the complete review Quarterly

  From the Reviews:
  • "Epstein's book is witty, humane, clear-headed, and at times brilliant; yet because he's on the inside (...), his view is naturally informed and constrained by his position." - Scott Stossel, The American Prospect

  • "Epstein's book (...) is elegant in appearance and crisp in argument. Nor is it a whine." - James Atlas, Brill's Content

  • "Unfortunately, Book Business fails to deliver on its promise: Even at a slender 188 pages, it has the feel of a padded magazine article. (...) And when Epstein turns from business analysis to memoir, it proves even less satisfying. (...) Readers who are looking for more than a dose of conventional wisdom and a chronicle of one editor's career will probably be disappointed." - Karen Angel, Business Week

  • "The curious thing about Mr Epstein's book is its unexpected optimism. (...) A model of intellectual rigour and sobriety, Mr Epstein uncharacteristically permits himself in this book a certain breathless prose. But perhaps he is to be forgiven, for his slim volume is as much elegy as it is prophecy." - The Economist

  • "I most enjoyed the paratextual joke that this tiny book is so expensive." - Steven Poole, The Guardian

  • "(A)t once a thoughtful, witty, and surprisingly affectionate memoir of a life spent (one would judge, well spent) in book-publishing; a provocative, far-reaching analysis of the mess the book-publishing business is in now; and a look at ways in which salvation may be had." - Michael Korda, Harper's

  • "And yet, for all the grandeur of these moments, Epstein's perspective will strike cis-Atlantic readers as myopic. (...) Even if Epstein's version of publishing history is skewed and provincial, there is real meat in his forecasts." - John Sutherland, London Review of Books

  • "Epstein, arguably the most creative and innovative editor-publisher of the last half century, has written a gem of a book: thoughtful, witty, genuinely self-deprecating and -- even for someone who has been in the profession as long as I have and thinks he may, at long last, be getting the hang of it -- constantly provocative." - Richard Seaver, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It's not surprising, then, that the tone pervading Epstein's memoir (...) 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." - Gayle Feldman, The Nation

  • "Part of Epstein's book is credo, part of it is history, and part of it is prophecy; the credo is passionate, the history is confident, and the prophecy is hesitant, though I suspect it was chiefly for the prophecy that Epstein was induced to speak. (...) He tries to set the barely-tapped potentialities of the Web in the context of publishing history and methodology, as they have existed, more or less, since 1455, when Gutenberg printed his 42-line Bible." - Larry McMurtry, The New Republic

  • "Book Business is half-polemic, half-memoir. (...) Book Business does contain some enjoyable vignettes." - Nicholas Clee, The New Statesman

  • "The majority of the memoir portion of his book is an elegy for the way books used to be found and bound and sent to the stores, an essentially fond account of how editors really used to know their authors as people and even as friends, working with them, feeding them, sometimes lending them money and always fighting for them." - André Bernard, The New York Observer

  • "The big surprise about Book Business, an elegant cri de coeur fashioned by Jason Epstein from a lecture series he gave at the New York Public Library in October 1999, is its optimism. (...) Book Business makes us want a memoir. We want more about the company he kept, more about the b-school suits and merger maniacs who wrecked it all, and especially more about the friendships that foundered in the Vietnam years and the neocon Ice Age." - John Leonard, The New York Review of Books

  • "His memoir, brimming with nostalgia, is a charming ode to that past, even as it tries to decipher the technological future (.....) Originally delivered in 1999 as a series of lectures at the New York Public Library, Book Business has been expanded into a more complete package, but it still has the loping, slightly disjointed rhythm of a series of essays. (...) Reading his book is like enjoying a great jazz impresario: there's a wonderful riff coming at any moment. Not that I agree with much of what he says." - Laurence J. Kirshbaum, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Interspersed amid an enjoyable memoir about close on half a century of influential publishing, Jason Epstein shares some sobering thoughts on the future of the book business." - Ion Trewin, The Times

  • "If Mr. Schiffrin pays too little attention to new technologies, Mr. Epstein may place too much faith in them. He claims that e-books and the Internet will revolutionize and probably improve the book business. How this will come to pass exactly is left vague, aside from his proposal of a central online catalog that would allow readers to buy any book in print." - Elizabeth Bukowski, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Jason Epstein has had a remarkable and interesting career in publishing. He started his career at Doubleday, where he founded Anchor Books, the groundbreaking quality paperback line of classic books. (He also urged Doubleday to take on Nabokov's Lolita, without success.) He moved on to Random House, where he became editorial director. He was a founder of The New York Review of Books. He was instrumental in creating the Library of America. And he invented The Reader's Catalog.
       In its seven chapters Book Business does discuss -- as the subtitle suggests -- Publishing Past Present and Future. It does so mostly by example, however: Book Business is as much memoir (focussing on Epstein's career) as guide to the publishing industry. Fortunately, Epstein's career has been an interesting one -- and he presents it very well.
       Like André Schiffrin's The Business of Books (see our review), which was published at about the same time (and which was often reviewed together with Epstein's book), it traces the author's career while focussing on the changes publishing has undergone -- and the possibilities of the future. Epstein writes that twenty years ago he advised his children and their friends "to shun the publishing business, which seemed to me then in a state of terminal decrepitude if not extinction". Surprisingly, he now sees great hope and much excitement, believing we are on the verge of a great and fundamental transformation.
       Like Schiffrin and many others, Epstein believes that the publishing industry has got itself into the horrible state is in today because: "it deviated from its true nature by assuming, under duress from unfavorable market conditions and the misconceptions of remote managers, the posture of conventional business." A book-romantic at heart, he insists publishing is, in fact, not a conventional business: "It more closely resembles a vocation or an amateur sport in which the primary goal is the activity itself rather than its financial outcome."
       This quaint notion has a certain appeal (Schiffrin likes it too). But it is an outdated and unfortunate notion.
       Just consider his example: amateur sport, it must be noted, is generally very bad sport. Enjoyable for those involved, painful for the spectators (other than doting parents at their kids' Little League or soccer game). Good sports -- top quality competition -- is only found at the professional (i.e. paid (and usually highly paid) level). And even where amateur sport is good -- college athletics, for example -- it is, in fact, paid sport of a different kind. Similarly: professional artists tend to be better than vocational artists.
       One can understand that Epstein misses the good ol' days when everything was more convivial and congenial, and everyone knew one another, and the editors were protectors of their authors (often unappreciated) and love of books dominated all. The old Villard mansion must have been a great place to work, and the new Random House office is, of course, an oversized corporate nightmare.
       But why shouldn't publishing be a business -- a real one, and treated like a real one ? In fact, Epstein himself shows that money can be made: his Anchor Books line was a brilliant money-making innovation, as was the Library of America. (Indeed, the Library of America could be an unbelievable money-making machine if some of the directors were not obscenely over-compensated.) And he even managed to help found the unlikeliest of profitable ventures: The New York Review of Books -- a serious periodical about books, of all things ! -- that is, in fact, self-supporting (putting many other American periodicals that rely on non-profit status and a variety of benefactors to shame).
       Epstein correctly points out that one reason why the conglomerates that currently dominate publishing in America don't make much money is because they run their businesses so badly.
       The focus on big bestsellers is the most obvious mistake. Indeed, one of the big mysteries of contemporary publishing is why the biggest names bother using a publisher at all, instead of doing it themselves. Epstein notes that in the period ca. 1986 to 1996 a phenomenal "sixty-three of the one hundred best-selling titles were written by a mere six writers: Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, and Danielle Steel". Publishers generally don't earn money off of these titles -- they are loss-leaders which apparently give publishers clout with booksellers etc. The authors still publish with publishers because of the convenience -- and because the bloated contracts are a form of insurance: the publisher assumes the risk, not the author. Books by celebrities (ex-presidents, entertainment stars) are another source of huge write-offs, as money paid out is never earned back.
       Epstein also points out that backlists can easily be the main (and most reliable) revenue source -- but that instead of cultivating these publishers focus their attention on the sexier frontlist titles.
       All this does not mean publishing is not like other businesses -- it just means that many publishers (especially the huge ones) are running their businesses badly. Ambition and hubris gets the better of them. And the pressure for immediate results. (It is this -- the stockmarket's insistence on quarterly performance -- that is the only things that possibly differentiates publishing from other industries, though arguably there are many other businesses which are similarly disadvantaged (i.e. where growth needs to be carefully fostered over a longer period for good results).)
       Epstein also focusses on the shift in retailing, in how and where books can be bought. This too brings with it difficulties -- while the new technologies also afford new ways of reaching consumers. The parts on The Reader's Catalog are of particular interest, as he suggests why his model (and therefore also Amazon.com's model) was doomed from the start.
       Epstein also devotes considerable space to the promise of the new technologies. The ATM machine that can print out any book, anywhere, on demand is part of the future that he awaits "with wonder and trepidation." He sees the World Wide Web (and what might become of it) as particularly significant (unlike Schiffrin, who expresses strong doubts).
       Epstein expects the role of the publisher to be transformed by the new technologies. There seems some wishful thinking here on his part, as he suggests that "publishing may therefore become once more a cottage industry of diverse, creative autonomous units".

       Epstein's musings are almost always interesting. If some is guesswork, much is also well-founded. He speaks from experience -- and he entertainingly relates much of that experience as well. At times the book is too personal, veering off into a parade of reminiscences and anecdotes (though these are admittedly entertaining). But too much about the book business itself remains a mystery.
       Worthwhile, as a document of cultural history, an entertaining little memoir, and a book speculating about what the future might hold.

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Book Business: Reviews: Jason Epstein: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Jason Epstein was editorial director of Random House.

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© 2001-2010 the complete review

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