Jason Epstein

The Business of Books

VTR Date: September 21, 2000

Guest: Epstein, Jason


The Open Mind
Guest: Jason Epstein
Title: The Business of Books
VTR: 6/21/00

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And my guest today presents us now with a book that an earlier visitor to our program, the renowned scholar, Howard Gardner, describes as “must read” for all who love books and publishing and for all who wonder whether either will survive. Indeed, that question and that theme, the very survival of books and publishers is one that seems to preoccupy a good many book-ish people here at the beginning of the 21st century.

Certainly no one more than Jason Epstein, former Editorial Director of Random House, co-founder of the redoubtable New York Review of Books and founder of the Library of America. Now, my guest writes that “Trade publishing is by nature a cottage industry best performed by small groups of like minded people devoted to their craft, jealous of their autonomy, sensitive to the needs of writers and to the diverse interests of readers. If money were their primary goal, these people would probably have chosen other careers. But most publishers and editors I have known prefer to think of themselves as “I do”, he writes, “as devotees of a craft whose reward is the work itself and not its cash value”.

Yet, Jason Epstein titles his provocative new W. W. Norton volume “Book Business” leading me to wonder just how he reconciles these views of trade book publishing as a craft and as a business. Which is the question that I’ll start off with.

EPSTEIN: Well, most crafts are also businesses. You pay your electrician. You pay a carpenter. Otherwise you wouldn’t have an electrician or carpenter, there wouldn’t be any. So, though no one in his right might would go into the book business to make money as he would to go … for example, go into the financial services business, or whatever … become a dentist … you have to make enough money to keep going. Otherwise you can’t be a publisher. So while money isn’t the goal, it’s an absolute necessity. So a publisher has to be a businessman.

HEFFNER: Yeah. But you know, it’s interesting. You write here in “Book Business” … “twenty years ago, when my children and their friends came of age I advised them to shun the publishing business, which seemed to me then in a state of terminal decrepitude, if not extinction. Today, I would offer young people to whom books are precious the opposite advice”. What’s made you change your mind?

EPSTEIN: Well both statements are true. The industry, as it now exists and has existed for many years is in a state of near extinction. But there’s a … the replacement of Gutenberg’s moveable type technology with today’s and tomorrow’s electronic technologies offers a wonder prospect which will replace the industry as we now know it. So one thing is dying and a new thing is being born. And that seems to me miraculous because there’s no necessary connection between the two events. The book industry may simply have died of its own ineptitude and nothing come along to replace it. But by some magical intervention on who’s part I don’t know, God, along comes this new electronic technology which is going to make … provide enormous advantages to writers and readers and even to certain kinds of publishers who can adapt to it.

HEFFNER: The E-book?

EPSTEIN: E-books.

HEFFNER: You know yesterday, in the New York Times though I had said to you please don’t date our program because who knows when it will be seen, there’s this advertisement, this full page … “The A List of E-Books”, and I couldn’t wonder at how rapidly it’s happened.

EPSTEIN: Well, don’t, don’t … don’t get too enthusiastic. The, the technological infrastructure for electronic publishing is in a very, very primitive state. Think of it as one person in the business has suggested, as the automobile business in 1907, 1910 … when you knew in general this thing would eventually work, but not yet. It wasn’t until Henry Ford was able to put “advanced technological solutions” together and make a car that business really happened. We don’t yet have efficient hand-held readers. I notice that Thompson Industries, which was supposed to provide for $100 a copy a so-called Gem Star Hand Held Reader, now wants $300 a copy for it. Well, that makes the marketing very difficult. Most people don’t want to read their books on their televisions or even on their laptop screens. So it will take a while before all that happens. What I think will happen though is that eventually there will be automated machines that will print copies of books in innumerable remote locations. Like ATM machines today.


EPSTEIN: They will be scattered everywhere, in all parts of the world, on the top of Mt. Everest, for that matter. So that everybody in the world can have access to the same catalogue of books that everybody else can have access to. That seems to me an epochal event.

HEFFNER: But you know, even before we get to this, why do you say, in such apocalyptic terms, that the industry itself, that publishing itself died?

EPSTEIN: Well, let me try to explain … This will take a minute.

HEFFNER: Take the minute.

EPSTEIN: As I said a moment ago, book publishing was never meant to be a business in which people could look forward to increasing growth and profits, which is what businesses are supposed to provide. And most businesses, in general do, ours doesn’t. It’s a very hit or miss business that has a lot to do with luck. It has a lot to do with unpredictable trends in the marketplace and so on. But in the 1950s and Sixties the people who started today’s major publishers, Random House, Simon and Schuster, Knopf, Viking and so on, who started these businesses back in the Twenties and Thirties, were ready to sell out. And so they sold out to companies that really didn’t understand that publishing was not a way to make money. Random House was sold to RCA, a company that no longer exists, but it used to make washing machines, television sets, so forth. It was inconceivable that they would understand what publishing really was all about. At length those businesses discovered what publishing was all about, that it was a very expensive thing to be involved in. Especially if you didn’t know what was going on. And they sold them to yet other hopeful people who liked the idea, the glamour of publishing. And they, too, found that it wasn’t a business, and they, too, sold out. I think when the current crop of conglomerators who own these companies discovers what the others have discovered … what we knew from the beginning … they won’t find buyers for one more round of this. What happens then … I don’t know. But nobody in his right mind would buy a publishing company today.

HEFFNER: But wait a minute, you say it’s not a business.

EPSTEIN: It’s not a business.

HEFFNER: Is that because you define a business as something that must maximize its profits rather than that must be able to get along?

EPSTEIN: Most businesses in which people invest capital …


EPSTEIN: … and expect other people to join them in that. Are expected to grow and increase their profits. Otherwise why invest in them?

HEFFNER: Well, that’s because you’re raising the question as to maximizing returns.


HEFFNER: I thought, in fact, when I read your book and when I read the earlier article that you wrote from which the book came, you wrote about an attitude, a feeling about communicating with others.

EPSTEIN: Yes, but you can’t expect people to invest their life savings in my feeling that I like to publish books for other reasons than making money.

HEFFNER: Suppose Bennett Cerf had gone along? Would he have gone broke?

EPSTEIN: Bennett … Bennett and the other publishers of his generation who started these companies, most of whom were Jewish, by the way, because the old line firms wouldn’t hire Jews, they had to start their own. And they became very innovative. Were rich … Bennett had family money, his partner, Donald Klopfer, they had a great deal of family money and a very rich wife. The same was true of Harold Ginsberg at Viking. Less true of the Knopfs, but he ran that business very, very tight. But these people did not go into the business for money. Bennett in his memoirs made it very clear that the last thing on his mind when he started Random was whether he was going to make money at it. And in fact, he and his partner Donald, who were wonderful men, Donald Klopfer didn’t take money out of that company until they finally went public with it and then sold it to RCA. They took very, very small salaries … less in many cases than they were paying their Editors. Less than I was being paid. They were subsidizing us. Bennett made a lot of money as a Lecturer, the author of many joke books, a columnist …

HEFFNER: Are you saying that publishing books doesn’t allow you to survive … I’m not now saying doesn’t allow to maximize, to do better, to grow and grow and grow … but doesn’t allow you to survive financially?

EPSTEIN: Well, you can survive, but you can’t survive very well.

HEFFNER: But then those people whom you write here, who felt about books, who were concerned with what the published and weren’t looking at this as a way of maximizing the return on the dollar. What’s happened to those people. Where are they? Couldn’t they survive today? Is it really as dreadful as you suggest?

EPSTEIN: I didn’t say it’s dreadful, but you have to make a choice. If you want to be a book publisher you have to understand that you can’t make much money at it.


EPSTEIN: You can’t . Your friends who …

HEFFNER: Teachers, and priest and sometimes doctors …

EPSTEIN: It’s a vocation. Book publishing is a vocation. More comparable …

HEFFNER: It’s a calling.

EPSTEIN: More comparable to what priests and teachers and some doctors do, than to what people who become lawyers or businessmen or Wall Street brokers, what they do. It is a vocation, you feel you’re doing something extremely important and it’s worth sacrificing for because without books we wouldn’t know who we were.

HEFFNER: So, what are you, what are you saying, Jason, that there are no more people who feel called?

EPSTEIN: Oh, there are. There are, there are some wonderful people working at Random House for example, who are willing to work for much less than their friends can make on Wall Street. And they don’t live very well, they never have. Some of them may have their own money. Many of them are women who share their apartments with other women or whatever who may be married to people who can help support them.

HEFFNER: So it isn’t the industry itself or it isn’t … strike that … it isn’t the profession itself for which there is no place, it’s an approach to the profession that it must generate the same level of profits as any other business.

EPSTEIN: Well, well because these companies now belong to large multi-national firms that expect that kind of result. And so they put pressures on the individual publishers. That’s not the real problem. There’s a further problem. When I first came into the business in the 1950s there were hundreds, maybe even thousands of wonderful independent bookstores who constituted the market for books. And in time editors like myself became very close to these people, we’ve talked on the telephone every day and you get a very good feeling of the ungallant and diverse book market … what was going on out there. And the book sellers knew their customers and they knew their inventory and our sales reps could talk to them and we could talk to them, and it was a world. When the great shift from city to suburb began in the late Fifties, early Sixties, all that changed. The book market, the book buyers were now living out in the suburbs and they were going to shopping malls. And the downtown bookstores were losing their customers and were going out of business. And the stores that opened in the shopping malls were paying the same rent as the store next door that were selling shoes and the store next door on the other side, they were selling hats and coats and what not. And it had to adapt accordingly. And that meant that they could .. these stores could no longer carry the rich complex slow moving inventories that city book stores had traditionally carried. They couldn’t wait year after year after year for writers like Faulkner, for example, to be discovered while they kept his books in stock. They had to have books that would turn over predictably, rapidly and bring in new books that would replace those as soon as their sales began to fall, so that meant that the market was now demanding of publishers that they produce nothing but best sellers. And that’s a terrible burden on publishers. That had many, many unintended and disastrous effects. Publishers who were able to write predictable best sellers, for example, were able to demand enormous advances against royalties, which meant in effect that publishers were sacrificing large, large proportions of their already marginal profits to keep these writers on their lists. And then it wasn’t only the major best selling authors who were asking for those guarantees. It was the authors and their agents in the second and third and fourth level down from there, who were also asking for those big guarantees. And why not? If they could get them, they should take them. I’m not faulting them for doing this, but this was a further burden on a business that really wasn’t meant to be profitable in the first place.

HEFFNER: What’s going to happen with E-commerce, E-books?

EPSTEIN: E-books are going to change …

HEFFNER: What’s going to happen to the waiting for Faulkner?

EPSTEIN: E-books are going to change the marketplace enormously. First of all when the technology is ready, and I think that’s going to be a matter of years … four, five, maybe ten before people have convenient ways of reading books on screens. And before these print on demand machines really become widespread and fully automated so that you can call up on your home computer screen a catalogue of all the books in the world, for that matter, there’s no … there’s no limit, there’s no space limitation out there in space. You can have a catalogue that would include every book ever written, in principle. And in every language. And so on your home computer you could call that up and look for what you’re interested in. Let’s say a book on 17th century French porcelains, written in Portuguese, who knows. And you could browse it on your home computer. And if you decide you want to buy it in the form of a bound book, paperback, you can push a button and your screen will say that your book will be ready in 20 minutes at the Kinkos store at the corner of Broadway and 10th Street, something like that. That will happen. Or that it will be ready at the corner of some mountain pass in the Himalayas. That will happen. And that will change the world of books enormously.

HEFFNER: Do you think it will kill lit?

EPSTEIN: No. It won’t kill it. It will have the same … it will have an effect comparable to, but on a much, much greater scale, to the effect of Gutenberg’s moveable type. We have … Gutenberg’s invention, if it was Gutenberg, in the last decade of the twentieth century became obsolete. It disappeared. There is no more movable type except in museums, replaced by electronic type. Vastly more powerful. Exponentially more powerful. Indescribably more powerful. And will create opportunities accordingly.

HEFFNER: All of this power, all of these opportunities, what happens then to the Faulkner waiting to be discovered?

EPSTEIN: Well, they’ll be much, much more effective communication among readers. Through linked websites dealing with matters of interest to them. For American literature, an author like Faulkner, if he were around today, and unrecognized, would appear on dozens, perhaps hundreds of websites.

HEFFNER: Self-published, in a sense?

EPSTEIN: No, he probably … there would probably be a publisher, it might even be called Random House, who arrange for his appearance on the web. Who would digitize “The Sound and the Fury,” who would publicize it in whatever ways that are available, just as today and would put it out not only on the single website devoted to William Faulkner, but to … but linked to websites on Southern literature, on writers who like to write like James Joyce … whatever. And so eventually a market would jell around a writer like Faulkner consisting of these linked website. And with each new novel the number of those websites might expand. So instead of doing what we do today and throw a book out into the retail market place without any idea where it’s going to go, Barnes & Noble orders a book from Random House, we print ten, 15, 20 thousand copies. We send it out. We don’t know where it’s going to end up. It’s going to end up somewhere in those stores. But who knows where and on what shelf and what clerks are going to open the package and whether they’re going to know what the books are about or whom they’re intended for. We don’t know that. That explains why so many books are returned unsold from book sellers to publishers. And why it’s so hard, sometime, to find the book you’re looking for in a bookstore. And why it’s so hard for authors to find their way to their appropriate readers. But in this other system, you will have targeted markets for each author. The technology makes that possible, and therefore it’s going to happen. Not today, but eventually. That’s going to make a whole new world.

HEFFNER: You know when you … brave new world?

EPSTEIN: A whole new world. It’s “brave” if you like to, sure.

HEFFNER: You know when you walked into the studio before you said we probably haven’t seen each other for 40 years, when I think back that far, I don’t think of you as being that optimistic a person. Shift in attitude? Because this sounds …

EPSTEIN: Ah. Well, I … it would be foolish not to be optimistic.

HEFFNER: You mean the alternative is so awful?

EPSTEIN: Well, as I say, it seems to me miraculous at this electronic replacement for Gutenberg’s movable type should have come along when it did. But that happened. And it opens prospects that … you know people hate to give up what they’re used … they cling to the past and they turn away from the future and so on. It’s a normal human response to, to change. In the past there’s many valuable things … I mean the Gutenberg’s movable type created the world that we live in, without that we wouldn’t have had the enlightenment … blah, bah, bah … you know all that. And for better and worse the world we inhabit and it’s gone. And people don’t like to deal with that problem because the infrastructure that accompanies it is also going to be gone, including most of what publishing companies do. That’s going to be gone, too.

HEFFNER: What do you see as the role, then for the kind of … forgive me … genius that you brought as an editor to …

EPSTEIN: Oh, editors are going to be indispensable, be more important than ever because …


EPSTEIN: … because a book can’t be published without an editor. You can’t just take a manuscript someone writes and digitize it and put it on, on the web. Even … I mean Faulkner had an editor. Who worked very diligently. He had two brilliant editors who worked with him very diligently … Sachs Cummins and Albert Erskine, and without them his books wouldn’t have been what they are. Authors need someone to talk to before their books are ready for the world.

HEFFNER: But will the kind of intelligence that under gird his editors and so many others, so many of the other great editors you could mention … the role you played … will that kind of intelligence be nurtured by E-books?

EPSTEIN: Why shouldn’t it be? What is it about E-books that would discourage that? Human nature remains the same, no matter what the new technology is …

HEFFNER: But human contact doesn’t seem to me to be …

EPSTEIN: Well, the contact would be between the author and the editor. And they would be as close as they always have been.

HEFFNER: Okay, listen, I embrace what you’re saying because I hope you’re right.

EPSTEIN: No, there had to be a time when there were not editors, there had to be a time when there were no publishers obviously, when Homer wrote whatever he wrote, if he did. He didn’t have an editor. His editor may have been the people sitting around the campfire batting these lines back and forth until they finally got it just right. Sophacles didn’t have … Herodotus didn’t have an editor. Whoever wrote the Psalms of David didn’t have an editor, so maybe they’re not absolutely indispensable, but they’ve become a habit. And I think writers do depend upon them. I hope they do.

HEFFNER: Is that why you would change your mind about giving advice to young people about going into publishing.

EPSTEIN: Yeah, it’s a very exciting business. It’s going to be really exciting. I mean now with the kind of networks that I’ve just mentioned, of linked websites available to authors, that mature and expand and proliferate and become more complex, with each new book they publish, that’s a wonderful opportunity. Each author will have a targeted … his own or her own targeted marketplace. Much better than we what we have now.

HEFFNER: How do you see this happening now. Who do you see, what do you … how do you see the transformation …

EPSTEIN: Well, I think …

HEFFNER: … taking place.

EPSTEIN: … well, as I said before, I think certain things have to happen first. There has to be a …

HEFFNER: The reader … the physical reader.

EPSTEIN: There has to be some kind of electronic … somewhat of downloading and reading these things on screen so people who like to do it that way … and these hand-held machines … I mean these print on demand machines, which I liken to ATM machines …


EPSTEIN: That might be set up in Kinkos and Staples and Starbuck’s stores, public libraries … who knows where … they’ve been fairly inexpensive machines. That will eventually be able to turn a stack of blank paper into a paperbound book indistinguishable from the kinds now made in the factories. I’ve seen them, There is no difference.

HEFFNER: Marshall McLuhan thought that the shift from the linear and from print to the electronic changed our … literally changed our perceptual apparatus.

EPSTEIN: I don’t think that …

HEFFNER: You don’t think this will happen.

EPSTEIN: I think it takes a … you know M. Smith once said “it takes a lot … a city takes a lot of ruin and it takes a long, long time to destroy a city”. It takes a long, long time to change human habits. And I don’t think that his prediction has worked out yet. People still read books.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you’re saying …

EPSTEIN: And they … and in greater number than even before …

HEFFNER: You know, that’s the contradiction … we just have a minute and a half or so left, but that what seems to me to be the basic contradiction … we still read books. So many, many, many more books are published now …

EPSTEIN: You’re right.

HEFFNER: … than even before.

EPSTEIN: And, and I suspect better ones.

HEFFNER: Then what’s all the fuss about?

EPSTEIN: Can’t make any money at it, it’s not a business.

HEFFNER: You mean you can’t make more money.

EPSTEIN: You can’t make enough to sustain a business in which people will invest. That’s the measure of what a business is. If people invest in it, it’s a business. if they won’t, it’s not. And the ones people won’t invest in will tend to disappear.

HEFFNER: And you think that’s what’s …

EPSTEIN: I think that’s what’s happening to the conventional, traditional Gutenberg oriented publishing industry. But as I said, we’re about to see something quite new. And that will happen. The other thing we need, of course, before electronic publishing can work is a vast catalogue of everything in the world that would be available that way. Easily scanned, authoritatively annotated, that would be a wonderful project for someone with a lot of time on his hands, and a lot of money to undertake.

HEFFNER: Well, you‘ve done that in a sense.

EPSTEIN: I tried once, but it has to be on a much larger scales. Are you referring to the Readers’ Catalogue?


EPSTEIN: That I did? … It was a little one. There’s only 40, 000 titles in it. But we’re talking now about hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of titles.

HEFFNER: Anyone doing it?

EPSTEIN: No, it would be a wonderful thing for the public … for the great urban public libraries of the world. London Library, New York Public, Beijing Library to get together and do it.

HEFFNER: You know, let’s not wait another 40 years before we see each other. But I hope that your optimism that you express now pays off. And thank you very much for joining me today on The Open Mind.

EPSTEIN: I wouldn’t mind seeing your 40 years from now.

HEFFNER: [laughter] Bye, bye, Jason

EPSTEIN: Take care.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Stations, new York, New YORK 10150.

Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.