Long live the codex

John Sutherland

  • Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future by Jason Epstein
    Norton, 188 pp, £16.95, March 2001, ISBN 0 393 04984 1

Jason Epstein’s imagination stretches from primeval man, arranging ‘meaningful phonemes to the beat of stone upon stone or to the sound of hollowed logs used as drums’, to the impact on book business, eons hence, of ‘the global village green … undisciplined, polymorphous and polyglot, as has been our fate and our milieu ever since the divine autocracy showed its muscle by toppling the monolingual Tower of Babel’. And yet, for all the grandeur of these moments, Epstein’s perspective will strike cis-Atlantic readers as myopic.

British publishing gets one brief and misspelt mention in Epstein’s conspectus of the trade, Book Business. In 1958 he and another New Yorker, Barney Rosset, the founder of Grove Press, considered buying Penguin Books’ American branch. The two men crossed the pond for talks with Alan [sic] Lane. Epstein was not impressed. He decided that Lane, ‘like most British publishers’, was in hock to his bankers. The penguin would never fly. Epstein went home to the skyscrapers, where a publisher could spread his wings.

The glorious world of General Trade Publishing, as mapped by Epstein, was formed by the so-called ‘Jewish publishers’ of the 1920s – Horace Livewright, Alfred Knopf and Bennett Cerf, New Yorkers all. It was these patriarchs’ good luck to coincide with a ‘cultural transformation that became known as Modernism’ – Joyce, Hemingway, Eliot, Dreiser, O’Neill, Pound, Yeats, Crane. Not all New Yorkers – but let that pass. Came the great books, came the great men to publish them. They operated canny cross-subsidies by which revenue from disvalued bestsellers was ploughed back into worthier literary ventures. This is the essence of GTP. Edna Ferber paid for Gertrude Stein. Ferber has been forgotten; Stein is eternalised in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. The ‘Jewish publishers’ appreciated that the important thing was to keep their great books in print. For bookmen like Livewright, Epstein’s particular hero, ‘the function of the frontlist was to enhance the backlist.’ It was the added good fortune of this generation of publishers to coincide with the Great Depression. Hard times are good times for books, particularly cheap books (which tend to be backlist items).

The Golden Age extended, as Epstein sees it, through the postwar boom, fuelled by the GI Bill, expanded higher education and the paperback revolution of the 1960s (an event for which Epstein takes – and is usually given – personal credit). The fall came with the white flight from the metropolis to the suburbs, leaving independent booksellers in the cities without walk-in custom. Enter, in 1969, the book chains, serving a ‘malled’ and wheeled America and offering uniform, centrally managed retail outlets whose contents were the same from Bismarck, North Dakota to Albuquerque, New Mexico. In these glistening malls, Waldenbooks or B. Dalton had to pay the same high rents as the shops next door, Florsheim’s Shoes or Miller’s Outpost. This meant high volume, fast turnover. The chains aren’t interested in the backlist. The ‘product’ that sells best is ‘celebrity’ books (ghostwritten and run up in weeks), New Age nonsense, how-to books. Non-books, Epstein would think.

The publishing industry, meanwhile, has been transformed by mergers and takeovers into ever larger units, and these gigantic new conglomerates have imposed alien business norms. As Epstein ruefully records, ‘when General Electric, a famously well-run company, acquired RCA in 1986, it immediately expelled two divisions that didn’t meet its standard of profitability: a poultry grower and Random House.’

At the same time, the literary agent has been growing in power, corrupting the communal intimacies of the American book world. Epstein can remember when agents were no more than scriveners and gofers. Now they rule the roost, holding auctions, selling subsidiary rights and hawking around their clients to jack up advances to bankrupting levels. What publisher can be friends with a writer whose agent wrings $10 million out of his hide? It gets worse. The top tier of superselling American authors are dispensing with the services of even these jackals on the grounds that they are insufficiently predatory. Last summer, Tom Clancy fired the agent who had represented him for 15 years and hired a ‘business manager’, Michael Ovitz, who, he hoped, would market his technothrillers more lucratively in Hollywood.

Most of what has happened to the book business since 1960 is, according to Epstein, retrograde. ‘Trade publishing’, by which he means the careful making of good books, is ‘by nature a cottage industry, decentralised, personal’. He concedes that books are a business, but adds ‘though not a very good business’. Like poultry, they thrive best in free-range smallholdings. However, as every New Yorker knows, you can’t go home again. The book business has not always had publishers: Caxton would have seen himself as a bookseller, Gutenberg as a printer. Perhaps, like the hot-metal compositor and the maker of buggy whips, publishers have had their day. In which case, Jason Epstein was lucky to have lived when and where he did.

In a profession ruled by inertia, Epstein’s career has been unusual, and it is appropriate that he should have received an award from the Association of American Publishers for ‘inventing new kinds of publishing and editing’. The future inventor joined Doubleday in 1950, with a Liberal Arts BA from Columbia University, earning $45 a week (enough to buy five hardback books) and living happily in ‘the Village’. It was, he records with a Wordsworthian flourish, ‘a good time to be young in America and magical to be young in New York’. At Doubleday, a firm whose primary interest was its book club business, Epstein learned valuable lessons about mail order and how to package the product. Two years later, still in his twenties, he launched, under the Doubleday banner, his own list – Anchor Books. These were, in the parlance of the time, ‘quality’ or ‘egg-head’ paperbacks: his first title was The Charterhouse of Parma. Anchor Books, Epstein claims, ‘reshaped the publishing industry’. (Never mind that Allen Lane had been publishing quality paperbacks – including editions of Stendhal – for decades.)

Epstein left Doubleday when they refused, on moral grounds, to publish Lolita. He did not think Nabokov’s novel ‘a work of genius’, but felt, as a point of professional honour, that it ought to be published by a respectable American house and not left to stew in the degradingly pornographic company of Maurice Girodias’s Olympia Press. He joined Random House (then a ‘family-sized’ publisher) in 1958. Now a top editor, he cultivated the house’s top authors. Auden, Dr Seuss and John O’Hara are recalled here in vivid anecdotes. A bunch of his authors line up to offer puffs for Book Business: ‘brilliant, moving and profoundly insightful’ (Toni Morrison); ‘a putative classic … fine and impeccable style’ (Norman Mailer); ‘an extremely important literary document, elegantly written and impeccably argued’ (E.L. Doctorow). Norton should distribute little blue sachets of salt, like the ones you used to get in packets of crisps, with this volume, but it’s touching to see Epstein’s pals rallying round. What literary agent, or CEO of AOL Time Warner, could expect such (unpaid) hyperbole?

Unlike Doubleday, Random House was old-fashioned and still held to the ideals of the ‘mighty generation’. Epstein found the firm congenial and it was his home for most of his publishing career, although he also found other outlets for his exuberant energies. In December 1962, a long strike began at the New York Times. The absence of the paper’s advertisement-stuffed books supplement left a tempting gap. With his then wife, Barbara, and an editor at Harper’s, Robert Silvers, plus Robert Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, Epstein launched the New York Review of Books. Like Anchor Books (and everything Epstein has invested himself in), the New York Review made a conscious attempt to raise the intellectual tone of American cultural life (to raise it, at least, above the level of the New York Times Book Review). Using the business smarts he had picked up at Doubleday, Epstein developed a profitable mail-order and distribution system for the new paper. It thrived and still does. It is, Epstein claims, ‘the only publication of its kind ever to operate in the black year after year’. Another forgivably extravagant claim.

The achievement of which Epstein seems most proud is the successful (and profitable) Library of America, launched in 1975. The series was inspired by Edmund Wilson’s demand that the American academic industry (misled by the iniquitous MLA) give up its footling attempts to produce definitive texts of the sort that would satisfy Fredson Bowers and aim instead for popular texts, with less scholarly apparatus, emulating the Pléiade library. Epstein ‘arranged the details of design, format, production and distribution as well as the financial structure’ of the Library of America, although judging by some bitter asides in this book he has fallen out with its present management.

Even if Epstein’s version of publishing history is skewed and provincial, there is real meat in his forecasts. He is optimistic about the future of the codex book. The advantages which have kept it essentially unchanged for half a millennium remain. The combination of eye, leg, shelf, arm, hand, opposable thumb and index finger has it over eight fingers, keyboard, CPU and eye-glazing VDU every time. These advantages won’t last for ever, but they will probably see out most readers of this paper. The machinery used to produce books has changed radically and rapidly over the last few decades, after centuries of changing hardly at all. As Epstein recalls: ‘the smell of ink and hot metal that permeated the printing houses on Varick Street where Random House printed some of its early titles in the early 1960s would probably have been familiar to the Renaissance printers of Verona.’ The computer has changed all that. More important, the computer itself is changing at blurring speed. As a character puts it in David Lodge’s new novel: ‘Computer chips are getting smaller and smaller and more and more powerful all the time. They’re improving faster than any machine in history. It’s been calculated that if cars had developed at the same rate as computers over the last thirty years you’d be able to buy a Rolls-Royce today for under a pound, and it would do three million miles to the gallon.’

New technology has revolutionised bookselling too. The chain has been challenged by the cyberstore. Epstein claims (and it is the only unprofitable venture he admits to) that he invented the idea behind Amazon.com. In the late 1980s, he started a directory called The Reader’s Catalog. It was inspired by a visit to Tom Borders’s wonderfully ramshackle bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Discriminating bookbuyers can find what they want, particularly if it’s a backlist item only in the largest stock-holding bookstores, but the larger the store, the harder it is to find your way round it. All those books get in the way of the one book you’re looking for. Epstein’s solution was 2000 pages long and listed 40,000 titles which could be ordered over the phone. The Reader’s Catalog cost $25 and sold healthily. It was fun to browse in, even if you didn’t buy. But Epstein discovered that the publishers’ standard 40 per cent trade discount wasn’t enough to cover the overheads. There was no economy of scale: the more the sales expanded, the more expensive the handling costs became. The Readers’ Catalog was based on a flawed business model – books couldn’t be sold profitably this way, certainly not when only one book was being ordered at a time.

Epstein toyed with the idea of reviving the Catalog as a website in 1997, but concluded that it would still have the same problems. After some discussion, he sold the information in his directory to Jeff Bezos, with the sorry conviction that he was passing on a white elephant. Epstein believes that Amazon.com and its main rival, barnesandnoble.com, are bound to fail: ‘the structural problems of online retailers … are intrinsic and cannot be outgrown. Online commerce rewards unmediated transactions between producer and consumer. It abhors middlemen, a vestige of earlier and obsolete technologies, and devours their cash.’ His views seem to be supported by Amazon.com’s current difficulties. What will work, Epstein predicts, is something more like Napster’s filesharing operation, which allows direct transfer of goods without any middleman taking a cut. If Epstein is right, the next step, as he suggests, will be for a consortium of publishers to set up a Web-based version of the Catalog and sell their products P2C (producer to customer), cutting out Bezos and saving 40 per cent on the short-cut.

Epstein has floated his consortium idea with his colleagues in the trade and encountered insuperable resistance. His plan would mean going to war with the chains, which have a power equivalent to that of British supermarkets. The book trade is not equipped to cope with sudden changes. Instability is disastrous in a business where it can take ten years to recover the advance paid out on an unwritten literary property. The consortium would bring about a period of transitional chaos in which publishers would perish. It is, nevertheless, bound to be tried at some point, although exactly how, and with what degree of cataclysm for the book business, not even Epstein can foresee.

Publishers have been loath to come to terms with new technology, and Epstein himself admits to being a late convert. When he published Norbert Wiener in the 1950s he thought the prophet of cybernetics was indulging in science fiction when he described something very similar to what is now known as the World Wide Web. The Web’s principal appeal to the publisher is that it cuts the costs of manufacture and warehousing: ‘the cost of digitising a text is a few hundred dollars compared to the many thousands required to manufacture and distribute physical books. Moreover, pro-rated website costs per copy are negligible, so the publisher’s actual investment in digital publication consists merely of allocated editorial, publicity, and general overhead expense.’ For someone as devoted to the backlist as Epstein, the Web offers the mouthwatering prospect of texts that never go out of print and can be retrieved instantaneously.

There is, Epstein persists in believing, a worthwhile future for the publisher, but it will be as a broker, guarding the gateways of Web-culture, providing superior websites and acting as a ‘filter that distinguishes value’. Imprint – as the guarantee of quality – will survive. Publishers, as projected in Epstein’s consortium idea, will take over much of the retailing side of the business. Editors will still have a role. The originators (what used to be called authors) of content (what used to be called books) will still require expert professional advice on ‘revision and strategies of publicity’. The book business, it seems, is still in business.