Friday, August 11, 2006

The Leading Innovator
In the Book Business

I found it on the remainder table, new but still marked down all the way to $4.98. At that price, it seemed impossible to pass up, even though I had a traffic jam of other books waiting in line ahead of it, beckoning to be read.

I knew the name Jason Epstein mostly as a co-founder of my beloved New York Review of Books (how in the world have I not rhapsodized about that publication before now?) and as a longtime editorial director of Random House, one of the biggest and best book publishers in the world. I had forgotten that he was also credited with launching the revolution in quality paperbacks a half century ago. And I just plain never knew that he was also one of the main creators of the Library of America, an unimaginably gallant attempt to permanently preserve a key part of our cultural heritage, the best books ever written in this country. He tells a pithy story about all the hurdles he encountered before getting funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which like too many institutions is far too deferential to the overcredentialed, underachieving Academic Industrial Complex. The bloodless eggheads nearly talked the project to death, but in the end, Epstein the book entrepreneur rescued it by plowing through their debating society and making it happen.

With a resume like that, you'd expect he'd be mired in the past. And you'd be wrong.

Instead, he has the mind of an innovator, which knows no age. Yes, Epstein thinks of himself as a relic. "Though I have been responsible for several innovations in the publishing business, I see now that each of them was intended to recapture the fleeting past. I am skeptical of progress. My instincts are archaeological." And he's old-fashioned enough to say things like this: "a civilization without retail booksellers is unimaginable. Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature."

At the same time, by being so thoroughly grounded in the industry, he has as clear-eyed a vision of where the book business is headed as anyone I've noticed recently. And here, he seriously departs from such towering figures of the book industry's old guard as John Updike, who has been carrying on a verbal jihad against a seminal piece on one possible future for the book industry, written by Wired Magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly. While I agree with some, perhaps much, of what Updike says, the towering arrogance with which he dismisses modernity with a wave of the hand won't win him many converts.

Epstein is an entirely different sort of "relic." In this book written in 2002, he talks about the pleasing possibilities that modestly selling books might find new life through the unlimited shelf space of the web, a phenomenon which has since been dubbed the "long tail." And this is only one of many ways in which he seems to understand the abundant opportunities for writers and publishers who intelligently harness the web.
Soon writers and readers will be able to meet again on a worlwide village green where writers may once more beat their drums or hire a Weems to drum up business for them. On the World Wide Web, future storytellers and their readers can mingle at leisure and talk at length. Writers of cookbooks, garden books, regional guides, and other reference books and directories can, if they like, compose their texts interactively with their future readers, as Weems probably did with his. So may poets and other storytellers, who will find at the end of the process that buyers, identifiable by their email addresses, await a finished work in either printed or electronic form or in forms yet to be devised...The best advertising for any books is word of mouth. For this the global village green offers limitless scope.

That will allow book publishing to again become what it once was, he says, not the appendage and poor cousin of the pop culture industry, but "a cottage industry of diverse, autonomous units, or so there is now reason to believe." Let's hope he's right.


At 2:42 PM, Blogger Sandy Kristin Piderit said...

The next best advertising to word of mouth is a good blog post -- hey, John, can I borrow your copy of Book Business sometime?

And in all seriousness, sir, you need a copyeditor for this particular blog entry. I see two typos in seven paragraphs!

at the tend?


Don't mind me, I'm just getting back in training for grading the papers my sophomores will overwhelm me with in the next few weeks.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Egads! Thanks for noticing, Sandy. I happen to subscribe to the school of thought that thinks, as a wise man once put it, that "typos are worse than fascism." Maybe less deadly, but just as maddening. So thanks for your sharp eyes, teach. And yes, of course, I'd be only too happy to lend you that book.


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