Book publishing is a business I’m idealistic about. I’m fortunate to work for a publisher right now. So when I had the opportunity to grab a free, hand-me down copy of this book from a co-worker I jumped at it.
Book Business is a memoir by Jason Epstein of his years in the New York publishing scene. He was an editor at Doubleday, Random House, and is responsible for a number of other successful publishing related ventures. During his career he worked in literary fiction (think: Faulkner and the like), academic publishing, magazine and journal publishing, and mass market trade publishing. His experience is broad, and the wisdom he’s gained a result is deep.
Amid his witticisms and remembrances Epstein also manages to weave in a bit of publishing history. He covers topics like: why publishers ever allowed returns on their product, why book prices are so high, the rise of the “quality paperback,” how the market has changed as a result of shopping malls and big box stores, and how bestsellers have changed things too. I especially enjoyed his descriptions of the New York publishing houses in the ’50’s and ’60’s. He described them with a nostalgic crush the way Ray Bradbury would describe Hollywood of the same era.
Another strength of this book is that Epstein is prophetic and optimistic in his writing about the future of the business. This book was published in 2001. I’m amazed at the things he predicted accurately then (like the rise of digital books and easy, cheap distribution) and equally amazed at the things he predicts that have not yet come to pass (like the someday-in-the-future-ability for everyone to print paperbacks on demand at home).
After reading Book Business I shared a few of my favorite quotes with co-workers in a meeting. As someone who sits at the bottom of the publishing corporate ladder, and as an aspiring writer, I found these quotes profound and sometimes humorous:
p.43 – The gift of storytelling is uncommon. It can be seen at a glance even by a beginner like myself.
p.36 – The editor’s emotions are almost as much committed to the outcome as the author’s.
p.59 – Literature, like all religions, is also a business, though not a very good business.
p.4 – Book publishing is 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.
p.72 – authors, I would soon learn, sometimes bite when their egos are underfed.
If you like publishing you’ll like this book. If, like me, you have romantic ideals about how books are made, you’ll find a friend in Epstein and you’ll probably learn something along the way. I know I did. This book is warmly recommended to anyone bookish enough to care about where books came from (and where they might be going).