To even the casual observer, it is clear the book business is in the throes of a transformation. From the ascendance of Amazon.com and the boom of internet-induced self-publishing to the rise of social media publicity and technologically enhanced books, many factors are converging to bring about changes in how books are produced, sold, and read.
Although it was published in 2001, Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future still contains valuable insights into the extent to which the industry has and continues to reinvent itself. Easily digestible in the span of a leisurely afternoon, Book Business relates the saga of an industry in continuous transition through the lens of Epstein’s own storied career, which lasted from the 1950s to the 2000s.
As the editorial director of Random House for forty years, the co-founder of The New York Review of Books, and a force behind the quality paperback revolution, Epstein is ideally placed to shed light on innovation and evolution in the industry.
From the heavy title, one might expect Book Business to be rather ponderous, but in reality it is surprisingly brief and light. Rather than being all-encompassing, it flits from period to period, using highlights from Epstein’s own career as its guiding stars.
Elements of the book focused on the past, stretching back as far as the 1920s, provide an accessible introduction to the recent history of book publishing: the rise of the paperback book and mass-market titles, the move from small publishers to conglomerations, the changing landscape of the American readership, etc.
Of equal importance is Epstein’s positive outlook for the future of book publishing. Amidst the sea of negativity about the future of the industry and chest-thumping cries about how self-publishing will topple “the man,” Epstein makes astute parallels between book publishing today and the revolution sparked by Gutenberg. Nonetheless, Epstein’s Book Business echoes with nostalgia for the way the industry was before mega-bookstores like Barnes and Noble forced the corporatization of book publishing.
Whether the major conglomerations now assembling will collapse and book creation will return to an artisinal cottage industry like Epstein envisions remains to be seen.
On the whole, Epstein’s memoir remains well-worth the two-hour read for those uninitiated, but interested in the recent history of book publishing.