Recommended Publishing Resources: Jason Epstein’s Book Business

20 Mar

First of all, I must say how much I like the Half Price Books on North Lamar in Austin, Texas. I had a chance to go by there during spring break last week and happened—finally!—to come across the “Books about Books” section while I was looking at some other items. I loaded up on a ton of good books about publishing as well as book design and other issues so I have plenty of reading material for the foreseeable future. (Plus, because I spent more than $30 I received a very nice and sturdy Half Price Books tote bag.)

The first book I read out of this bunch was Jason Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future. Epstein was editorial director at Random House for decades, a co-founder of The New York Review of Books and formulated the concept of the trade paperback, among other publishing innovations, while making his career in New York. This book, first presented as a series of lectures at the New York Public Library in October 1999, is a lively mix of analysis and anecdote, combining personal and professional musings on the past and future of publishing.

On a professional level there was a lot of good information relating to trade book publishing. For example, given our position as (primarily) a textbook publisher, I had not given a lot of thought to the potential value of a backlist. (After all, especially with high-end technical materials, the value of our front and back lists depends on immediate relevance.) However, it seems to me that, although there is a fair amount of content turnover in our list, if you build a series brand as we’re trying to do with some of our ongoing publications, that the same sort of general idea can be seen at work. Certainly, all things old are new again when you think about Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More in relationship to how backlists used to work in a primary revenue generating role for publishing houses 40-50 years ago.

He also covers a lot of good historical ground in terms of how publishing houses in the 1950s gave way, beginning in the 1960s and ‘70s, to being combined in vast multi-faceted media conglomerates. Also, I think his take on the death of independent bookstores vs. malls and superstores, as well as the blockbuster mentality, was well presented. One section I will have to go back and read more closely is about his experience with The Reader’s Catalog, especially as it relates to his discussion of Amazon’s business model.

One final remark I would like to add is that I was reading some of the reviews of his book at Amazon and one in particular struck me because it said that Epstein’s book was an unsuccessful marriage of two different books: one about the publishing industry and one about Epstein’s adventures in publishing. I would have to disagree with this. After all, the genesis for this book was a series of lectures—as noted above—I read the book thinking about how it would have sounded when presented in person. Given that, I think the mixture of personal and professional works well so that it’s neither consumed by anecdote nor entirely the dry mechanics of the publishing industry.

This book certainly gets two big thumbs up from me!

Currently I’m reading Back Then: Two Literary Lives in 1950s New York by Anne Bernays and Justin Kaplan. It’s also about New York and publishing in the ‘50s but, given my own interests, the first part was a bit too much social and geographic history. Finally, once I made it to page 140 things have gotten to be much more about publishing . . . so I am enjoying it more now than I was a couple of days ago.


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