Jason Epstein
Jason Epstein
Book Business: Publishing: Past, Present, and Future
ISBN: 0393049841
Book Business: Publishing: Past, Present, and Future
The book industry stands at the edge of a historic transformation. Jason Epstein tells us what the future holds. Jason Epstein has led arguably the most creative career in book publishing during the past half-century. In 1952 he created Anchor Books, which launched the so-called quality paperback revolution and established the trade paperback format. In the following decade he was co-founder of the New York Review of Books. In the 1980s he created The Library of America and The Reader's Catalog, the precursor of on-line bookselling. In this short book, based on his W.W. Norton Lectures given at the New York Public Library in October 1999, he discusses the severe crisis facing the book business today—a crisis that affects writers and readers as well as publishers—and looks ahead to the radically transformed industry that will revolutionize the idea of the book as profoundly as the introduction of movable type did five centuries ago.
—from the publisher
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TRANSCRIPT
Book Business: Publishing: Past, Present, and Future
Program Air Date: March 18, 2001

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jason Epstein, author of "Book Business," why'd you get into this book business?
Mr. JASON EPSTEIN, AUTHOR, "BOOK BUSINESS: PUBLISHING: PAST, PRESENT, AND FUTURE": Oh, it was completely inadvertent. When I left college, I spent a year in graduate school, Columbia, and found that that was like an employment service for future professors, and I didn't want to do anything like that. And I really had no idea that I would have to go to work. I certainly had no money, but I as young and I thought the world would somehow provide. But I had to pay some rent, and so I thought I would try the book business, about which I knew absolutely nothing, for a few months and see if I could straighten out my finances.

All I knew about the book business when I started was a--a movie I had seen about Horace Liveride called "The Scoundrel." Noel Coward played this man. I'd never heard of him before, but--and--and the man who wrote the screenplay, Ben Hecht, hated--hated Liveride and put him in the worst possible light; called him a scoundrel. But I found him fascinating, and it turned out he was one of the great publishers of all time. He started his business in the early '20s, and he was—he published "The Waste Land." He published Faulkner, he published Hemingway, he published Dreiser before anybody else did--not quite Dreiser, but--someone else published Dreiser. Of course, that's another story.

But he had the most amazing list of--of so-called modernist writers, and he was very profligate. He--he would--every day at 4:00, the bootleggers would come; he would close the office and have a party. He was also in the theater, and he would interview chorus girls in the afternoon, and they would be--they would join the party. And, of course, he eventually went bankrupt. He owned--nevertheless, he owned the Modern Library, and one of his young employees was a man named Bennett Cerf.

And one day, Liveride, desperate for money, took Cerf out to lunch at 21, which was then a speakeasy in New York and said, `I need some money, and I will sell you the Modern Library.' And Bennett said, `Delighted. I'll buy it,' and went back to the office. The—when the office heard wind of this, they were in an uproar. `You can't do that. We'll go out of business. It's what keeps the place going. That's our whole backlist.' Neverthe--`Never mind, I need the money. I'm selling it to Bennett.' That became the basis for Random House. Bennett and his partner, Donald Klopfer, bought the Modern Library and, out of it, built Random House, which is today--well, you know what it is.
LAMB: What's your list look like of people you've edited in your life?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Oh, my goodness, I can hardly begin to count them. I've been doing this for 50 years, and if you publish an average of 10 or 15 books a year, you can see what that amounts to. But currently, though I'm retired, I'm still editing some people I'm attached to or -who are attached to me: Norman Mailer and Ed Doctorow. In the past, I've edited W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender and Victor Pritchett and Vladimir Nabokov, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal; Oscar Lewis, the great anthropologist; Jane Jacobs, a prophet of urban life in America; Dick Holbrook most recently; Helen Prejean, who wrote the book "Dead Man Walking" which became a film; Elaine Pagels, who's written brilliant books about early Christianity.

These authors have been my teachers, so to speak. I've always thought of my career in publishing as an extension of my wonderful undergraduate years at Columbia, which I never wanted to give up. And by pure luck, I stumbled into the book business, where I could remain an undergraduate, so to speak, for the rest of my life; these authors being my teachers and their books being my--my curriculum.
LAMB: Where is home originally?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Home? I live in Hewitt.
LAMB: No, I mean originally.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Oh, oh. I grew up mostly in the suburb of Boston called Milton, but partly up in Maine, where my grandparents lived. I've always thought of Maine as my real home.
LAMB: You made a point in your book of saying you lived in a mostly Catholic community.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Yeah. Milton was a--was a--Milton was a--was a divided town. On the one hand, it was--the old WASPs lived up in the hills. George Bush, I think, was born there. But a lot of Irish had moved in from South Boston, where they had settled originally. They were moving up in the--up the economic scale a little bit. And my--I went to public school there, though there's a very famous private school in Milton, too. And my classmates were these Irish kids just out of South Boston who went every Friday to catechism, which terrified them and left a lasting impression on me to avoid that kind of thing. But that's how I grew up.
LAMB: And Columbia, you cite with affection in there about getting you interested in books. What was the atmosphere at Columbia?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, more than affection. It--it really--it--it was the most miraculous experience in my life. I came from this small town at the time, utterly provincial. I--no--I knew nothing at all; read a few books, but hardly enough to make a difference. I was 16 years old, I think. The war had just ended; it was in 1945. And my classmates were veterans, for the most part, much older than I was. My roommate for a while had been a colonel in the Marine Corps, very austere figure in his early 30s, I guess. And the other s--many students were--had been pilots. They were wearing their bomber jackets. And some of them were very, very sophisticated young graduate students or upper classmen, and they became my friends, and that's how I first began to read.

And the faculty, of course, was miraculous. The professors in those days actually did teach undergraduates, and they enj—enjoyed doing it. That's what they thought their main business was. They were never aloof. And it was a very small community. I think Columbia didn't have more than a few hundred students in it, and this brilliant faculty. And then -I just took to that like a duck to water, to coin a phrase, and never got over it.
LAMB: Who was the first author you read that you really liked and remembered and wanted to read more?
Mr. EPSTEIN:At Columbia? I remember, we read Cervantes at one point, and I was just amazed by "Don Quixote," absolutely taken aback. How could any human being do with--do with--how could he figure this out? How did it happen? And then, of course, Shakespeare and Chaucer and Milton. Those are the authors we read, mostly, and, of course, the Greeks. It was a wonderful education; it still is, by the way. Columbia still has that humanities program--I don't know what they call it today, but it used to be called that--which begins with Homer and goes up in those days, I guess, to Virginia Woolf. But you—in the meantime, you will have read everything.
LAMB: You--in your book, you talk about some of the things that you personally got involved in starting.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Yeah.
LAMB: Would we not have the quality paperback--and define what that is--if you weren't there?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, I think if I hadn't started Anchor Books in 1952 and 1953, which is the first so-called quality paperback series, somebody else would have done it because the idea was just wa—waiting to be realized. But in those days, thanks to the GI Bill, millions of young people were now going to school just--to college, which before the war had been an elite business. But now millions of people were going. Yet the kinds of books they had been exposed to in college and which some of them had become addicted to, like myself, were still in hard covers and you couldn't buy them--couldn't afford them; they cost all of $10 apiece in those days.

So it occurred to me that it might make sense to put these out in paperback, not the kind of popular, mass-market paperbacks that were being published and popular novels and so forth, mysteries, Westerns and so on, but where the limited printings were--the normal mass paperback would print a half a million copies, we would print 20,000. We'd have to charge a little bit more for them, and the quality of the paper was a little bit better and the bindings were more solid, and that's the business that I started, after I'd been at Doubleday for about a year.

I used spend a lot of my time in a wonderful bookstore on Eighth Street down in Greenwich Village, the Eighth Street Bookstore, which is down on the corner of Eighth and McDougal. And it--oh, it's a little bit like Poetry & Prose here in Washington: shelf after shelf of--of books that you just simply have to have, spine out, full of surprises, full of wonders and so on. But I couldn't buy any of them, and--but I knew that my--my contemporaries would buy them in great quantity if they were cheap enough in paperback.

So it was in that store that I conceived the idea for Anchor Books, which, after 50 years, by the way, still exists; belongs now to Bertelsmann, like everything else. And that did revolutionize the publishing business. Within two or three years, every publisher had his own series of so-called quality paperbacks, and this is--and they included the major backlist titles that these publishers had. And, of course, they democratized this kind of--these kinds of books. Everybody can now own them.
LAMB: Where--where did you spend the--most of your life working in the book business, and what was your job?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, for the first eight years, I worked at Doubleday, which was not--not the happiest place to start out, but it was OK. At least they--they allowed me to do this Anchor Books thing. But it really was a pretty philistine company in those days. It was—the people who owned it had no interest in books. Previous generation, the founders of the company, had an interest in books, but not the people who were running it when I was there.

But then I left and went to work at--at Random House, where I spent most of my life, and that was just wonderful. It's quite different now from what it was when I started. When I started at Random House, the telephone directory for the entire company was literally no bigger than a postcard. My colleague, Bob Loomis, still has it tacked up on his bulletin board. It's a little card like that, maybe 100 names in small print, four columns. Now the telephone book has 4,000 names, something like that. It's like the telephone book to a small city.

But then we all knew each other. We were ensconced in one wing of what had been a--a private mansion on Madison Avenue. I was in someone's bedroom; I had a wonderful balcony overlooking the courtyard and the parking space in the middle of Midtown Manhattan. Oh, it was wonderful, very--it was like a family: informal; we never had meetings; Bennett Cerf, who ran the place, couldn't stand being at a meeting unless he was--unless the meeting was about him, and then how could it be all the time? Authors came and went without any fuss. It was an extraordinary experience for about 15 to 20 years, and then it changed.
LAMB: What was your biggest surprise, in all the years of editing books, that became--a book that became a big one?
Mr. EPSTEIN:I don't think any--I can't think of a surprise. It was a very smooth, even, very happy career. Everything I wanted to do, I did. I was seldom frustrated. If I was, it was my own fault, usually. And, miraculously, things that I thought should happen did happen. I started several businesses, besides Anchor Books, and they all more or less worked out. And not--not...
LAMB: What was the biggest...
Mr. EPSTEIN:Pardon me?
LAMB: ...success of all the books?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, of--of the books themselves? Well, it depends what you mean by success. Jane Jacobs' book that I published back in the early '60s, "Death and Life of Great American Cities," was a great success, and it had changed the way people thought about cities. Of course, it sold many, many copies. But what--what delights me most about it is it became the textbook for people who decided that cities ought not to be destroyed; they can be rebuilt from within. In--in a sense, that was a--that was a great success. I've published lots of best-sellers, but some of them come and they g—I used to publish Robert Ludlum, of all people, and--but those are ephemera. They're not really--add much to the culture and very little to the value of the publishing house.
LAMB: Which of the big names that you just mentioned earlier that you edited did you get their first book and that they weren't well known and you were starting from scratch?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, Jane Jacobs certainly. I -we didn't publish the first--I'm trying to think. Certainly Elaine Pagels--mostly non-fiction--Elaine Pagels, who has written about the way in which Christianity became institutionalized in the first and second centuries.
LAMB: What about the--the Mailer books or...
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, I've known Mailer all my life, but I was very leery of publishing him. We were very good friends. I tried not to publish my close friends for obvious reasons. Sometimes it's a difficult relationship. But eventually I did become his publisher, and I'm delighted to have done so. I published about half a dozen or more books of his now. And it's a wonderful relationship, much to my surprise because Mailer can be very difficult. He's he's known to be difficult, but he's not really. He's a charming man, warm and decent and kind and pays no attention whatever to editorial advice that I might give him, but a joy to work with, nevertheless.
LAMB: What's the relationship between an editor and an author?
Mr. EPSTEIN:It can be extremely close, mutually dependent. When it works, that's what it is. It's a very intimate relationship, and that's what publishing is all about. A publishing company is essentially a group of editors with their authors. The rest is infrastructure or superstructure. Without editors and those relationships to authors, there would be no publishing companies. They wouldn't exist. That's what it is. You need--you need the books, and because you need the books, you need the editors and the editors need the authors.

So it'seven now, where--where money has become a great consideration in that relationship, editors--editors and their authors still tend to stick together, often for a lifetime. My colleague, Bob Loomis, for example, has worked with Bill Styron since he was—since they both left Duke in the early '50s. I--as I say, I've worked with Mailer for years. I've worked with Gore Vidal for a very long time, until that became difficult.
LAMB: Why do--why do relationships sour?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, sometime there are disagreements about money, about what an author's future books are worth. Usually their friendship remains, even if the publishing relationship doesn't. There are some authors who don't take kindly to editorial advice. My dear friend Gore Vidal is one of those. He's very thin-skinned about it, and we had a problem over a couple of books of his, and I thought best if we didn't have that relationship any further.

But most of the time it's a very happy relationship, and sometime it's a miraculous relationship. In the case of Helen Prejean, for example, who wrote "Dead Man Walking," she'd never written a book before, and she couldn't write. She couldn't write a paragraph. But her agent sent me a rough manuscript, and I could see that there was something--I s--have to use the word `spiritual,' I guess, deeply spiritual, something a very strong commitment on her part that sort of glowed through the awkward prose.

We would meet once a month, maybe, in my office in New York, almost like a therapeutic session. We would go over it inch by inch, and little by little she taught herself to write. It was the most extra--that was one of the most extraordinary events in my career, the way that woman, who had never written before, probably hadn't read very much--after all, a simple nun in Louisiana, cloistered life--taught herself to be a first-rate writer. It was the most amazing and gratifying experience. I recently read a chapter of a new book that she's working on, and it just exploded in my hands. I handed it around to colleagues at Random House, and they--it had the same effect there.
LAMB: Can you tell, when you get a book, whether you've got something special?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Oh, you can tell by the first--almost by the first sentence, which makes it very hard for me to go to the movies because I'm so used to seeing what's there or not there that I--sometimes I have to leave during the credits of a movie. It's an instinct. You--you acquire this feel for things after a while. If it's--if it's not there in the first paragraph, it probably is not going to be there at all.
LAMB: You chat a little bit about this in your book. Take a book that's got a $25 label on it, when you pick it up in the bookstore...
Mr. EPSTEIN:Right.
LAMB: ...and break it down as best you can as to who gets what.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, the bookstore would get about half of that, and it would give about, depending upon how its d--its own discount policy, maybe 20 percent or that away to--to its customers. About 35 percent of what's left of the publisher's share of that retail price goes for printing and distribution. About 30 percent goes to the author. About 30 percent--the author gets a 15 percent royalty based on the retail price, which means he's getting 30 percent of the publisher's 50 percent share of that retail price. So that's—between printing and distribution and the author's share, that's 65 percent of what--of the publisher's 50 percent. And the rest goes for general overhead: fixed costs and profit, of course, if there is any.
LAMB: How many book do you see a profit on?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Very, very few, relatively. Fewer than half of the books we publish are profitable in the first year. Some of them become profitable because they survive and become backlist books, and those are the ones worth having. That's what keeps a publishing company going, though it's very hard these days to maintain a backlist in the publishing business. And publishing was never meant to be—it just is not a profitable business. Publishing, what we call, trade books--that is, general fiction and non-fiction, what you see in bookstores as opposed to textbooks or dictionaries or whatever, reference books--is not a way to make money. Anybody who thinks it is is making a mistake.

People like Bennett Cerf and his partner, Klopfer, or Harold Ginsburg, who started Viking, or Simon who and Schuster, who started their company, didn't go in this for money. They went in this because—for the joy of it. They loved what they were doing. They were rich enough not to need the income; most of them were, anyway. Alfred Knopf could really--wasn't a rich man, but he didn't need--he didn't have to worry too much about money. Bennett and Donald had quite a bit of their own money. So you do it for the pure joy of it, because you think books are the most important thing in the world, which they are. Without them, we wouldn't know who who we are. We'd be lost without them. And there's that feeling of vocation that--that motivated my colleagues, especially at Random House when I first went there, and that's part of what created the spirit of the place.
LAMB: What's the story leading up to the beginning of The New York Review of Books?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, in 1962, I--or was it '63?--'62, I guess--The New York Times went on strike in New York, and my wife, Barbara, and I were having dinner during that strike one night with our neighbors, who lived next door to us on 67th Street in Manhattan: Robert Lowell, a poet, and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, the critic. And I happened to say, `It's a pleasure not to have The New York Times around for the time being because we now live in this small town. We're unaware of the outside world, and what a blessing. Now we live in this little village on 67th Street.' And then we sa--said, all of us almost spontaneously, `And we don't have that damn New York Times Book Review,' which in those days was a very provincial publication.

It had not kept up with the cultural change that occurred as a result of the GI Bill and all these millions of people going to college; very primitive, patronizing, irresponsible, I thought, and a menace to writers because you never knew who was going to review your book, whether he--whether that reviewer would even--would be, in any way, qualified to do it. And there were some shenanigans going on there, too, that everybody knew about and it was depressing. So we decided we would start our own review. After all, if we had this opportunity and didn't make the most of it, we couldn't--we had no right to complain about The Times anymore.

So the next day Robert Lowell, who had a little bit of family money, went to the bank and borrowed $4,000 against his trust fund. We called our friend, Bob Silvers, who was a brilliant editor, working then at Harper's magazine, and he and Barbara were going to edit it. I--since I was working at Random House, I couldn't have anything to do with that side of it and never have had. They went out and sold $10,000 worth of ads to publishers, who had no other place to advertise their books and who welcomed this new magazine that we were all talking about. So we now had $14,000.

And I went to the distributor, who distributed Anchor Books to college campuses and sophisticated newsstands here and there, and he agreed that he would take 100,000 copies of this untried magazine. And then we called--or I didn't; Bob and Barbara did--called our friends who were writers: V.S. Pritchett, Edmond Wilson, W.H. Auden; someone said Dwight Macdonald. And they all agreed to write reviews. And so within three or four weeks, there was a first issue, and the strike was still going on. And we had them printed, and we sent them to our distributor, and he sent them somewhere. By no means, all 100,000 could have been out there. They got--a lot of them got lost and that kind of thing.

We got 2,000 letters--unsolicited letters from people who read the magazine, saying that, `What a wonderful thing this is, and keep on going.' Well, that--if you know anything about the mail-order business, an unsolicited response like that is phenomenal. That is a--an amazing response. So we decided we'd set up a business. Bob and Barbara would be the editors. I would have something to do with organizing the company because I knew how to do that, by this time. And I made one very, very important decision, which is that we would make this a profitable business. We--unlike other literary magazines, we would not be dependent upon fund-raising or angels, rich people, who might have ideas of their own about how--how we should go about our thing.

So we hired a very inexpensive office. We bought a few sticks of secondhand furniture, which we kept until very recently. We paid—we paid ourselves--I didn't--I didn't make any money, but we--the editors paid themselves hardly anything. And the authors' fees were modest, to say the least. And by the third year, we were in the black and we've stayed there ever since. So we've never had to look outside for money.
LAMB: You and Barbara Epstein were married for how long?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Ooh, a very long time; 25 years, I suppose. And we're still very good friends, partners. We speak every day. I love her as much as ever, and I think she does me. We're better off not being married.
LAMB: You dedicated the book to Judy Miller.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Right. That's my wife now.
LAMB: New York Times reporter.
Mr. EPSTEIN:A New York Times reporter, who has just completed, thank God, a three-part series on Osama bin Laden, which has run on the front page for the last three days. And that has had the household in an uproar for a very long time.
LAMB: Why's that?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Oh, she's so tense. She works so hard at these things. She's on the phone night and day. She never comes home from the office. You know what reporters are like. They're fanatics. But thank God that's over, until the next time.
LAMB: Who owns The New York Review of Books now?
Mr. EPSTEIN:About 15 years ago--I'm just guessing now because it could be 12 or it could be more--a young man from Jackson, Mississippi, named Ray Hedderman came to see us and said he would like to buy The New York Review of Books, and we said, `Well, you can't. We don't have any intention of selling it,' and we certainly didn't. But he persisted. A year passed, then a year and half, and we got to know him. As it happened, the editor--the publisher, whom we had had from the beginning, Whitney Ellsworth, was ready to retire and move up to the country, which he did, and so we needed somebody. And--and I think I said to Barbara or somebody, `Well, we--if we can't sell this to Ray, maybe he'll agree to be the publisher.' And he said he wouldn't unless he could own it, and then we decided he was really one of us. And it's been a wonderful relationship.
LAMB: You deal in your book with criticism over the years that the New York Review of Books is either liberal or left-wing.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, it certainly was opposed to the war in Vietnam very strongly, and we were one of the first papers to take that position and to argue it on a very high plane, an intellectual plane, I thought. But it's no--certainly, none of us was ever left-wing, none of us was anything like a socialist or we--I certainly wasn't. I was--I think socialism presupposes much too generous a view of human nature. We thought that the war was very damaging to the country and it should stop, and I think we were right. But I think there were other people who were--wanted to pursue the war for whatever reason, who criticized not what--not what the Review wrote about the war, but--but to criticize it ad hominem and said, `Well, you're a bunch of lefties and what would you know about this kind of thing?' That was unpleasant, but it passed. No, I don't--I don't think you can say that the New York Review is left-wing. I suppose they're liberal whatever that--I don't know what these terms mean. I don't know what it means to be a conservative. If--if George W. Bush is a conservative, I--wha--wha--what does it mean?
LAMB: Well, when you approach, though, books and editing, did you ac--are there books that you wouldn't publish and you wouldn't edit because of their political points?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Oh, no. Oh, goodness, no. No, there are books that I wouldn't publish because they weren't worth publishing, but never for ideological reasons. I don't believe in that.
LAMB: What impact do you think books have on the way people think in the country?
Mr. EPSTEIN:If we didn't have books, people wouldn't think at all. It makes them think. And--and I--I think books, more than any other medium, raise the kinds of questions that people in a democracy have to deal with. I think television does to some extent, but--but it—by definition, it can't be as thoughtful, would you say. And television can't represent the thoughtfulness that you find in a book. I think we would be lost without them. I think they are the--they're--they're the basis of our democracy. That's why dictators like to throw them in the fire. With--without them, we would haven't a democracy. And we wouldn't know anything about--I've just finished reading a wonderful book by a man named Joseph Ellis, a historian--you've probably read it, too--called the "Founding Brothers." What an enlightening book about this--about how this country got started. I mean, things I had no idea about. Where would I--where would I be without that book? How did I manage to get through my life so far without having read it? That kind of thing.
LAMB: How much do you read now?
Mr. EPSTEIN:I read all the time. It's a habit I've had almost all my life. I can't stop. I've just read the 18th of those Patrick O'Brien novels. I have only two left to go and I'm very depressed about it. You know, the ones about the British navy and the--and the Napoleonic Wars. What am I going to do when I finish these two? I can't read them all over again.
LAMB: What time of day do you read?
Mr. EPSTEIN:All the time. I was reading before I came here, and I'm going to read as soon as I leave.
LAMB: Is there a best time for you, though? I mean, do you get up early and read, read late at night?
Mr. EPSTEIN:I do. I like to read in the morning. I also like to read late at night, but I tend to fall asleep now on a--after a certain hour.
LAMB: Do you have a se--a place that you like to read? Musi--do you listen to music when you read?
Mr. EPSTEIN:I can't listen to music. No, I just sit in my chair and read. It's a habit. It's an absolute compulsion. It's a wonderful habit, by the way.
LAMB: What are the circumstances that led to the creation of the Library of America?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well...
LAMB: And what is it?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, the Library of America is a--a series of—of editions of the complete or more or less complete works of the major American writers--Twain, Melville, Hawthorne and so forth. There are now about almost 100 volumes in this uniform series. And it's something I'm very proud of having launched. The--the idea was originally Edmund Wilson's, who--who--Edmund Wilson was, as you--everybody knows, I suppose, though maybe some people who are too young to remember, was the leading literary critic of his day, so he was called, though he would have called himself a literary journalist, an explainer of literature to people. He was a wonderful writer. And...
LAMB: Where did he--where was he seen?
Mr. EPSTEIN:He had no academic affiliation at all. He wrote for The New Yorker. He had written for The New Republic earlier than that, previous to that. But he was one of those great, so to speak, non-professional literary men that we--have flourished in this country, like Henry Adams or Van Wyck Brooks or John Crowe Ransom, though he did teach. Wilson was a--he--he--he ma--he made his living with his pen. And he was a--a wonderfully distinguished man with a very capacious mind. He seemed to have known everything. One day, he called up and said could I meet him at the Princeton Club, at the bar. The Princeton Club, in those days, was down on lower Park Avenue just south of Grand Central Station. So I got there a--a little early, as I always do. And he--he then turned up in his--what Scott Fitzgerald, his classmate at Princeton, called his habitual tan raincoat and his quest fedora, sat down on the stool next to me and promptly ordered from the bartender a half dozen martinis. He didn't say six; he said a half dozen, as if they were oysters. And I was--and I'll never forget that. I assumed at least one of them might be for me, but I was wrong. He said, `Would you like a half dozen, too?' And I said, `No thank you.' Then he said he--without any further ceremony, he said, `We don't have in this country proper editions of our standard authors the way the French do in the Playard editions or even the Russians do within the limits of their censorship. Instead, what we have are paperback editions of "Moby Dick" or "The Scarlet Letter" that they used in school. But if you wanted to have an edition of all of Melville or all of Hawthorne or all of Walt Whitman, we don't ha--we don't have that.' And I agreed that was a terrible situation.

One reason that we didn't have them is that we really hadn't taken our literature seriously until the 1920s, let's say. We still thought of ourselves as Europe; that is, a provincial country with, you know, wild Indians and who'd want to read those people anyway? But I think starting in the '20s, we began to take our literature very seriously. We rediscovered Melville and so on. So by the 1950s--I guess that's when we had that meeting--it was time to do something about it. And so we--it--it--I--I concluded, perhaps incorrectly, but nevertheless I did, that this had to be a non--a non-profit business. You couldn't create such a series without donations from foundations and so on. And that meant setting it up as a non-profit company, especially since you would over time accumulate a substantial inventory, which would move very slowly. Maybe Melville and Whitman and Poe would sell quickly, but some of the others would not.

And so I wrote up a prospectus and I got a lot of--Wilson and I together got a lot of literary people to support it--you know, Alfred Kazin and Arden and--and Fred DuPey and Dwight McDonald and all—very few of them, by the way, academically connected; most of them writers for magazines like "Partisan Review" and so on. And I went from one foundation to the other, and nobody seemed to get what I was talking about, to my surprise. I later learned that's typical. But then, it was a--rather a shock. To make a long story short, it took 25 years to assemble the funds to produce the Library of America. And it would not have happened if McGeorge Bundy, whom I disagreed sharply over Vietnam, but we lat--we--we eventually became very close friends. I admired him greatly in many ways.
LAMB: He was at the Ford Foundation.
Mr. EPSTEIN:He--he had--he was retiring from the Ford Foundation, and the--the trustees agreed, as a parting gift to him, to give him $1/2 million if the National Endowment for the Humanities would match it. That would be enough to get things started.
LAMB: What year was this?
Mr. EPSTEIN:I knew you would ask a que--I haven't...
LAMB: During the Carter years?
Mr. EPSTEIN:It was--I guess it was Carter years, yeah.
LAMB: Joe Duffy was head of the NIH.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Joe Duffy was--was head of the NIH at that time, so it must have been Carter years, whatever the heck--I have no memory for dates.
LAMB: It was '76 to '80.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Something like that, yeah. Yeah. It was--it was in the late '70s. And Joe Duffy, who was then head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was very nervous about this. He didn't want to say no to McGeorge Bundy, who was a very powerful figure in this world, but he also didn't want to commit $1/2 million of his own limited funds at the expense of his own program officers, who had their own plans for that kind of money. So he was really in the middle, and he waivered and waivered this way and then waivered that way.

And we had meeting after meeting and nothing really was conclusive until one day, matters had reached a head and Mac and I went down there. It was a very snowy day in Washington. The snow was piled high on the streets. Traffic wasn't moving. And, Mac, I never sa--what a performance. Mac simply assumed that it was now time for Duffy to say yes. And Duffy was hemming and hawing, and Mac reached his hand out and said, `Now we have a deal.' And what could Duffy do? I never saw anything qu--I--I mean, I never saw a performance like that before. It was startling. Duffy could have withheld his hand and said, `No, we don't have a deal.' He didn't. And we had a deal. And then we had to our make our way through the snow to Union Station. We both had dates for dinner that night in New York. And with the same energy and enthusiasm that he had closed that arrangement with Duffy, he went--we went plowing through the snow, which was then up to our knees. What a day that was.
LAMB: Now those books, if people go to the bookstore, look like what?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, they look--they--they're plump and compact, like Edmund Wilson himself, or as someone said recently in a review of my book, like me, too. They're--have handsome black jackets. They're uniform. You can stick them in a raincoat pocket. They're flexible. They're printed on elegant acid-free paper, so they'll last forever. The bindings are extremely sturdy. And they have now become a standard fixture of--of many people's libraries all over the world.
LAMB: You--go back just for a moment to the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Yeah.
LAMB: In Joe Duffy's office.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Right.
LAMB: You painted a picture in your book about a lot of bureaucrats in the room?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Oh, well, his program officers were all--all lined up, waiting for us to arrive. And they were smiling and beaming, the way people like that do. Why shouldn't they? But they seemed very nervous. There was something in the wind. We could sense that. And Joe was--seemed particularly nervous and was bouncing back and forth, it seemed, between them and us, as I remember. And we were standing there, and they were standing there--facing the program officers. Joe was in the middle. Nobody could really get a coherent sentence out, except to say, `Can I take your coat?' or `Would you like some coffee?' And--and Mac stood there beaming, as if--I think he said, `There won't be any second chance for this. If we don't do it now, the Ford's money is gone and there will never be a chance to do this. So that's what--that's what the stakes are. And so I think if you really are--are--are prepared to say no, let's hear you say no.' We didn't say no.
LAMB: So you had the $1 million now?
Mr. EPSTEIN:We had--by this time--well, we had $1/2 million from Ford, and that was contingent on NIH matching it. That would be make $1 million.
LAMB: What year was your--the cu--the organization formed?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, I suppose it was formed just after that.
LAMB: Like in the ea--late '70s?
Mr. EPSTEIN:The late '70s, earl--early '80s, yeah.
LAMB: And today, you say there are 100 titles?
Mr. EPSTEIN:I think there are about 100 titles; maybe more, maybe less.
LAMB: The board of directors is made up of what kind of people?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, people I had put there in the first place, mostly academic people. Mac--Mac made it very clear that I had to keep myself pretty much out of sight. I was a commercial publisher. I had no academic standing at all. That's part of the reason it took us 25 years to get to this point in the first place was that neither Wilson nor I were professionally connected to literature or professors or we weren't taken seriously. So Mac--Mac said, `You have to find some window dressing,' which I--I knew a lot of professors by this time. And I--it's a rather rude way to describe them, but that's what they, in effect, were. And they--they became the--our board of directors.
LAMB: You ran into problems with the professors.
Mr. EPSTEIN:I did. I did. I--innocently, I made myself only one member of this board. I could have--I could have chosen a board, a more congenial board if I'd wanted to, but I thought it wasn't important to. Furthermore, I don't like to run things that I start. And I kept my distance from it. I like starting things like the—like Anchor Books, like the New York Review, like the Library of America, but the idea of running it day after day is not--it's just not who I am. So I was happy to let these other people do it.
LAMB: Does it still get money from the government?
Mr. EPSTEIN:I don't think anymore. It--it--actually, it--it took about a year, a year or two, to get it started, to design the editions, to find the right production facilities, to ac--acquire an editorial staff, to put the first volumes together. But by--and—and by that time, the number of independent bookstores in the--in--in the country had greatly diminished, and so I decided we should sell it mostly by direct mail, by subscription. And so I set up a direct mail operation to keep it afloat. That worked pretty well. And now they sell--they sell a lot of copies. They--they--last time I looked at the--at the numbers--anybody can get them--it's a non-profit business and you just apply to the attorney general in New York state and you get the records. It sold about $6 1/2 million worth of books in 1998, I think. That's a lot, considering they publish only four new books a year, which are reprints of existing authors. But they also spend a lot of money on expenses. They have very elaborate offices, and they pay themselves very generous salaries.
LAMB: You say you got off the board eventually because--What?—six members of the board were making so much money, that it didn't make any sense.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, it--it--it wasn't that. What happened specifically is that Mrs. Cheney, who was then head of NIH...
LAMB: Lynne Cheney.
Mr. EPSTEIN:...had the idea that biographies were wonderful things to have and so we should--maybe she should finance a series of biographies. Well, that's a pretty naive way to look at it. You can't create biographies by financing them. People write them or they don't write them. And if a biography is worth publishing in the Library of America, well, we would just publish it in the Library of America. Henry Adams' autobiography, for example, was an obvious choice. And you don't have to set up a separate series for that or raise additional money, which would commit the Library of America, it would seem to me, to publish books that shouldn't be published by the Library of America. They might be very worthy in some other way, but they don't belong there.

And I opposed this idea. And I said, `We shouldn't do this. We shouldn't go around with a begging ball, especially if we have to compromise what we're doing here. I don't like the idea of that.' But I--I was--I was only one vote on the board. And I was the one who lost that argument for that reason. And that didn't damage the series one bit, though. They went right on publishing the kinds of books that Wilson had originally proposed, in that format, until recently when I noticed that they were still out raising money to publish books that perhaps weren't--weren't quite what Wilson and--and I had had in mind originally. For example, they--they secured a very substantial grant to do a--a vast anthology of 20th century American poetry, which in--which I think was a mistake is--to do it on this scale to justify that kind of grant meant--and including a lot of poetry that really wasn't worth including. You have to be very, very careful in an anthology like that not to give the appearance of permanence to work that really should be left to die. And it was very severely criticized and--by me, too, by the way. And I don't think that would have been published the way it was published if it hadn't been subsidized in the way that it was.

And then I went to look at the--at the--at the figures I'd gotten from the attorney general's office. And the business is very profitable. I was probably wrong to think in the beginning that it should be a non-profit business. It would be extremely profitable if the staff were reduced to what it should be, which an--an editor with a small staff of assistants, probably three or four. That's all you need. And my idea from the beginning was that, at some point, we could turn it over to the University Press and let it be run that way. If that were the case, instead of having to raise additional money last year--in '9--'98, they raised about $3/4 million--the Library of America would probably produce a positive cash flow of over $1 million if it weren't paying for those unnecessary offices and those executive salaries and perks and so on.
LAMB: Of the--the Library of America, which you started, Modern Library and Everyman's Library...
Mr. EPSTEIN:Right.
LAMB: ...what's the difference in all those? Who owns the others? And...
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, Everyman's Library was originally published in England and still is published in England. And it--it--it was recently acquired by Knopf, which is a part of Random House, which, in turn, is a part of this great Bertelsmann empire. And it is a wonderful series of world classics, in tran--many of them in translation; Jane Austen, Flaubert and so on and so forth. It's been around for about 100 years. The Modern Library was an American counterpart to that, started in the 1920s that also includes those kinds of books. They're both owned now by Bertelsmann. The Random House unit of Random House Incorporated publishes the Modern Library, and by the way, is doing a wonderful job with it. The editor who's responsible for that is a brilliant young man named David Ebershef. And--and Knopf, which is our sister company, is doing a wonderful job with Everyman.

But the Library of America is different in that it concentrates only on the complete or approximately complete works of American authors. There's no interest in anything else. The--the--neither the Modern Library nor Everyman includes, for example, the complete works of Melville or Hawthorne or Poe or Henry Adams or Francis Parkman, but the Library of America does.
LAMB: Are you still on the payroll at Random House?
Mr. EPSTEIN:No, I'm retired as an employee, but I still have a—a modest con--consulting contract to look after my authors. I go into the office maybe once a week or once every two weeks or once every three weeks. I--I don't really have to be in the office. I have nothing to do with running the business, which is fine with me.
LAMB: Do you--do you have any thoughts about the Bertelsmann Corporation, the German company, owning all of what you started?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, they do, and so what can you do about it? Someone has to own it. But I think--I think the--as I said before, the publishing business is--is not a--a way to make money. People don't do it for that reason. They do it for other reasons, and the employees have always been willing to sacrifice their financial security, so to speak, or benefit, for the sake of the work. That's still true with publishing, and I think Bertelsmann will someday discover that and discover that it's bought the wrong kind of business because you cannot run a publishing company if you're--if you think of it as a--a source of profit. You--you--you run it for entirely other reasons.

So that when RCA, for example, bought Random House, when Bennett and Donald were ready to retire--they were then in their middle 60s—this was in the late--in the ear--in the early 1960s. RCA bought it because it was a very glamorous business, and they thought, `Oh, my goodness, synergy, we'll be able to make movies out of these books,' or some damn thing. Well, they were very--they--they were surprised to discover that it wasn't making any money. It never would and couldn't, that it was simply a way of--of investing lots of money without getting much in return. And I--I don't mean that they were losing money, but it's not the kind of business that stockholders want that grows every year and increases its volume and its profits. It won't do that.

So eventually, RCA was bought by General Electric, which is a much tougher company. And General Electric took one look at Random House and said, `This is not for us. We don't want it.' They also took a look at a poultry company that RCA, for some reason or another, owned. And those are the two RCA businesses that General Electric decided to get rid of right away. It took a little longer to sell Random House than it took to sell the chicken business, but finally, S.I. Newhouse bought it. And then 12 years later, he discovered that this was not a profitable business. You just couldn't do it. It's--therefore, it's--if you wanted a vocation, fine, have it. But if you were responsible to stockholders or family members, this is not a good idea.

Bertelsmann, which, after all, didn't understand this. How could they? They don't come from here. They weren't brought up in this business. Maybe in Germany, it's different, but they bought it without quite knowing what they had bought. They'll discover someday what they bought. And when they do, I--I don't think they'll find another buyer. I think that this is the end of the line. I can't imagine anybody wanting to buy these companies now.
LAMB: So what happens?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, I think we're on the verge of a wholly different kind of publishing business, which is one of the things I discuss at some length in my book. I think, miraculously, just as the publishing business as I've known it for these 50 years is approaching terminal decrepitude, along comes this electronic opportunity. There's no reason that this should have happened now. It's entirely fortuitous or miraculous, if you like that just as the publishing business is collapsing, in my opinion, along comes this other way of doing it that will be painful, confusing at first, but in the long run, I think will be--will--will be extremely beneficial to readers and writers.
LAMB: What are you talking about?
Mr. EPSTEIN:I'm talking about the possibility that now exists because the technology now exists to create, on the one hand, a vast directory of digitized--let's, for convenience, call them books, though they can be other kinds of material, too--and organize this catalog in such a way that readers everywhere in the world can have access to it on their computer screens. Hundreds of thousands of items, annotated responsibly, and can find what they're interested in and can browse it on their computers. They can't buy it, but they can read it as much as they would read it in the bookstore. And at—and at the same time that this possibility exists, the possibility of machines that can print one copy of a book at a time on demand anywhere in the world also exists. I've seen this in prototype--I've seen--recently, I've seen a videotape of such a machine that requires no human intervention, anymore than an ATM machine, but except to put the paper in. And after a minute or so, out pops a book, indistinguishable from a book that might be made in a factory, a paperbound book.

My idea is--of the future then is that these machines, by the hundreds or thousands or millions eventually, will be scattered all over the world. And a reader browsing a book or some material selected from this vast catalog, which will be multilingual and multinational, can, if he chooses or if she ch--if she chooses, order that book to be printed right from his computer at a nearby location where such an ATM book machine will be, the corner of Elm and Main Street in a Staples store, let's say or maybe at the headwaters of the Nile or on top of Mt. Everest or who knows where. I think that's going to be the future and that will radically change the way books are distributed.

Book publishing, after all, is a--simply a means of distributing what's in an author's head to what is going to be in a reader's head, eventually. Because that means of distribution still reflects the limitations of Gutenberg's invention, his printing press, where books are printed in a central location, stored in a warehouse, carried around to bookstores, put on display and--and unwanted copies are returned and--unsold. Instead, a book now can be delivered without any of these intervening steps directly from a reader's head—the writer's head to the reader's head with almost no--with almost nothing between them. That is a miraculous change. And it's a--it's a world-changing change.

The other day, an author--dear friend who lives in India, an Indian, a man named Pankaj Mishra, whom I publish, was then living at the—in the foothills of the Himalayas 10,000 feet up, e-mailed me to say that he was going to send the--by e-mail the first 30,000 words of the book he's writing on Buddha. Now he actually never did that. He's som--he's still working on it. But suppose he had finished that work and was able to send them. He would have pushed a key on his computer and in a split second, that 30,000 words would be at my house on Center Street in Manhattan that most taxi drivers can't even find. If you can do that, then we have a wholly different world of publishing, and I think of writing, too, because I think the books we now have, like my book there, is an artifact of a certain technology, a printing press, that will--you put a big broad sheet on the press, you print it on both sides. You fold it eight ways, you get 32 pages. And you put enough of those 32-page units together, and you end up with a--with a book in a binding. But hereafter, you may not have to do that because you're not limited to what a printing press can do. Who knows what kinds of books we'll have? I don't think we'll have reference books, for example, in the future, which go out of date the moment they're published.
LAMB: What book is this for you? Have you written before?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Pardon me?
LAMB: Have you written books before?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Well, I never meant to. It's enough to publish them without having to write them. One of the reasons I became a publisher was to leave that difficult process to other people that would do it better. But I have written a book. I wrote a book about the Chicago Conspiracy Trial back in '69, I think.
LAMB: Are you going to write another one?
Mr. EPSTEIN:Oh, I hope not. No. If I have something to say, I will. But at the moment, I have nothing more to say. I've said everything I have to say in that one.
LAMB: It's called "Book Business." Show the audience what it looks like. Our guest has been Jason Epstein from many, many, years--What?--50 years with Random House?
Mr. EPSTEIN:I'm--yeah, 50 years.
LAMB: Thank you for joining us.
Mr. EPSTEIN:Pleasure.


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