Epstein Unbound

Jason Epstein has a plan to save the book business – not just the book business but literature itself.

With his peremptory manner, his Jason Robards style (too old to be leading man but ready to upstage all pretenders), and his famous curmudgeonliness, he is, vividly, the old man railing against the fates – this is a listen-to-me-one-last-time encore.

The Cassandra-ish lectures he has been giving over the past several weeks at the New York Public Library are about bearing witness to the forces that he believes have mortally undermined books – from the rise of the suburbs and the malling of America to the capitulation of the book industry to the chain stores to the takeover of the business by second-rate executives who, in Epstein’s estimation, would not have been employable in better-run industries.

Doom, collapse, death, incompetence – age too; Epstein has been in the book business for half a century, after all – are the real subject of these talks.

Indeed, a leitmotif of the lectures is that the lectures themselves were lost in his new computer. Here is a take-away image: Epstein, last in the line of the great Jewish book publishers beginning with Liveright in the twenties and including Cerf, Klopfer, Schuster, Simon, and Knopf, who transformed twentieth-century literature and whose firms became the basis of the modern book industry, on the phone with the Compaq help line (on hold, listening to the music).

The lectures, attended by a bookish audience, have focused more on distribution than on books themselves. His depressing story of the end of literature most of all involves the Faustian bargain publishers made with book chains: how the industry went from a customer base of thousands of stores to a customer base of, practically speaking, two stores, Barnes & Noble and Borders; and how the need by the chains to amortize real-estate costs led to the inevitable commodification of book products; and how the loss of the independent stores as a viable piece of the market has meant an inexorable distancing of publisher from reader.

You know the scene here: The old lion who’s been forced from the business but who won’t take the hint. You can surely imagine the eyes that are rolling up at Random House (now owned by Bertelsmann, the German book giant), where Epstein has worked since 1958.

When I call Epstein to discuss the lectures – I, pathetically, am also tethered to the fate of books – he invites me to lunch at his baronial apartment on the edge of SoHo (his Manhattan dwellings feature in his lectures, from his first $69-a-month Village apartment with gable skylight facing north, to the apartment with double-height ceilings on West 67th Street, to his current magisterial rooms). He does not remember – or, more to the point, I do not remind him – that almost a quarter-century ago he asked me to his office at Random House to discuss a book proposal I had submitted and, through an hour and a half of mockery and monologizing, reduced me to tears. It seems like a measure of something about publishing business – at the very least its unique ability to inflict pain; perhaps as well its tendency to trap us in the past – that a quarter-century later I’m still obsessing about this.

Epstein, a legendarily nasty son of a bitch (and this is kind), is not, by a long shot, anywhere near the worst I’ve met in the book business – indeed, we shortly discover that we both carry around much the same list of loathsome and incompetent sons of bitches. Epstein, if possible, is even more sweeping than I am in his condemnation of the men and women who manage the business.

“I’ll match you story for story,” he says.

I tell him a story that he seems, somewhat begrudgingly, to be impressed with. How, in the dead of night (well, maybe late afternoon), after weeks of arguing with Random House’s management about how not to lose money on every book of mine it was distributing, I had 70,000 copies surreptitiously removed from its warehouse in Westminster, Maryland – possibly the high point of my publishing career.

“It’s easy to get 70,000 out of the warehouse. It’s almost impossible to get one,” Epstein snorts, and this goes to the heart of his critique – the marketing whizzes who took over books tried to create a system of package-goods efficiency. On this basis, in Epstein’s view, the traditional business of books, which requires hand-selling and complex inventories, died. Even then, book people failed to create a more efficient business (forget about producing literature; book publishers can’t produce accurate numbers). We spend a lovely moment recalling the tragicomic absurdness of each of the key managers at Random House in recent years.

Still, in all fairness, you cannot do justice to the book-publishing comedy without including Epstein too. There are certainly many people who blame the decline and fall of books and book publishing at least in part on him.

Epstein represents not only the idea and ideal of a handcrafted book in the prefab age of publishing but also the snobbery of books – that extreme form of snobbery wherein all but the most rarefied circle are excluded (here I am thinking again of my tortured hour and a half with him so long ago). This was a club that valued not breeding and background (although Harvard wouldn’t hurt) but a politically and aesthetically correct sensibility (and people who had friends and connections with such sensibility).

Epstein, as he details in his lectures, was not only a Random House editor but, more important, a member of New York’s most charmed intellectual circle, its veritable Bloomsbury: “Lizzy, Cal, Dwight, Mary, Philip …” He lists only the most elite members.

“It is, oddly, his wealth rather than his mandarin bookishness that gives him a kind of moral authority now. After all, he has demonstrably made money.”

It was out of this world that The New York Review of Books sprang during the 1962-3 New York newspaper strike (to smite, says Epstein, the “ill-informed, bland, slapdash” New York Times Book Review) and came to stand for a sort of cult of books and bookish people, aristocratic in their disdain for markets and marketing and the popular culture that was a by-product of such marketing. The NYROB elegantly delineated an us-and-them world. Us were the people who respected books and who understood books; them were the people who would turn books into mass-market commodities. The former were in the book business out of love for books; the latter were in the book business because they couldn’t get into a good business school. This underlying snobbishness – while possibly justified on the facts – had, in many respects, the effect of delivering the operational power of the book-publishing business from the aristocratic book-loving crowd to the merchandising blokes (Random House’s tyrannical CEO Alberto Vitale was an Olivetti salesman). The former, caught in what even Epstein characterizes as an “increasingly narrow, self-absorbed world,” allowed the latter tradesmen, with no vested interest in the nature of books, to take over.

Still, this sprawling, enveloping apartment, raw space that Epstein has had fitted and corniced and buffed and upholstered and manicured, is a reminder that he is actually one of the few people to have made an honest fortune from the book business. While working for Random House, he founded first The New York Review (vowing that unlike other intellectual journals, The NYROB would pay its own way, which, famously, it did), then the Garden Book Club, then the Readers’ Catalog, ultimately selling each of these businesses for a handsome gain (if not for tens of millions, then at least for single-digit millions).

It is, oddly, his wealth rather than his mandarin bookishness that gives him a kind of moral authority now. After all, he has demonstrably made money while Random House’s business side, its top executives, financial people, sales and marketing managers, and lawyers (most of whom – say this for Random House’s new owners – have lost their jobs in the takeover), ran the company into the ground.

It is hard to keep track, between bites of prosciutto and figs followed by broccoli rabe and handmade sausage (the life of the dedicated epicure is part of the Epstein legend; once, in the middle of some publishing Sturm und Drang, a Times reporter called Epstein, who said he was in the middle of a béchamel sauce and therefore couldn’t possibly comment; another version of this story has a crisis with a touring author and Epstein making mayonnaise – “Mayonnaise is very delicate,” he is reported to have explained), of what part of his proposed new business is on the record and what part I’ve promised to keep confidential. Indeed, it is hard to know how much of his plan is real or fanciful (or delusional). He shows me the memos he’s written – oddly insistent and authoritative memos for a man who is theoretically in retirement mode – to the men who now run Random House. I can’t help wondering what the Germans make of him.

It is disconcerting, too, when, describing the future of books, he says the “only solution is Internet” without a clear grasp on the proper grammatical form. Also, he admits, without concern, that he doesn’t really use the Internet – “It would take up too much of my time. Tell me, do you really find anything interesting on Internet?” – even though his plan to save the book business and literature is all about the Internet. The fact that his main reference to the Internet seems to be a conversation he had with Norbert Wiener, the scientific visionary-fruitcake (on the one hand outlining computer networks a generation before their time; on the other hand seriously discussing disembodied travel via telephone), in 1958 is also a little unnerving.

Still. I listen to people talk about the book business all the time – and none of them know what they’re talking about (it’s now a retailing business, and not one of them knows the first thing about retailing). For that matter, I listen to people talk about the Internet all the time – and most of them just got into the Internet business two weeks ago.

Indeed, I take the subway uptown (carrying the 10,000-word essay Epstein has just written for The New York Review on why humans go to war) full of the possibilities of Epstein’s plan. It puts the Internet together with book-business consolidation in an effort to reconnect seller to buyer, publisher to reader (“disintermediation,” Epstein says, using the right word), in a way that alters, in favor of publisher and reader, the economics of the transaction. The plan would challenge (and perhaps eradicate) not just Amazon but Barnes & Noble and Borders too. It’s extraordinarily simple and wildly unlikely. And it is entirely obvious that the plan is the only way to preserve the book-publishing business in anything like the form it’s in now.

I wish I could say more about the plan. But I promised I wouldn’t. Jason Epstein wants to tell you himself.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Epstein Unbound