Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Future of Books

Jason Epstein was a publisher for more than 40 years. Now in retirement, he wants to replace Gutenberg with a digital press.

Jason Epstein worked in book publishing for more than 40 years. He was editorial director of Random House and founded Anchor Books, the New York Review of Books, the Library of America, and the Readers Catalog. Now in retirement, he wants to digitally reconstruct publishing, as digitization is re-creating the music industry.

I became a publisher by accident. When I entered Columbia College in 1945, I was only 17, but I found myself surrounded by veterans in their 20s, some still in their flight jackets and peacoats, many of them married, some with infants. Most of them were in a hurry to find careers and get on with their lives. Some, however, were incipient scholars, and I was fascinated by their worldly talk of Marvell and Donne, Pascal and Voltaire, James and Proust, and Joyce and Eliot. Some of my elders became my friends. For four years we formed an intense coterie of which I was the chief beneficiary because I joined it knowing nothing and acquired from it the rudiments of an education. I had no thought of a job, much less a career in business, certainly not one in book publishing. Thus it did not occur to me that my friends, thanks to the GI Bill, belonged to a large, unprecedented, and undiscovered market for serious books -- a new phenomenon in the cultural and commercial life of the United States.

In September 1950, after wasting a year in graduate school, I was on my own financially. For want of a better plan, and with only the vaguest idea of what a book publisher actually did (I had recently seen a film called The Scoundrel, starring Noël Coward, about the ruin of a glamorous but dissolute book publisher), I applied to Doubleday's training program, which promised to indoctrinate prospective publishers by rotating them through various departments. Although Doubleday's personnel manager insisted that I was unsuited for the program, Ken McCormick, the firm's editor in chief, hired me nonetheless.

In those days, paperback publishing was an offshoot of maga­zine distribution. Every month a bundle of cheaply printed popu­lar novels, each selling for 25 cents, was delivered along with that month's magazines to drugstores and news­stands around the country. Last month's unsold paperbacks were collected, pulped, and reborn as next month's (hence "pulp fiction"). I had been at Double­day for six months, long enough to grasp the essentials of the business, when I proposed to Ken a plan for another kind of paperback. One February afternoon, as we walked across Central Park, I asked, Why not sell paperbacks in bookstores instead of newsstands? We would publish the kinds of serious works that my friends and I had read at Columbia, but which were available only in hard covers and at pro­hibitive prices. These paperbacks could, I suggested, be slightly more expensive than mass-market pulps: we would break even when we had sold 20,000 copies instead of 100,000. Wouldn't it make more sense to sell 20 copies of The Sound and the Fury at a dollar than one hardcover copy at ten dollars?

What I was proposing was a paperback program that would expand the market for publishers' backlists -- that is, books that sell year after year and in the aggregate contain nearly all that we think we know about ourselves and the world. In the 1950s, backlists were the life's blood of publishing: backlisted titles had recouped their costs, and their sales provided book publishers with a steady stream of profit.

Ken agreed and suggested that I talk to people in production and sales and come up with a business plan. We decided to call the new series Anchor Books, after Double­day's Aldine colophon, with its frisky dolphin wrapped around a weighty anchor. We began by testing the market with 20,000 copies of 12 titles in sturdy paper bindings, priced between 65 cents and $1.25. The first list included Joseph Conrad, Edmund Wilson, D. H. Lawrence, André Gide, and Stendhal. Within a year or two, nearly every publisher in New York and Boston had a line of "quality paperbacks," which bookstores were selling by the millions. The "paperback revolution," as it would be called, had begun.

The essential factors in the success of this format (new to the United States, although European publishers had been publishing quality paperbacks for some time) were an audience for serious reading created by the GI Bill and the 3,000 to 4,000 independent booksellers who constituted the retail market for books. Many of these stores were hardly more than gift shops carrying greeting cards, regional titles, and a few bestsellers, but perhaps a thousand booksellers in cities and major suburbs maintained deep backlist inventories and catered to the eclectic interests of sophisticated readers who found their way to the low-rent neighborhoods where many of the shops were located. Our marketing strategy was simple. We put Anchor Books displays wherever we could, hoping that readers would find them and tell their friends. The books sold themselves.


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