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Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future

I came across a book that was published in 2000: Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future. The author, Jason Epstein, was the right person to pen it nearly two decades ago.

The book offers insights as to how book publishing functioned, dating back to when the author broke in during the 1950s and even references how things were back in the 1920s. To now read a book nearly 20 years after it was written, one that tried to predict where book publishing was heading, is a very interesting exercise.

This book is an expanded version of three lectures that he had delivered in October 1999 at the New York Public Library, sponsored by the Center for Scholarship Writers.

Here are some selected excerpts from the book – I think you will find them revealing:

Movable Type to Electronic Books
1.      In the past dozen years movable type has been replaced by technologies that were unimaginable when I entered the book business in the 1950s.  Like the technologies of oral and written language and of movable type, these electronic technologies will radically change the way information is transmitted, stories are read, and cultures are formed.  Book publishing in the next ten or twenty years will be very different from the quaint trade that I entered fifty years ago.

Print on Demand Books
2.      Books as physical objects will not pass away to be replaced by electronic signals reader from glowing, hand-held screens. Nor will bookstores vanish.  But they will coexist hereafter with a vast multilingual directory of digitized texts, assembled from a multitude of sources, perhaps “tagged” for easy reference, and distributed electronically.  From this directory readers at their home computers may transfer the materials they select to machines capable of printing and binding single copies no demand at innumerable remote sites and perhaps eventually within their own homes.

A Concentration of Best-Selling Author Dominance
3.      Between 1986 and 1996 the share of all books sold represented by the thirty top best-sellers nearly doubled as retail concentration increased.  But within roughly the same period, sixty-three of the one hundred bestselling titles were written by a mere six writers, Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, and Danielle Steel – a much greater concentration than in the past and a mixed blessing to publishers, who sacrifice much of their normal profit, and often incur losses, to keep powerful authors like these.

Retail Booksellers in a Digital World
4.      It is less clear how new technologies will transform retail bookselling as the chains in their over-saturated marketplace face competition from Internet booksellers and the prospect of limitless virtual inventories available on demand in electronic or printed form at random locations.  These factors have already discouraged investment in the retail chains, whose share prices have stagnated at low levels.  Nonetheless, a civilization without retail booksellers is unimaginable.  Like shrines and other sacred meeting places, bookstores are essential artifacts of human nature.  The feel of a book taken from the shelf and held in the hand is a magical experience, linking writer to reader.  But to compete with the World Wide Web, bookstores of the future will be different from the mass-oriented superstores that now dominate the retail marketplace.  Tomorrow’s stores will have to be what the Web cannot be:  tangible, intimate, and local communal shrines, perhaps with coffee bars offering pleasure and wisdom in the company of others who share one’s interests, where the book one wants can always be found and surprises and temptations spring from every shelf.

A New Literary Culture
5.      In the technological future, readership of such books will expand as authors, with the help of editors and publicists, and no longer constrained by the turnover requirements of a physical marketplace, present their work directly to readers over the World Wide Web, where word of mouth is instantaneous, credible, and widespread.  Publishers had welcomed television as a powerful tool to promote their titles to the mass market created by the malls.  But television is a one-way medium addressed to an undifferentiated audience to which access is at the discretion of the broadcaster.  The Internet, by connecting readers and writers one on one, offers the possibility of almost limitless choice and foreshadows a literary culture thrilling if also alarming in its potential diversity.

A Consortium Sales Solution
6.      If publishers formed a consortium to sell their books directly to readers over the Internet, the logic of Internet marketing, to which middlemen are extraneous, would be acknowledged and the problem of insufficient margin would be overcome.  What I had in mind was a consortium open to all publishers, old and new, large and small, on equal terms.  This consortium would create a combined annotated catalog of all its titles and maintain warehouses where books from diverse publishers would be packed and shipped directly to Internet buyers.  The elimination of wholesalers and retailers would permit the consortium’s component publishers to reduce prices to consumers, pay higher royalties to writers, and increase their own margins.  To the extent that books are sold by the consortium directly to consumers, the problem of returns from overstocked retailers would also be eliminated.

The concept of such a consortium was simple.  To implement it proved impossible.  Though the Internet made such a consortium sooner or later inevitable, the conglomerate managers to whom I presented the idea were not enthusiastic, nor was Jeff Bezos when I suggested to him that a solution to his problem of insufficient margin might be to convert Amazon from a retailer to a brokerage, transmitting orders for a fee to a publishers’ consortium, if one could be arranged.

The Future
7.      My guess is that future publishing units will be small, though they may be related to a central financial source.  To the extent that writers deliver the contents of their minds directly to the minds of their readers over the Web, as Stephen King has done, such vestigial publishing work as marketing, sales, shipping, and warehousing together with their bureaucracies and inefficiencies can be minimized and assigned to specialist firms.  Book publishing may therefore become once more a cottage industry of diverse, creative autonomous units, or so there is now reason to believe.

According to the book’s flaps, here is what you need to know about the author:

“Jason Epstein has led arguably the most creative career in book publishing during the past half-century.  In 1952, while a young editor at Doubleday, he created Anchor Books, which launched the so-called quality paperback revolution and established the trade paperback format.  In the following decade he became cofounder of The New York Review of Books.  In the 1980s he created the Library of America, the prestigious publisher of American classics and The Reader’s Catalog, the precursor of online bookselling…

“For many years, Jason Epstein was editorial director of Random House. He was the first recipient of the National Book Award for Distinguished Service to American Letters and was given the Curtis Benjamin Award by the Association of American Publishers for “inventing new kinds of publishing and editing.”  He has edited many well-known novelists, including Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, E.L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, and Gore Vidal, as well as many important writers of nonfiction.”

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Brian Feinblum’s insightful views, provocative opinions, and interesting ideas expressed in this terrific blog are his alone and not that of his employer or anyone else. You can – and should -- follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels much more important when discussed in the third-person. This is copyrighted by BookMarketingBuzzBlog © 2018. Born and raised in Brooklyn, he now resides in Westchester. His writings are often featured in The Writer and IBPA’s Independent.  This was named one of the best book marketing blogs by Book Baby and recognized by Feedspot in 2018 as one of the top book marketing blogs. Also named by as a "best resource."

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