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Apocalypse Now?

BOOK BUSINESS Publishing Past Present and Future By Jason Epstein; W.W. Norton: 188 pp., $21.95

THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read By Andre Schiffrin; Verso: 182 pp., $23

February 25, 2001|RICHARD SEAVER | Richard Seaver, an editor and publisher for more than 40 years, is president of Arcade Publishing, an independent house distributed by AOL Time Warner. His many past posts include managing editor of Evergreen Review, editor-in-chief of Grove Press and publisher of the trade division of Holt, Rinehart & Winston (while it was a subsidiary of CBS Inc.). He has edited and published many authors, including Samuel Beckett, John Berger, William Burroughs, E.M. Cioran, Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco and Andrei Makine. He is also the translator of Pauline Reage's "Story of O" and the works of the Marquis de Sade, among other writers

Book publishing is in the throes of enormous change, partly because of a major shift in corporate structures over the last few decades but mainly the result of new technologies whose cultural influence, in the words of Jason Epstein, "promises to be no less revolutionary than the introduction of movable type. . . . As the implications of Gutenberg's technology could not have been foreseen in its own time, those of our own technologies are indistinct today, but they promise to be no less eventful."

As sometimes happens, perhaps because of the rapid changes that today's publishers are trying to adapt to and, with luck, control, two very distinguished members of the publishing community have written their memoirs within a few months of each other. Coincidentally, in this instance, both authors have spent most of their working lives under the same corporate umbrella: Epstein as the longtime editor-in-chief of Random House, and Andre Schiffrin as managing director of Pantheon, a Random House subsidiary. Both men combine their personal memoirs with careful--and often impassioned--assessments of the problems and promises of the world of books at the dawn of the new millennium. Both books are relatively short--each under 200 pages--perhaps the result of decades of blue-penciling their authors' works. Even the titles are strikingly similar: Epstein's "Book Business," which eschews the article, and Schiffrin's "The Business of Books." It is in their respective subtitles that one sees how disparate their viewpoints are: Epstein's "Publishing Past Present and Future" versus Schiffrin's "How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read."

Epstein, arguably the most creative and innovative editor-publisher of the last half century, has written a gem of a book: thoughtful, witty, genuinely self-deprecating and--even for someone who has been in the profession as long as I have and thinks he may, at long last, be getting the hang of it--constantly provocative.

Both authors deplore the mercenary conglomeration of the book business in America, but for different reasons. Epstein, who believes (as I do) that publishing is and always has been a cottage industry, a calling wherein many if not most editors and publishers enjoy and take pride in the work itself rather than the monetary rewards thereof, fears that the conglomerates that have gobbled up dozens, if not hundreds, of independent houses over the last two or three decades are in for a big, and generally unpleasant, surprise. Their new bosses are treating publishing as a conventional business, which by its very nature it cannot be: Inherent in it are just too many "notorious vagaries . . . whose outcome can only be intuited," as Epstein notes. And if conglomerates believe they can find stability and financial comfort in buying up name-brand authors--those dozen or two formulaic writers who dominate the bestseller lists year in and year out--here too Epstein sees two possibilities, both negative: Either the agents (or business managers) for name-brand authors will drive up the advances paid by publishers so insanely that profit margins will be eroded, if not eliminated, or name-brand authors may try to become their own publishers. (Stephen King already has, bypassing the conventional publishing process by going directly to his readers via the Internet, though the recent results were less than spectacular. Still, that experiment is far from over.)

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