Good news for books: The story isn't over yet
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By Jason Epstein W. W. Norton 188 pp., $21.95
"We're storytelling animals," insists legendary editor Jason Epstein. "Since the beginning of the species, before there was language, I suspect human beings were telling stories with their hands and facial expressions, like mimes. That's not gonna stop."
This morning in Boston, shredding croissants on The Ritz's breakfast china with the exactness of a ruthless editor, Jason Epstein takes a long view of literacy. He has recently become the first member of book publishing's old guard to herald the coming Internet publishing revolution without alarm.
He makes his case in "Book Business," his newly released personal account of the past, present, and future of American book publishing.
Of course, for almost a decade now, many writers - primarily in their teens and 20s - have been exploiting new Internet technologies to publish their work on the Web. In the mid '90s, Web magazines like Slate.com and Salon.com published literary and critical essays online, while news sources like Time Magazine and Reuters explored the Web's possibilities for media communications. More recently, bestselling thriller writer Stephen King self-published two new novels online, with mixed results.
But Epstein represents the old order of postwar New York publishers. In his 50 years in the business, he's seen monumental writers like Ralph Ellison and W.H. Auden come and go. He hired on as a young editor at Random House back when the company worked out of an actual house. His office was in an old bedroom, and he sometimes came to work to find that one of his authors had spent the night there.
In contrast to the almost familial relationships between writers and editors in those days, Web publishing today looks like a fly-by-night free-for-all. Venerable editors, critics, and publishers of Epstein's generation tend to shy away from the whole mess. Epstein notes that John Leonard, a near-contemporary of his, wrote this month in the New York Review of Books that predictions about a coming age of Internet publishing make him wonder, with Rimbaud, whether "It can only be the end of the world, ahead of time."
Not for Epstein. He's traveled this road before. In his 20s, he touched off a revolution in paperback publishing in the US. There were people who resisted that change too: hardcover purists, who feared that inexpensive and widely-available paperbacks would mean the end of great and beautiful books. Instead, the trade paperback publishing that Epstein initiated made a great body of American literature available to audiences who might never have read it otherwise.
But even though Epstein's accomplished career could provide ample excuse for nostalgia - he also co-founded the New York Review of Books and the Library of America - he is instead looking ahead to the future of publishing.