Good news for books: The story isn't over yet
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.
In "Book Business," he laments that today's book industry is driven by a handful of corporate conglomerate publishers, who market their products to massive suburban chain bookstores. These publishers, forced to buy and sell writing "like they would soap or razor blades," favor the work of faddish brand-name authors, and rob editors of much of their traditional power to cultivate and encourage writers with serious literary talent.
Even so, says Epstein, publishers aren't making any money at it. That system has fallen into what he calls "terminal decrepitude" - both literarily and financially.
The best new hope for the future of books, he argues, is on the Web. He suggests that publishers should be counting their blessings that the Internet came along when it did. "For contemporary deists," he writes, "the timely arrival of the World Wide Web may replace the watch found in the desert as evidence of a divine maker's intricate design."
He envisions a future in which the Internet will render an unlimited number of books accessible to readers worldwide, on their personal computers or hand-held screens, and through an exhaustive online catalog of all the books that have ever been in print.
Readers could select the book of their choice from that list, and in about 50 seconds it could be printed and bound - identically to a modern paperback book - at their local library or Kinkos. It could even, Epstein smiles, "be delivered to your door like pizza."
This capability, he reasons, would save the massive production and distribution costs now associated with the book business - and no book would ever again have to go out of print.
But Epstein's vision of worldwide literary access presupposes a degree of literacy and technological sophistication that is now by no means universal.
Also, for lovers of the beautifully bound and illustrated book, or the hole-in-the-wall bookstore with its eccentric proprietress and her bawdy parrot, Epstein's promise of greater access to scantly available writing is not a perfect exchange for the loss of those artistic and social experiences.
Epstein acknowledges those drawbacks. He actually throws up his hands - showering the table with crumbs - over the demise of independent bookstores. For years now, massive chain stores and Internet book retailers have been running these stores out of business.
"Who wants things to change? I don't," he insists. "But what do you do? It happens. You go along with it and try to make the most of it. The real danger is turning your back on it."
Great writing, Epstein suggests, will emerge from the confusion of digital publishing, just as it invariably has in every other age. "Human beings have an instinct for selecting quality," he insists.
"If we didn't have that capacity, we wouldn't have survived as a species. We would all be eating poison and falling out of trees. No - we know better." He predicts that over time, fad writers and writing - online as on paper - will naturally fall into obscurity, and the lasting literature of our age will rise.
Mary Wiltenburg is on the Monitor staff. Send e-mail to email@example.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society