Distinguished Editors Weigh In: A Pair of Book-Business Books

Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future , by Jason Epstein. W.W. Norton, 188 pages, $21.95.

The Business of Books , by André Schiffrin. Verso, 131 pages, $23.

It is often said–usually by disgruntled authors–that book editors are just failed writers. Actually, there are plenty of crossover successes: Think of Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, Starling Lawrence, Frank Norris, Peter Davison or T.S. Eliot. (Charles Dickens acted as his own editor, publishing himself in his magazine Household Words .) In the old days, editor-publishers would occasionally write their memoirs, which were then issued (in tiny print runs) by the house they had worked for. Toeing the company line, these volumes offered potted histories of Harper & Row or Doubleday or Houghton Mifflin and would recount, in forced jocular tones, the editor’s greatest hits, the company’s far-sighted vision, the near-misses, the lunches, the trips to London. It’s always interested me, given how lively an editor’s actual work life can be, that the old-line memoirs have been so boring. The two notable exceptions are Bennett Cerf’s At Random , a wonderful window onto the rise of Random House, and Michael Korda’s Another Life , the best account ever written of how a publishing house really works. Mr. Korda captures the varied personality of Simon & Schuster with panache and complete brilliance; his book is the one to turn to if you’re looking for a smart, funny and subtly acerbic panorama of editorial goings-on.

Now two slender books have been published in the same season, both by distinguished editors, both of great interest to the student of book publishing. One is a highly personal memoir wreathed in bitterness; the other, a shorter, more elegiac volume that prognosticates about the possible future of a business that is increasingly being labeled futureless.

Son of the elegant French publisher Jacques Schiffrin, who fled the Nazis and brought his family to the United States, André Schiffrin initially worked at New American Library, founding the successful paperback Signet Classics line before coming in 1962 to Random House’s Pantheon Books imprint, where he would stay for the next 30 years as managing director. Mr. Schiffrin quickly became noted for the intelligence and quality of the books he published, volumes that brought intellectual excitement to reading, that bucked political trends, that discussed important topics candidly. I.F. Stone, Julio Cortazar, R.D. Laing, Michel Foucault–their work was Mr. Schiffrin’s meat and potatoes. “We found ourselves in the happy position of admiring people who were often rejected or neglected by others,” he writes, as he picks up books by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Gunnar Myrdal and Noam Chomsky. “Never once was I prevented from taking on any of the initially unprofitable titles that we published.”

But the good times were not to last. S.I. Newhouse bought Random House and eventually replaced the gifted publisher Robert Bernstein, Mr. Schiffrin’s ally, with the unlovable Alberto Vitale, who immediately began questioning the financial strength and direction of Pantheon’s list. Mr. Schiffrin begins his account of the subsequent nightmare in a chapter called “Fixing the Bottom Line,” a thunderously ferocious insider’s account of how Mr. Vitale (whom Mr. Schiffrin refers to as “the businessman with a thuggish disposition and a thoroughly anti-intellectual attitude” and “illiterate”) seemed to be willfully disrespectful of Pantheon’s identity, sneering at the idea of publishing books of intellectual value, constantly flogging the need to publish for considerations of profit alone. Mr. Schiffrin’s account of his torture and eventual forced resignation is riveting. Still angry today, he slashes at the notion of publishing for the business department alone, of relegating smart books to the dumpster if their initial sales are low, of chasing after pseudo-books of little lasting value that themselves fail spectacularly to perform financially or in any other way. “Newhouse and Vitale had achieved the remarkable result,” he writes, “of lowering the intellectual value of the firm, cheapening its reputation, and losing money, all at the same time.” Later, he quotes German publisher Klaus Wagenbach: “Let’s make this as explicit as possible: If books with small print runs disappear, the future will die. Kafka’s first book was published with a printing of 800 copies. Brecht’s first work merited 600. What would have happened if someone had decided that was not worth it?”

(Many in the business feel Mr. Schiffrin should have left Pantheon long before he was ousted. His style was said to be difficult, and his list not especially profitable even by the standards of his kind of publishing. I am not among his critics. Publishing needs more smart, independent book people willing to take financial hits for the long-term effect of getting and keeping books that matter in print.)

Jason Epstein’s Book Business –which began as three lectures given at the New York Public Library and was slightly expanded to book form–is a very different book from Mr. Schiffrin’s The Business of Books . Mr. Epstein himself has had a tremendous impact, on readers and on publishing–more, perhaps, than any other book editor since Maxwell Perkins. He is the inventor of the trade paperback, specifically the line dubbed Anchor Books, which put titles of philosophy, history and serious fiction–including works by Edmund Wilson, D.H. Lawrence, Gide and Stendhal–into durable and attractive paper bindings (they were more expensive than the existing paperbacks aimed at mass audiences–and worth it). Mr. Epstein is also the co-founder of The New York Review of Books (created to satisfy book addicts during the New York newspaper strike of 1963) and germinator of the Library of America and The Reader’s Catalogue . He clearly loves the product of publishing, and has excelled at discovering and deploying for readers the best possibilities of printed matter.

Mr. Epstein’s career, a long one, has flourished in only two houses: Doubleday, where he began in an obscure position in 1950, and Random House, to which he moved in 1958 and where he stayed for the next 40 years. He mentions some differences with the Doubleday management, a situation that came to a head over the publication–or non-publication–of Nabokov’s Lolita . But he spends little time rehashing grievances. The majority of the memoir portion of his book is an elegy for the way books used to be found and bound and sent to the stores, an essentially fond account of how editors really used to know their authors as people and even as friends, working with them, feeding them, sometimes lending them money and always fighting for them. Even so, he felt that something was missing from the business, a feeling he sums up neatly by noting that he fell into publishing by accident and stayed in it for half a century for lack of better alternatives. “During all this time I kept the walls of my office bare and my desk drawers empty. I was prepared to flee in an instant without a backward glance. It was this illusion of freedom–this belief that I wasn’t really there at all–that made it possible for me to spend a lifetime in the business.”

Surely this is not entirely true, not coming from someone who has published so many good books and who has been a kind of guiding brain of the industry. Or maybe it is, and that illusion of freedom allowed a creative mind to range freely, seizing on unlikely possibilities and what-ifs to engender true innovation. Hence the main thrust of his book, which centers on the potential of the Internet to change, for the better, the way writers reach their readers. The Internet, he says, “offers the possibility of almost limitless choice and foreshadows a literary culture thrilling in its potential diversity.”

Mr. Epstein makes no bones about embracing new technology. Recognizing the widening weaknesses in the way publishers have done business for all these years, he takes a remarkably optimistic attitude about electronic publishing, claiming that it is financially advantageous to writers–who, after all, tend to make relatively little money from their books (the publisher takes the lion’s share)–and potentially lifesaving for publishers as well. At this point, I would share Stephen King’s fitful skepticism about the future of Internet publishing (Mr. King fluctuates between realism and aggressive endorsement, depending on what is being said about his latest experiment, The Plant , a Dickens-style Web-serialized novel that he deracinated last month, when readership dropped from its initial 120,000 hits to 40,000). Perhaps Mr. Epstein should also be wary: His brainchild, The Reader’s Catalogue , fell victim to the Internet, in the form of Amazon.com. He’s right, though, to raise the issue of the Internet, and to suggest that business as usual is not necessarily healthy or fully creative or rewarding, financially or culturally. It’s an interesting exercise to poke at the possibilities with him. But is it just a coincidence that the most personable parts of his book, and the most interesting to an outside reader, look backwards at his early days in the business?

Today, the book business is a New York-centric industry in which many otherwise lackluster editors seem desperate to become celebrities in their own right; they tend to forget who actually wrote the books they publish (at a dinner some years ago, one editor crowed to me about how she had won the National Book Award; it took me a second and a half to realize that she meant a book written by an author she’d signed up). In the midst of this frantic activity, it is a relief and a pleasure to read a pair of books by publishers who each created a cultural entity of lasting value. The audience for these two slender volumes should not be restricted to fellow publishers–though, as a profession, we have a drastically short memory and need always to relearn our business. As books proliferate, as television expands its boundaries to carry two stations entirely devoted to books, as authors become ever more public figures and the culture changes faster than we realize, André Schiffrin and Jason Epstein provide a most valuable and interesting service: They hold up the mirror to how we were.

André Bernard is the editor in chief of Harvest Books, the paperback imprint of Harcourt.