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Apocalypse Now?

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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Before he joined Random House in 1958, Epstein had worked for Doubleday for eight years, a house, in his words, then run by amiable direct-mail marketers who neither read nor could empathize with those who did. He was 22 when he “stumbled into this job,” which paid $45 a week, enough to cover his $69-a-month apartment in Greenwich Village but not nearly enough to purchase the hardcover books he read and coveted at the storied Eighth Street Bookstore, where he repaired nearly every day after work to browse. Why not bring out inexpensive paperback editions of these classics of fiction and criticism, he wondered, which he, and presumably others of equal impecuniosity, could afford? Epstein ran some numbers and, with the help of Doubleday’s dapper production manager Harry Downey, presented a business plan for the proposed new line to chief editor Ken McCormick. Much to his surprise, McCormick approved it: Thus was born Anchor Books, and the postwar “paperback revolution” was underway. With typical modesty, Epstein gives most of the credit for the idea’s success to timing rather than to his own prescience. In the 1950s, most old-line publishers had not yet realized what Epstein perceived or intuited: that “the postwar generation . . . had already begun to turn the world of its parents upside down.” In any event, publishing history will show that much of the credit for making important backlist works more widely available rightly belongs to Epstein. Within a year of Anchor’s first lists, other major houses, including Random House and Alfred A. Knopf--then separate companies--began to mine their rich backlists, and relative newcomers like Grove Press jumped on the postwar paperback bandwagon.

Epstein left Doubleday in 1958, intent on starting his own business, but after an abortive attempt to buy the American arm of Penguin Books from its aging founder Alan Lane, he accepted a job offer from Bennet Cerf and Donald Klopfer, co-founders of Random House. Epstein’s descriptions of that period, when one worked “for the joy of the task,” are idyllic, as those early years in many ways were. But the publishing world, like the rest of America, was changing rapidly: the postwar suburban migration was well underway by the advent of the 1960s; one of its results was the impending demise of the existing retail marketplace of several thousand independent booksellers in cities and towns across the land, most of whom were as devoted to the profession as were the publishers who served them. “I had no idea that this marketplace would soon crumble and collapse,” Epstein writes, as mall stores, “mechanized and faceless,” replaced their counterparts. Then, within a decade, an even greater change swept the land as book chains--an outgrowth of book departments in departments stores--emerged and, before long, dismantled old-line bookselling, forcing thousands of their independent counterparts out of business. They also soon split the publishers into two “quite different and incompatible businesses--a dominant one publishing mass merchandise for the malls and another committed to the traditional search for backlist [read: “quality”] candidates.” Today, four decades later, the schism still exists, though the increasingly beleaguered independents now account for less than a fifth of book sales across America.

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The title of instigator of the quality paperback revolution would of itself have assured Epstein a lofty place in publishing history, but that was only the beginning. True entrepreneurs always know how to recognize and exploit opportunities, and in 1962, another opening presented itself. Or, more precisely, a closing, for in December 1962 a newspaper strike halted publication of The New York Times. Like many old-line publishers of that era, the paper had failed to keep its book section up with the times. To put it charitably, Epstein remarks, “its reviews were ill-informed, bland, occasionally spiteful, usually slapdash.” With the Times on strike, wasn’t it time to publish a real book review, with in-depth essays and passionate articles? With the collaboration of his wife Barbara, Robert Lowell, his wife Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert B. Silvers, then an editor of Harper’s, the New York Review of Books, as they named it, planned a “special issue” to fill (or improve on) the reviewing hiatus. Thirty-eight years later, the review is still going strong. With Robert Silvers and Barbara Epstein at its helm, it remains one of America’s most important book-reviewing forums.

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Epstein credits a combination of Edmund Wilson and six martinis (Wilson’s, not his) for his next entrepreneurial effort, the Library of America, which was intended to be the American equivalent of the Pleaide, the authoritative edition of France’s major authors. Unlike his two earlier ventures, which were immediate and lasting successes, here Epstein admits he made a grave political error in not recognizing the power and influence of a group of arcane scholars who saw the Wilson-Epstein plan as an intrusion on their territory. It would be more than two decades before that project finally came to fruition, yet despite all the setbacks and disappointments involved over the years, Epstein is philosophical rather than bitter.

Epstein’s next venture, the result of a visit to Denver’s Tattered Cover Bookstore and Borders in Ann Arbor, was the Reader’s Catalog, in essence a worldwide bookstore without walls. It was, 10 or 15 years ahead of its time, what Amazon.com would become. And like that Internet bookseller, Epstein soon learned that, even though he had no bricks-and-mortar overhead to support, costs continued to exceed income, especially when confronted with the price war then being waged between the competing chains. Never one to mince words, Epstein simply says, “I was wrong.” And, he adds, so is Amazon, whose losses he terms “catastrophic” and whose business strategy--corralling market share at any cost--he believes is basically, if not suicidally, flawed.

Finally, and ever so relevant today, Epstein is extremely optimistic about the impact of the new technologies on book publishing, especially the worldwide web, which, he is convinced (as am I), will not replace bookstores but create a new, supplemental market. The obsolete technologies of today’s fulfillment systems, with their built-in bureaucracies and inherent inefficiencies--starting with but not limited to booksellers’ right to return unsold copies to their publishers--will doubtless wither away, but the smaller, leaner units of the future that bring writer to reader will, if anything, regenerate the industry, he asserts. While I question his optimistic estimated timing of the new technologies’ serious impact on the business, in the long run I have no doubt he is right.

By contrast, Schiffrin’s book on the whole takes a very dim view of the future of publishing; the basic difference in the two authors’ approaches begins with their dust jackets. On Epstein’s one can see two open books, both with tattered covers, on one of which one can make out a few delicious lines of a Shakespeare play. Schiffrin’s jacket depicts, in satiric cartoon form, a top-hatted, cigar-smoking, cuff-linked money-grubber--presumably a publishing mogul of the new breed--flipping through a stack of $100 bills in the form of a book laid open on a table. His heavy black left shoe is planted squarely on the shoulder--unless it is the neck--of a much smaller figure prostrate under the table--presumably the small, independent publisher--on whose brow glisten droplets of sweat as he strains to lay his hands on a real book, on which “philo” and “sophe” can barely be made out. If this isn’t bad enough, the “love-of-wisdom” tome is being used to prop up one leg of the mogul’s table.

Caveat emptor, then: the potential reader should be forewarned that what he or she is getting is not a balanced view of publishing today but a polemic intended to demonstrate the decline of quality publishing over the last two or three decades--due, says Schiffrin, to the overwhelming greed of the behemoths. Unlike Epstein, who believes quality publishing still goes on, side by side with, but less flamboyant than, the formulaic bestseller market, Schiffrin flatly declares that quality is a thing of the past, except for the work being done by a few (very) small publishers, himself--in his guise as director and publisher of the foundation-funded nonprofit The New Press--prominently included.

Understandably, he focuses on his 30-year career as the head of Pantheon Books. Pantheon was founded in 1942 by a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, Kurt Wolff, who was rightly famous for, among other things, his original publication of Franz Kafka. Not long after its founding, Jacques Schiffrin--the author’s father, Russian-born but who, after World War I, moved to France where he became a publisher in his own right--emigrated to America one step ahead of the Nazis’ invasion of France. He soon joined Pantheon, where he remained until his death in 1950.

A good decade after his father’s death, young Andre joined the company, serendipitously rather than nepotistically, as he is careful to point out. By the time he arrived there, the house was no longer independent, having been acquired in 1961 by Random House, which a year before had acquired the prestigious Alfred A. Knopf, thus beginning, however modestly, the Pac Man-like process of conglomeration that still goes on today. Within a year of his arrival at Pantheon, Schiffrin was named managing director, a position he retained for the rest of his tenure. A good third, if not half, of “The Business of Books” is a memoir of those Pantheon years, detailing his successes, some inherited (Mary Renault, Zoe Oldenberg, and especially Gunter Grass’ “The Tin Drum,” a legacy of Kurt Wolff), most obtained through carefully cultivated connections and an astonishing globe-trotting pattern--weeks in England, France, Sweden, Italy, Germany.

All in all, his view is so relentlessly pessimistic that at times I feel the book must really have been penned by that character in Li’l Abner, Joe Bfstplk, who, wherever he went, was followed by a dark cloud just over his head. Nothing, really nothing, could brighten his day. Unlike Epstein, however, who balances his successes against his failures with equanimity, Schiffrin focuses almost solely on his successes, title by title, sales figure after numbing sales figure. While he can and should be justly proud of his Pantheon years, his tedious laundry list strikes me as a barely concealed legal brief set forth to condemn his unceremonious ouster from Pantheon 11 years ago.

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In 1989, magazine mogul S.I. Newhouse, who bought Random House in 1980, was apparently so concerned about the low profitability of his acquisition--according to Schiffrin it was less than 1% of net sales--that he hired as CEO Alberto Vitale to replace longtime president Robert Bernstein. As soon as Vitale arrived, the author writes, he made impossible demands, asking Schiffrin to cut his list drastically. He also mandated that each book pay for itself which, as anyone in publishing knows, is like asking Mark McGwire to hit a home run every time he comes to bat. Vitale, when contacted by this reviewer, scoffs at both accusations. “Nonsense,” he said about making every book pay for itself. “But you must have enough winners to offset the losers. When I got to Random, I took a close look at all the divisions and soon homed in on what I saw as the greatest problem, Pantheon, which had not only been consistently losing money but at an ever-increasing rate.”

While he did ask Schiffrin to cut his list, he also asked all the other imprints to pare theirs as well. “Harry Evans [then head of the Random House imprint] cut his,” he noted, “and the following year there was a dramatic increase in sales.” Only Schiffrin adamantly refused. “To this day,” said Vitale, “he thinks my goal was to shut down Pantheon, which was the furthest thing from my mind. The proof? It’s still there today, and doing very well. In fact, two out of five of last year’s fiction nominees for the National Book Awards were Pantheon titles. I never demanded that the imprint make money. I only wanted to stem the losses.”

Schiffrin demurs, claiming in his book that Pantheon never lost money “out of pocket,” whatever that means. In any event, not unexpectedly, Schiffrin refused to pare his list, and he was promptly ousted. As an act of solidarity, several of his editors resigned as well. Within days, letters and faxes were winging their way to the four corners of the globe as Schiffrin and his troops mounted a counterattack: pickets, including many well-known authors, marched in front of the Random House building, and letters poured in condemning the egregious act. To no avail. Fred Jordan was brought in to replace Schiffrin--according to whom Jordan immediately declared to the remaining staff that Pantheon would no longer publish political books. An outright lie, said Jordan when I asked him about it. Jordan specifically stressed at the time of his hire that he intended to continue publishing the kinds of books that Pantheon had always published. Schiffrin also states dismissively, “Jordan lasted barely beyond his first year.” In fact, Jordan was there for the duration of his three-year contract.

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This tendency to play fast and loose with facts, if it serves Schiffrin’s cause, is disturbing. For example, he accuses Gallimard, the esteemed French publishing house, of summarily firing his father Jacques on Aug. 2, 1940, as an act of anti-Semitism. I asked Antoine Gallimard, the current head of the company, about the accuracy of that statement. “Schiffrin pere was a salaried employee until 1937 only,” he told me, “after which he received royalties on all the titles on the Pleaide collection, which he had brought us in 1933. Jacques Schiffrin was never fired in 1940, and charging Gaston Gallimard [Antoine’s grandfather] with anti-Semitism is scandalous and absurd.”

Schiffrin further accuses two of his former colleagues at Random House, Epstein himself and Ashbel Green, of instigating the statement circulated at the time of the author’s dismissal declaring his position--not to modify his list--to be unreasonable. I carefully checked with several sources, and again found that charge to be false. Later, Schiffrin claims that when, after his ouster from Pantheon, he was being considered for the post of director of Harvard University Press, two senior colleagues of his--Knopf editors--made phone calls to the university to queer the deal. But having made that very serious accusation, he fails to name the presumed culprits, a glaring act of omission. One could also question his lament about today’s publishing playing field not being level: With his generous foundation funding, he competes in the marketplace against small independent publishers that operate without the benefit of any such financial help.

Equally baffling and upsetting from the pure publishing viewpoint are the myriad errors in “The Business of Books.” To name but a few, in no particular order: He calls the late William Shawn, the distinguished editor of The New Yorker, Wallace Shawn (confusing him with his son, a playwright and actor). The publisher Dalkey Archive has on its list the novels of Leonard Moseley, Schiffrin reports; it publishes Nicholas Moseley. James Branch Cabell comes out, in Schiffrin’s version, as James Branch Campbell (I suppose he could counter that two out of three ain’t bad). John P. Marquand becomes James P. Marquand, and Thomas Costain is metamorphosed into Frank, while the title of his 1945 bestselling novel “The Black Rose” becomes “Black Robe.” The Dutch publisher Wolter Kluwer becomes Walter Kluwers. Schiffrin cannot for the life of him spell two important publishers’ names: Barney Rosset, the former head of Grove Press; and Michael Lynton, former head of Hyperion and Penguin Putnam. (He gets them wrong both in the text and in the index.) And he’s totally bollixed the relationship between Viacom and its publishing entity Simon and Schuster.

As for the index, it is simply appalling. Names that appear in the text do not show up in the index; conversely, names in the index are nowhere to be found in the text. Those that are rarely appear on the page to which the reader is sent. Curiously, two of Schiffrin’s former Random House colleagues--Elizabeth Sifton and Carol Janeway--appear in the index but not in the text. Why?

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Far from being an even-handed assessment of book publishing today, “The Business of Books” is, as Schiffrin rightly says, “a book of revenge.” And that’s unfortunate. For unlike Epstein’s work, which I would recommend unreservedly not only to those in the profession but also to anyone interested in the world of books, Schiffrin’s is too biased and self-serving to be truly insightful. In fact, I fail to understand how someone whose major lament throughout his book is the serious decline of quality in his chosen profession and who clearly sets himself up as a paragon could have allowed such a flawed work to appear under his name.


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