Everything you wanted to know about the publishing industry in seven easy lessons.
Epstein, former editorial director of Random House and the first recipient of the National Book Award for Distinguished Service to American Letters, takes a stroll down memory lane as he dissects the rather pathetic state of the publishing industry at the dawn of the Internet age. He has certainly earned the right. There is something Forrest Gump–like about Epstein’s ability to turn up at so many important moments in the history of the New York publishing industry—Gump-like, that is, if one can imagine Forrest founding The New York Review of Books, drinking martinis with Edmund Wilson, and reading advance copies of Nabokov’s Lolita. The thesis tucked in amidst the reminiscences is simple: The publishing and retail bookselling industry is in a state of “terminal decrepitude,” laid low by structural problems that the Amazon.coms of the world can do nothing to overcome. Epstein locates the beginning of the industry’s decline in the rise of the suburbs after WWII; the new suburban bookstores had to move books like any other commodity and therefore demanded fast-moving bestsellers instead of the backlist products that had formerly ensured the publishers’ profitability. Little more than anecdotal support is given for this analysis, but Epstein is a man who knows his industry, so the absence of hard evidence is mostly forgivable. The only time he seems less than trustworthy is when he turns to the future; he’s trapped in many of the same cyber-platitudes that bedevil the public at large. But this book, based on Epstein’s Norton Lectures delivered in 1999 at the New York Public Library, is really about memories, not predictions.
Humane, razor sharp, and charmingly told: a must for anyone interested in the story of how books are made.