The stories of our history have been passed from generation to generation since time began. They were carried forward not by the written word, but through storytelling. The printing presses came along much later and added a new dimension to preserving our heritage.
Jason Epstein takes us on a tour of the book publishing industry from an insider’s view. In fifty years, he has seen many changes and experienced the peaks and valleys of commercialism.
In the 1920’s, book publishing was a small scale, highly personal industry. This is the climate he entered in the 1950’s, since it had changed little. There was camaraderie in the publishing world. For example, when Epstein joined Random House in 1958, it was a leading American publisher. They were housed in the old Villard Mansion on Madison and 50th Street in the north wing. They shared the mansion with the Archdiocese of New York. The offices were a second home to their authors as well as the publishing staff.
Agents were used to negotiate the final contract terms, but the relationship between the author and the publisher was intimate. He describes agents as being “peripheral necessities like dentists, not the dominant figures in the lives of authors.”
The industry has changed and big conglomerates have gobbled up smaller publishers. Currently, there are five publishing empires in the United States, two of which are based in Germany.
Technology will once again change the face of book publishing. Many best-selling authors are leaving their agents and hiring business managers. Tom Clancy became his own publisher and contracts with his existing publisher for production and distribution services.
Several publishers have started digitizing their backlists. They will begin offering them in digital form for online distribution and offering traditional royalties to the authors.
The cost to the publisher is significantly less for this method. Storage costs and book returns diminish, because books are printed only when demanded. The wave of the future may include ATM’s for books. You will find kiosks anywhere in the world where you can select a book and have it printed.
It will bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. The cost of owning books will no longer be so prohibitive to those who have less purchasing power. Bookstores will become locations for intimate gatherings for those who love to read.
Epstein recounts the growth of the industry through his personal experience. Wiener in the 1950’s predicted the use of computers, and the Internet. He speculated on its impact to book publishing and the consequences are still unfolding.
The World Wide Web will become an agent of change within the book publishing industry. Most importantly, the stories of our civilization will live on from the lips of the storyteller to the printed page to the computer screen.