BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : FEBRUARY 12, 2001 ISSUE
BOOKS

E-Evangelist


BOOK BUSINESS
Publishing Past Present and Future

By Jason Epstein
Norton -- 188pp -- $21.95

Is book publishing ''by nature a cottage industry,'' unsuited to management by international conglomerates with their demands for high profits? Will e-publishing radically transform that industry, returning it to its ''decentralized, improvisational'' roots? Yes to both questions, says author Jason Epstein. In his new volume, Book Business, the former editorial director of Random House offers an optimistic view of the future of book publishing. Unfortunately, Book Business fails to deliver on its promise: Even at a slender 188 pages, it has the feel of a padded magazine article. (The book grew out of three lectures the author gave at the New York Public Library in 1999.) And when Epstein turns from business analysis to memoir, it proves even less satisfying.

With 50 years in publishing, Epstein would seem well-positioned to offer both historical perspective and authoritative predictions about book publishing. His main idea is that publishing will flourish on the Internet, where authors can offer their books direct to the public, bypassing distributors and retailers, or through high-quality literary Web sites. ''That these new technologies have emerged just as the publishing industry has fallen into terminal decrepitude is providential, one might even say miraculous,'' Epstein writes.

Such financial burdens as warehousing and fulfillment of orders can be contracted out. Since publishers will handle only such essentials as editing, publicity, and design, authors will receive a larger cut of the proceeds. There will be no returns--the bane of publishing--since books will either be in electronic format or printed only on demand. Nor need any title ever go out of print.

All of these notions are certainly plausible. But today, sales of e-books are minuscule, with mega-best-selling Stephen King the only author thus far to have achieved widespread distribution via the Net. A huge number of questions, ranging from pricing to format, must be resolved before e-books can become ubiquitous.

The larger part of Book Business deals with Epstein's long and distinguished career. These sections, though, suffer from the absence of any big picture. Rather than telling us what his experiences reveal about larger societal developments, we get lots of particulars, from stories about Greenwich Village bookstores to writer Edmund Wilson. Nor do these memoir chapters, which ramble on about culture and politics, tell us very much about the book-publishing industry as a whole.

Book Business also would have benefited from firm editing. The author repeats ideas and phrases often and employs stilted language and questionable punctuation.

In short, Book Business hardly provides a satisfying picture of that enormously complex trade. Readers who are looking for more than a dose of conventional wisdom and a chronicle of one editor's career will probably be disappointed.

By Karen Angel

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PHOTO: Cover, ``Book Business''



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