Report from the Trenches: Publisher Jason Epstein

Jason Epstein has led one of the most creative careers in book publishing of the past half century. In 1952, while a young editor at Doubleday, he created Anchor Books, which launched the so-called ‘paperback revolution’ and established the trade paperback format. In the following decade he became cofounder of The New York Review of Books. In the 1980s he created the Library of America, the prestigious publisher of American classics, and The Reader’s Catalog, the precursor of online bookselling. For many years, Jason Epstein was editorial director of Random House. He was the first recipient of the National Book Award for Distinguished Service to American Letters and was given the Curtis ‘inventing new kinds of publishing and editing.’ He has edited many well-known novelists, including Norman Mailer, Vladimir Nabokov, E. L. Doctorow, Philip Roth, and Gore Vidal, as well as many important writers of nonfiction.


In the piece below, Tqwana Brown, a student in Prof. Soares’ Entrepeneurship Class this spring, blogs about the guest lecture that Mr. Epstein, who is also on the Advisory Board for the MS in Publishing program, gave last week.  


With such a long and storied career in publishing, Jason Epstein has probably seen it all – or helped usher it in. So, what does the father of the Paperback Revolution think of massive changes taking place today in the industry? He calls in the “Post-Gutenberg Era”, helped along by the phenomenal success of Fifty Shades of Grey. While the books themselves may polarize readers, Mr. Epstein says they revolutionized publishing, in that E.L. James didn’t need a Big 6 publisher. Random House came along after she and her books were already established hits.

And while some conventions and mainstays of publishing may become extinct, books according to Mr. Epstein will always have an audience – even the ink and paper versions. Speaking to a class of would-be entrepreneurs, he presented a cautiously optimistic view of what’s to come in publishing.

What does he think of all the low-quality self-published stuff out there? “It’ll work itself out”, vanishing on its own, based on reader preferences.

The Amazon/DOJ agency vs. wholesale pricing model issues? That too will work itself out. He theorizes it as Amazon’s way of forcing traditional publishers into this new Era.

And what of editors, copyeditors, publicists, etc.? Those positions, he believes, will always be needed. Just in different capacities. More freelance opportunities, perhaps. Or ventures reaching out to these indie authors.  Agents too would change, becoming business managers and brand builders.

But, what does he see not surviving this digital revolution? Warehouses. With the infinite and malleable options offered by electronic space, physical warehouses – and large quantities of print books – can’t compete.

Territorial and translations rights also could no longer exist in their current states. This is something he suggests we, as newbies to publishing, should be looking into and developing. With the immediate and instant availability of digital material, Mr. Epstein sees a need for universal rights and simultaneous translations. Cooperation that he sees as a major difficulty in an industry that doesn’t want to, but has to change.

So, while some opportunities will go the way of Borders, Jason Epstein believes that there are so many still out there waiting for up and coming professionals to seize and capitalize on. After all, he didn’t invent paperbacks, just recognized a need for them and took advantage of the occasion at the right time.  And he hasn’t stopped, just find the nearest Espresso Book Machine.


Tqwana Brown is in her second semester in the MS in Publishing program.   A former high school English teacher, Tqwana is shifting gears to the publishing career track.   She is interested in working on in the editorial side of book publishing or as a Literary Agent.

Report from the Trenches: Writers on Writing

The Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) this past Wednesday put together a wonderful panel of authors for National Reading Group Month, and held an intimate gathering at The Strand Bookstore in Union Square. As a non-member it was great to see so many accomplished authors in one place. The panelists talked about their latest books. Each author gave humorous and personal testimony, without having to specifically say it, why their books should be chosen for group reads.

  • Ben Ryder Howe—My Korean Deli: Risking It All for a Convenience Store, Picador
  • David Maine—Great Group Reads 2012 Recipient—An Age of Madness, Red Hen Press, Great Group Reads 2012 Recipient
  • Marisa de los Santos—Falling Together, William Morrow Paperbacks
  • Alix Kates Shulman—Ménage, Other Press
  • Elizabeth Nunez—Boundaries, Akashic Books
Heather Allen

Rosalind Riesner, a chair woman at WNBA, moderated the event by having the authors first begin with a brief introduction of themselves and their novel. I was impressed with each of their backgrounds. Hearing about them for the first time, even with all of their success, made me more respectful and honored to be able to hear how they reached this moment.

Soon after the biographies, which I will spare the details (to Google!), Ms. Reisner steered the conversation to writing, which for anyone who enjoys writing and thinks of writing a novel, this was very enlightening. Each author had their own ideas of what the perfect first page should be. For instance, Alix Kates Shulman said the first page set the tone, gave a snapshot of a character. She chose the most colorful for her introduction to Ménage. Similarly, Marisa de los Santos also has a character based approach—her characters live within her, give her a sense of the person so that she begins to know them on a personal level.

For others, the first page needs a little magic. Elizabeth Nunez said that since she teaches creative writing, she knows theoretically what should be on the first page, but in practice it’s much more difficult “waiting for the first line.” Ben Ryder Howe wrote a memoir and his difficulty was creating his own voice out of all the others that were floating around in his mind. Once that happened he was able to focus and let the story spill out. As for David Maine, he wrote what he was feeling and he knew he was right.

The topic spilled briefly into writing for opposite gender roles, but it was quickly determined by Maine that it wasn’t so different. “[I] approach characters as individuals…don’t write about a group, but a person.” Additionally, Shulman offered, “characters should be based on people you know, rather than types. I enjoy writing men, always a satirical edge.”

Sometimes Nunez encountered people who would be opposed to reading her book because they would not be able to relate and she had a message for them, “It’s not about me [you say] –then [I say] you will find out more about you.”

The conversation was again moved toward writing and its meaning to each individual. In summary, it seems that these authors couldn’t imagine doing anything else. It’s obvious from watching them and learning about them that they care deeply about the characters and every single detail that goes into their novels. Nunez said she felt safest writing, de los Santos writes because she’s not good at anything else, but Maine summed it up nicely, “Some people believe in God because they are afraid of being an atheist, that’s how I feel about writing – what would I do not as a writer.”

When the topic turned to revision, each author has their own style. To the most extreme: de los Santos painstakingly reviews each sentence as she moves along, “one sentence begets another sentence and then polish and revise as you go…I feel I can’t move on.” Shulman has been writing a long time and remembered when she was working on her first novel, hand writing drafts and drafts and then typing them up on a typewriter. Since then, the computer has changed how she writes.

Maine writes long hand “poorly but very fast…first draft vomit it all out, second draft, ruthlessness-if it doesn’t move the story then it’s gone.” Howe spoke of using his wife for help and writing a lot of drafts, otherwise (jokingly) he might have been disowned by his family.

And with that there were a few questions from the audience, like revision on a computer, more revision, all leading up to the author signings. This panel was absolutely the right panel for National Reading Group Month: there was diversity in topics, genres and authors. It was wonderful to see how each used their skills to find their voice and ultimately their audience. I look forward to the next panel discussion in November – “The Making of a Young Adult Bestseller.”


To view the panel, visit the WNBA Youtube account.

By: Heather Allen