Monthly Archives: August 2011

Jason Epstein on Publishing’s Past, Present and Future

At the request of a member, we are posting this essay by Jason Epstein, originally delivered as a speech at the Hong Kong Book Fair in 2008, and published in the Winter 2009 Authors Guild Bulletin as “Backlist Maestro: Mr. Epstein’s Dream Machine.” Editorial director of Random House from 1965 to 1995 and co-founder of The New York Review of Books and The Library of America, Epstein is now Chairman of On Demand Books.

Backlist is a publisher’s most important asset: titles that have covered their initial costs, earned out the authors’ advances, require no further investment except the cost of making and shipping the book itself and sell steadily year after year without advertising or significant sales expense. Without a substantial list of such titles a publisher cannot survive. The same can be said of a civilization, for the books that survive the test of time, books that are treasured and read year after year, are humanity’s backlist, our collective brain. I do not refer simply to the classics of our various traditions but also to more recent books, hundreds of which are published every year and join the backlist, if not permanently, at least long enough to move the process forward, and provide depth and complexity to our understanding.

Journalism is often called the first draft of history. Books are the second, third, and in some cases final draft. Books are the ongoing dialogue of the present with the past, the endless confrontation of the human mind with the problem of existence. Even those millions who may never read these books: even those who may never have heard of them could not survive if our collective backlists, our racial memory, the wisdom of our species were to disappear.

Since I joined the publishing business as an editorial assistant in 1951, I have been obsessed with the preservation and distribution of backlist, for I understood from the beginning two important truths about our business: the first is that publishing is not really a business at all, at least not a very good business. If it’s money that you want to make, go into a real business and take your chances. The second truth is that publishing is a vocation, a secular priesthood, for publishers are caretakers of our collective memory, indispensable servants to those other caretakers, poets, story tellers, librarians, teachers and scholars. The cultivation of backlist is not only our business but our moral responsibility.

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