Jason Epstein: Publishing Icon, Perennial Student

Eugene L. Meyer profiles publishing icon Jason Epstein for "Columbia College Today."

Reprinted with permission from Columbia College Today.

By Eugene L. Meyer

Jason Epstein emerged from Columbia College in 1950 a bright, young graduate in a postwar world with­out a clear lens into his future.

As a distinguished book editor, publisher and entrepreneur, Epstein contin­ued to learn and, although he might be reluctant to say so himself, to become a learned man. “It was as if Columbia never stopped,” he says. “The authors I admired and benefited from are the ones I could learn something from. They did all the work, and I ended up learning all about it. It was like being back at Columbia. Columbia is really an ongoing experience.”

In what other field, he asks, could one continue to learn so much from so many? That is a modest self-assessment from an iconic figure in the world of books, the man who edited and published Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, E.L. Doctorow, Alice Wa­ters, Paul Goodman, Jane Jacobs and Philip Roth. “I was W.H. Auden’s editor — not that he needed one,” Epstein says. “I published an awful lot.”

He has done much more than that. He is the start-up king of the literary set. With Anchor Books, Epstein invented the trade paper­back. He worked with critic Edmund Wilson to start the Library of America. He created The Reader’s Catalog, with 40,000 backlist titles. He co-founded The New York Review of Books. Most recently, he moved into print-on-demand with the Espresso Book Machine.

“I like to start things. I don’t like to run them,” Epstein confess­es. “I’m not good at running a business. I’m very disorganized.”

But in the space of one singular career, Epstein, 83, has time-traveled from the centuries-old era of the Gutenberg printing press to the new age of e-publishing, while never losing his focus on content, whatever the format. “To Jason Epstein,” reads the simple dedication in Doctorow’s Depression gangster novel Billy Bathgate. And Saul D. Alinsky, who wrote the still-in-print book Epstein edited on community organizing, dedicated Rules for Radicals to him “for his prodding, patience and understanding, and for being a beautiful editor.”

Jason Epstein ’49, ’50 GSAS in his Centre Street living room with his 6-year-old cockapoo, Hamlet. Epstein’s life’s work as an editor and publisher can be seen in the thousands of books that fill his two homes. PHOTO: CHUCK ZOVKO

Of Alinsky, Epstein says, “I liked him. He was charming, a solid character who was basically a conservative, as I am, who wants to protect what’s worth protecting. Those right-wingers think he was a raving Bolshevik. He was anything but.” Which reminds him, by the way, of Jacobs’ influential The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which he also edited. “She was the same kind of conserva­tive Saul was. I recently wrote an introduction to the 50th anniver­sary edition” of Jacobs’ book, originally published in 1961.

Epstein also cooks and bakes, and he wrote a 2009 memoir, Eating, that combines recipes and recollections. He’s even been known to send pastry-dough-covered manuscripts back to writ­ers. He’s a great storyteller who spices his anecdotes with sen­tences that begin “my friend” Barney Rosset, referring to the iconoclastic publisher of the long-gone, once avant-garde Grove Press; “my friend” Robert Lowell, the American poet; and “my old friend” Gore Vidal, whom “I haven’t spoken to in years to preserve what’s left of our friendship.”

Norman Mailer, “on the other hand, takes all your advice and then ignores it completely. Oh, what the hell. I loved him. His loss is a terrible thing to me, because I loved publishing his books. Basically, he was a very decent guy, a family man, who liked to pretend he was nuts. Underneath it, he was a nice Jewish kid from Brooklyn.”

Many of the luminaries with whom Epstein associated are gone. “You’d have to be in heaven to find most of them, I think,” he says. But fortunately, not all. There is, for one, Edgar L. Doctorow, the acclaimed novelist, whom Epstein calls “sweet, a pleasure to work with.” Doctorow, reached at his Upper East Side residence, returns the compliment.

“Through several books he was quite an editor,” Doctorow says. “He would ask very mild questions about small things where he felt there was a flaw. Then you’d look at this little flaw and it would grow in magnitude, and you’d realize he’d put his finger on a very important issue.”

Epstein was born August 25, 1928, an only child, and grew up in Milton, Mass., where his father was a partner in a textile factory. Milton, a southwestern Boston suburb, was then populated largely by upwardly mobile Irish-Ameri­cans. “I think I was the only Jew and there was one black fellow,” he recalls. “When my friends went to catechism, I traipsed along behind them.” Epstein, who graduated from high school at 15, had a cousin who was working for Columbia University Press, and he followed him to Morningside, arriving in 1945. Tuition was $400 a term.

Epstein settled into a 10th-floor single, room 1005, in Livingston Hall. He was just a babe in arms, a young kid on a campus crawling with veterans five and 10 years older. “There was a kind of sophis­tication atypical of freshman classes,” he remembers. “This supple­mented what I got from [faculty] staff.” Full professors taught hu­manities and the Core Curriculum. His teachers included Quentin Anderson ’37, ’53 GSAS; Joseph Krutch ’24 GSAS; Mark Van Doren ’21 GSAS; Eric Bentley; and Lionel Trilling ’25, ’38 GSAS. Andrew Chiappe ’33, ’39 GSAS taught him Shakespeare.

“I was in awe, in retrospect,” Epstein says.

The College was, he recalls, “a very intimate place. The school seemed tiny, with maybe 400 in a class year. There was great spirit. Everyone wanted to learn something. I immediately took to it. It was totally absorbing, thrilling, changed my life. I never thought for a moment what I would be doing for a living. But the rest of my life reflects that first exposure to the humanities program.”

Epstein studied history and literature and was involved in the humor magazine Jester. He remembers “stumbling” into Philo­lexian, the literary debating society, which gave him its Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement in 2007. In 1988, Epstein received the College’s prestigious John Jay Award for distin­guished professional achievement.

Epstein’s bachelor’s came with special distinction in Eng­lish. Another year in graduate school at Columbia earned him a master’s in English literature. His thesis was titled “Anatomy of Melancholy.” But melancholic he was not, just unsure of what to do with his life. One day, after browsing in the old Dauber & Pine used bookstore on lower Fifth Avenue, he drifted to the the­ater next door; it was showing a Ben Hecht movie, The Scoun­drel, based on the life of Horace Liveright, publisher of Ernest Hemingway, Theodore Dreiser and Gertrude Stein. “I saw the movie and decided that was the business for me. I could make a living. I spent lot of time at the Columbia bookstore, so I knew what a bookstore looked like.”

Epstein is relating all of this at his kitchen table, where he is sipping a Diet Pepsi, his beverage of choice. He lives in a spacious and airy five-room apartment in the former NYC police head­quarters — a Beaux Arts building converted in 1988 to 55 co-op units in the middle of Little Italy — with his wife of 18 years, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, and their 6-year-old black cockapoo, Hamlet.

Epstein with Allen Ginsberg ’48 at Epstein’s Random House office in the early ’60s. Epstein displays this photo in his home. PHOTO: COURTESY JASON EPSTEIN ’49, ’50 GSAS

“He’s an encyclopedia. He’s unbelievable,” Miller says. “There is nobody like him. I’ve met so many world leaders, great think­ers; he’s a class unto himself.”

They are in a sense the odd couple: They disagree over many political issues but are intensely loyal to one another. Her cover­age of the lead-up to the Iraq war was controversial and regarded as pro-war. He wrote an early piece in The New York Review of Books in opposition.

“I wish she’d paid more attention to it. We might not have gone to war,” he says. But Epstein is fiercely proud of Miller’s decision to go to jail to protect a confidential source in the Valerie Plame affair. During her incarceration, he visited her regularly at a federal facil­ity in Alexandria, Va. “It was harder on him in some ways than it was on me,” she says. “He’s a very sensitive individual, hates noise and bright lights. It was hard for him seeing me in jail.”

Epstein says he paid about $1 million for their apartment. A four-bedroom unit there was recently listed for $14.5 million. The couple also has a home in Sag Harbor, on eastern Long Island, where they were married and where Epstein likes to garden, growing mostly herbs.

Epstein has wispy, snow white hair, and he is wearing a blue sweater and corduroy pants, looking like a professor emeritus. On the table are three paperbacks: The Road: Stories, Journalism, and Essays, a recently published collection by the late Soviet writ­er Vasily Grossman; A Writer at War: A Soviet Journalist with the Red Army, 1941–1945, also by Grossman; and Edward P. Jones’ novel The Known World, which won a Pulitzer. “He has the gift,” Epstein says of Jones, whose book about a black antebellum slave owner he was just finishing. “He’s a genius.”

To find his first job in publishing, Epstein thumbed through the phone book, alphabetically noting first Appleton, then Dou­bleday. He was the second trainee hired by Doubleday and Co., and soon after an editor there; the first book he edited, The Fear of Freedom, was an attack on McCarthyism by Francis Biddle, a former attorney general and the primary judge at the Nuremberg Trials. It was published in 1951 and reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.

Editing, Epstein says, came naturally to him. “It’s a compli­cated skill that involves more than helping the writer find a voice and organizing a paragraph,” he says. “It requires tact. Some writers accept advice gratefully. Others don’t. The trick is to avoid the latter. My task is to ask the right questions and their task is to answer them. In this way we both benefit.”

Early in his editing career, Epstein had an epiphany. “My so­phisticated friends at Columbia on the GI bill couldn’t afford to buy the books they had to read,” he recalls. “I said, ‘Why not a paperback series? A good paperback edition, not pulp?’” He pro­posed the idea to Ken McCormick, editor-in-chief of Doubleday, as they were walking across Central Park. “McCormick said, ‘Oh, go ahead and do that.’ That was the beginning of Anchor Books, which, to my amazement, revolutionized the book business. Be­fore other publishers piled on, we’d established ourselves as the main thing.” It was 1953. Epstein was 25.

“Time went by,” Epstein says, by way of transitioning into an­other story of literary luck. As it happened, Anchor Books had published in paperback Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, about the run-up to the Russian revolution, and the two had be­come friends. Epstein and his then-wife, Barbara, were visiting the author in Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, when Wilson took down from his study shelves a manuscript in two binders. It was a racy nov­el by Vladimir Nabokov, who at that point wanted to remain anonymous. “It was Lolita, of course,” Epstein says. “I read it and thought it was very funny. But in those days, you published a book like that at your risk.” He showed it to McCormick. “We agreed it was a hot potato.” So instead of publishing the book, they published an excerpt in The Anchor Review, a quarterly peri­odical of stories and essays.

“I did it without checking with the president of the company,” he says. Afterward, the president wanted nothing to do with Lolita. Disillusioned with Doubleday, “I said, ‘The hell with this.’ I quit. Of course, nobody went to jail because [part of Lolita] was in An­chor Review. Lolita was later published by Putnam to great acclaim.”

That year, 1958, fate came calling once more in the form of Ben­nett Cerf ’20, the longtime head of Random House who was then busy being a television personality — primarily as a panelist on the game show What’s My Line? — and giving talks. Cerf offered Epstein what was essentially the top job at Random House with the stipulation that he could start his own publishing house, so long as it wasn’t competitive.

Epstein’s Random House office, he recalls, was “a wonder­ful townhouse mansion on Madison Avenue.” In fact it was the 1884 building commissioned by railroad magnate Henry Villard, today a historical landmark. Random House occupied the north­west wing, where “authors would come and wander around. We had [James] Michener and [John] O’Hara and Robert Penn War­ren. It was [like] being back at Columbia, but making a living, not much of a living, but enough. Those years were pure joy.”

On the side, Epstein started a small children’s book business, Looking Glass Library, publishing in 1961 The Phantom Tollbooth, by Brooklyn architect Norton Juster. It was illustrated by Jules Feiffer and, Epstein notes, “became a classic, a big success. We sold that business to Random House” in 1960.

The New York newspaper strike of 1962–63 gave rise to The New York Review of Books, now a biweekly magazine on culture, literature and current events. The first issue was thrown together in a few weeks to fill the vacuum created by the strike. Robert Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hard­wick, were by then Epstein’s neighbors. “Lizzy had just written a piece in Harper’s saying how terrible The New York Times Book Review was. All of us said together at once, ‘We have an obligation to do a better book review.’”

Epstein and Lowell went to the latter’s bank; Lowell with­drew $4,000 from his trust fund. Epstein “put in a little.” They sold $10,000 in ads and had “enough to pay the printer.” They solicited top writers to write — for free — and a dozen signed up. They put out the first issue in 10 days, 100,000 preprinted copies that “sold out immediately,” Epstein recalls. Key to the operation were the co-editors, Epstein’s then-wife, Barbara, and Robert Sil­vers, who had edited Harper’s Magazine. They continued together until Barbara died in 2006. Silvers is still at it. The Review’s “very influential” circulation today is 130,000–140,000, Epstein says.

Silvers recalls how Epstein recruited him with a single phone call. “Jason said this is the only time that a new book review can be started,” because of the newspaper strike. Silvers agreed and joined Barbara. (She and Epstein had a son, Jacob, an author and TV writer, and a daughter, Helen ’86 GSAS, an author, teach­er and molecular biologist.) “It was Jason’s inspiration,” Silvers says, “to see this was one moment you could put out the maga­zine” on a shoestring. Silvers credits Epstein also with setting up a company to publish the Review in such a way that business con­cerns did not trump editorial freedom.

“He did all this while still being a senior editor and wildly admired editor at Random House,” Silvers says. “He had the idea and the crucial plan for setting it up, and, by the way, he wrote in that first issue a very good article on W.H. Auden, a very finely done piece that showed Jason’s appreciation of poetry and knowledge of Auden’s work.” Epstein has written regularly for the Review in the years since. “He’s a very serious student of the history of the city and also of its problems,” Silvers says. “He’s also written about the history of books and about publishing.”

Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future ap­peared in 2002. It was based on a series of lectures he had given at the New York Public Library three years earlier on the future of the industry, in which he forecast the digitized future. “To my utter amazement,” he says, the book has been translated into 10 languages and remains in print — in paperback and, electronically, on Kindle, Amazon’s e-reader.

In the seminal lectures, which drew a mostly younger audience, Epstein recalls, “I said the future would be digital and that would change everything.” The technology, he added, would radically de­centralize the marketplace so that digital files of every book ever written in every language could be delivered wherever connectivity exists, instantly to be accessed either on a portable screen on printed on demand by an ATM for books. The lectures, one of which was published in The New York Review of Books, led to a St. Louis inventor who had built a kind of ATM that printed and bound single copies of books on demand and became the prototype of the Espresso Book Machine. Epstein made a deal to purchase the patent, and there are now some 60 Espresso Book Machines in bookstores here and abroad. The device is about as big as a full-sized office copier. A high-speed printer prints both sides of a sheet, at a speed of 100 pages or more a minute. A finish­ing device receives the pages, trims and binds them. The content is all transmitted electronically from publishers. All paperbacks, the books cost approximately $10–$25. Though Epstein is chairman of the company, print-on-demand books are hard to find in his own vast home library. “Most of my books pre-date the machine,” he explains, though he does keep an Espresso copy of Einstein’s book on the theory of relativity.

Epstein also boosted the book business in 1979 by creating with Edmund Wilson the Library of America, which was conceived at the Princeton Club bar when Wilson asked why this country couldn’t have — like France — a complete canon of its own literature. Epstein said, “Good idea, but we need a lot of subsidy to create the inventory.” Their initial fundraising efforts were unsuccessful. But Epstein knew McGeorge Bundy, who had served as national security adviser to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, and who was leaving the Ford Foun­dation, where he’d been president. Bundy offered to throw in $500,000 in Ford funds if it were matched by the National Endow­ment for the Humanities. And it was.

“I got it going, gave it shape and established the editorial criteria as well as the design and format,” Epstein says of the library, which has published more than 200 books. “I’m not involved now, but I’m very proud. It’s an indispensible part of our heritage.”

Epstein also initiated The Reader’s Catalog, an annotated list­ing of 40,000 “backlist books that might have been hard to find in the shopping mall stores that dominated the retail market at the time. The Internet had not yet been commercialized, so readers could order these titles over an 800-number. The catalog was popular, but the cost of shipping and handling meant that we were losing money on every order. When the Internet became available, I projected losses in the millions and decided not to go there. Instead, we put the catalog up for auction between Amazon and Barnes & Noble, which were then just starting out as Internet retailers. Barnes & Noble won the auction and the Reader’s Catalog became the prototype for Amazon’s online book-selling.”

Even as he embraces new technology professionally, Ep­stein remains personally wary of it. His wife has an iPad; he doesn’t. “I had a Kindle. It depresses me. I don’t even know where it is now.” He says that such devices are OK for ephemera. “But I think it’s very important to keep physical books,” of which he admits to having, perhaps, too many, in his apartment and in his home in Sag Harbor.

An iPad or Kindle is fine for books you “leave at the summer house or read on the train” but not for those “that speak to our civilization, without which we wouldn’t be human, or we’d all be savages again. That would be the end of all I loved in Columbia.”

Notwithstanding the notion that all knowledge can reside in the ether, Epstein warns that while “digital storage may be a wonder­ful innovation, it’s very fragile.” He asserts, “Books have to be scat­tered around to become permanent and survive dictators.”

Epstein’s books are indeed scattered around. In his apartment, they are shelved in floor-to-ceiling built-ins in a large open space. A large oak table he bought in a London antique shop is covered with low-lying stacks. Only one mahogany table, a Louis XVI table in the dining room, is free of them. “I’ve learned to throw out books,” he says, alluding to presidential biographies (“They’re all fakes, anyway”), but the words lack conviction. Still, he says, “I have to. There’s no place to put anything. … I put them in boxes and in storage in the basement of this building. Some I put in the trash.” Some wind up in his son’s barn in New England.

“Look at this,” Epstein says, gesturing at his surroundings. “It’s a total mess.”

Of his voluminous book collection, his wife says, “You’ve only seen part of it. The real library is in Sag Harbor. I recently bought two more bookcases — one for Sag Harbor, one for New York.” Epstein has an office in the apartment but, aside from a plaque in the bathroom honoring her commitment to the First Amend­ment, there is no sign of Miller. She works instead at the Manhat­tan Institute, a conservative think tank, and has “my own area” at the Sag Harbor house, among his books and her extensive col­lection of old typewriters.

Epstein’s latest venture is working with On Demand Books to get its Espresso Book Machine, for which he owns the patent, into more bookstores domestically and abroad. The above machine is at McNally Jackson Books on Prince Street in New York City. PHOTO: CHUCK ZOVKO

Officially, Epstein retired in 1999, but he’s editing a work about the New Testament Book of Revelation by Princeton’s Elaine Pagels, the Harrington Spear Paine Foundation Professor of Religion at Columbia. (He also edited Pagels’ previous book on the Gnostic Gospels.) Her latest, which he calls “the capstone of her career,” is to be published by Penguin. “We’ve been working on it for a couple of years; it’s very revealing about the history of Christian­ity,” Epstein says. With Pagels, Epstein is once more on the learn­ing track but, of course, it’s a two-way street.

Pagels, who is used to writing academic papers, says she has learned a lot from Epstein. “First of all he’s brilliant, quite remark­able; he actually taught me how to write in lot of ways. He’s an extraordinary editor, with great detail, great precision and a tre­mendous eye for how writing moves. I feel everything I know about writing I know from Jason.

“He can look at [a manuscript] and immediately know what a reader is going to enjoy, appreciate and understand, and what is too wordy or technical. He really works for clarity. I have in my office at Princeton a picture of Jason sort of looking and smiling. I enjoy having that picture there as I write. I think I have to meet Jason’s standards. I always think of that as I write: Jason looking down or looking at me with that ironic smile.”

After completing the Pagels book, insists Epstein: “I’m not go­ing to edit anymore. But if somebody comes along with some­thing really, really interesting I could learn something from, it’s like free tuition, right?”

Eugene L. Meyer is a former Washington Post reporter and edi­tor, an author and the editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine.

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