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Publishing's Grumpy Old Visionaries

By Chris Allbritton & Sara Nelson 3.20.2001

Jason Epstein, Richard Curtis and John Brockman were once wunderkinder, but today—with a combined age of 200—they're the wundermenschen of the brave new book world.

It's probably safe to say that no one really knows what lies ahead for the post-literate, corporatized, bottom-line-focused publishing industry. More than 400 years old, the business of books has, to say the least, been one of the most resistant to the changes brought about by the Internet and other new-media technologies.

Some would say only the young and fleet of foot have any chance of staying on top of what's happening in the $10.3 billion trade-book industry. Those people would be wrong. Three veterans of the publishing business—former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein, outspoken agent John Brockman and agent-turned-e-publishing-impresario Richard Curtis—have spent the bulk of their collective 200 or so years on Earth in this business, and their experience has given them their own ideas of where it's all going.

Epstein recently published Book Business: Publishing Past, Present and Future (W.W. Norton), an expansion of a much-discussed article in The New York Review of Books, of which he is a co-founder. His take: print-on-demand can revitalize a business that he says was practically destroyed by the rise of chain stores in the suburbs.


Brockman—who is an early pioneer of online book submissions; a founder of, a site that addresses the ''digirati'' culture; and an agent for science and nonfiction projects—thinks the industry can't be saved, which is O.K. with him as long as his clients keep getting their checks. And Curtis thinks the key to publishing's survival is in agents morphing into publishers, which is what he has done by releasing his clients' works—most of them nonfiction by such authors as Harlan Ellison—in digital form.


Will publishing as we know it cease to exist? Will virtual book-buying become the norm? Will everybody in traditional publishing lose his and her job? Will readers take to the newfangled technology and contraptions designed for digital reading? While it may take a generation to find out, [INSIDE] took an afternoon to harness the trio's collective intellect and glean what these e-geezers have to teach the business's new kids.


[INSIDE]: How have the traditional roles of agent, publisher and author changed?


EPSTEIN: I said in my book that agents would very likely be the publishers of the future.


CURTIS: I'm doing it, and we're starting with backlist books, because backlist books are branded by previous publications and the names of the authors. We have now acquired a total of 1,200. We don't need editors at this point because we're not yet publishing original books.


EPSTEIN: Why do you think other agents haven't done this? They seem like the most likely people to do it, more likely than publishers.


CURTIS: Because agents are paralyzed by inertia and fear. They realize that—and John, you can really speak to this—they're in danger of becoming irrelevant as the relationship between buyer and seller intensifies and the need for a middle person decreases. Most agents will have to become more relevant to the digital process, [doing things] such as creating Web sites for clients and operating them as promotional vehicles for their clientele. Otherwise, authors are going to wake up and say, ''What do I need you for when I can go directly into the buying and selling process?''


EPSTEIN: That means there will have to be independent Web site managers, so to speak, who will handle these authors. And that's what publishers could become. It's the most natural thing in the world.


CURTIS: The hardest thing for an agent—and I'm sure this is true of you [indicating Brockman]—one of the reasons why agents are paralyzed is because of the conflict of interest. Because we've all grown up in a time when the roles were very clear-cut. There's an author who's represented by an agent; the agent goes to the publisher. For an agent to become a publisher, that sets off all sorts of conflict-of-interest bells. And most agents don't know how to emotionally handle that or address that.


EPSTEIN: I think Richard's idea [about agents becoming e-publishers], which I'm delighted by, is the future. I think it's going to be a little premature, because I think people will not want to read on screen as much as they want to read in book form.


BROCKMAN: There is a whole recent trend of thinking in the cognitive sciences of looking at the human as a machine made out of machines, and the mind as a computational device. And there are people like [physicist] Freeman Dyson who think about these questions from another point of view: whether we're meant to be analog devices. And the whole bit of the keyboard interface to the screen has always been very kludgy to me, and unnatural. Using my Palm and all these devices you're talking about, there's something about them I just don't like. And if anybody is going to like computers, it's me.


CURTIS: I say you guys are too old! There are generations growing up today who access information on a keyboard, for whom reading on a screen and manipulating information on a screen is second nature.


EPSTEIN: Are these the same kids who bought all those copies of Harry Potter?


CURTIS: The point is, children are growing up completely comfortable with handheld devices, whether it be a pager, a GameBoy, a reading device, a handheld radio. These same children can walk to school with a single multimedia device that will carry all their homework. This is already happening. Then you're just one step closer to a device that is not only a homework device and a schoolbook device, but also a reading-for-pleasure device. And those same devices, which today have only limited capacity for carrying text, those same devices will carry video. They'll be in color, they'll carry audio, they'll carry music. You'll be able to play a movie on it, play a game, call home, send an e-mail.


[INSIDE]: So despite all the turmoil that the Web has been going through, you still believe the industry will be radically transformed. Which traditional publishing jobs as we now know them do you think are going to get squeezed?


EPSTEIN: There will come a time when young people in publishing won't even know what the words ''sales conference'' mean. Or ''returns.'' Or ''warehouses.'' If it's possible for the contents of the book to be delivered from the author's mind via his or her Web site, then we can eliminate buying paper, ordering a printing, storing the books in a warehouse, sending reps out on the road to sell them. Marketing books will be different than dealing with Barnes & Noble and Borders, and taking returns. Those functions represent about 35 percent of a publisher's revenue, or a little bit more. Those sums will be redundant; you won't need to do that in the future. And the people who perform those tasks will probably be redundant, too. I'm sorry to say that, because some of them are good friends.


[INSIDE]: So who gets all the money publishers won't be spending on printing and storage and distribution? Authors?


EPSTEIN: I think so. The authors in this case will contribute much more value to the publishers than in the past, so they'll be entitled to a larger share of proceeds. I think 50 percent will be the minimum, and it may be 60 or 70 percent. But I think a Web publisher with a stable of 20 or 30 authors could do very well even with 15 percent of the proceeds. And, of course, the price to the end user will be much less because the costs of publishing will be much less.


CURTIS: There are authors who will say, ''Well, you can't pay me an advance, but the idea of getting a 50 percent royalty in the long run becomes very intriguing.'' And as the industry shifts to such a model, you're going to find the whole nature of thinking about advances changing. And advance prices may very well come down.


BROCKMAN: Do you think you're doing your clients a favor?


CURTIS: Remember, you're talking to a publisher.


BROCKMAN: All right, fine. But who's representing your old authors?


CURTIS: I am. I am. I think crossing the traditional lines where one can be both agent and publisher is a very attractive model. It gives maximum flexibility. As long as my authors are aware—full disclosure—and I conduct my business with integrity, the authors are really getting the best out of the flexibility.


EPSTEIN: I think in the electronic future, the competition will not only be represented by advances to authors, but by authors' shares of revenue. I think there will be tremendous pressure on that 50 percent. There's tremendous pressure right now for publishers to pay more than they can afford for a book. In the future, authors will be contributing most of the value, and all Web site publishers will be approximately alike. There will be some brilliant ones, some less brilliant ones, but my guess is they'll be pretty interchangeable.


BROCKMAN: I love Bertelsmann, and I love HarperCollins. Why? Because no one else is going to fork over millions of dollars on a book deal. Authors like that.

EPSTEIN: That's like saying Willie Sutton likes banks.


[INSIDE]: What do you think will be the biggest change in how buyers get and read books in the future?


EPSTEIN: My hunch is—and it's more than just a hunch—I think books will not be downloaded in any electronic form, they will be downloaded in a printed form on a machine that is capable of printing one copy at a time on demand, automatically. There will be no human intervention except to load the paper in. These machines will be at innumerable random locations. Like ATM machines, except for books.


[INSIDE]: Do you think ''big publishing'' will cease to exist?


EPSTEIN: Of course I think so. These companies won't be broken up, but they're untenable as they now exist. For one reason, trade-book publishing has never been profitable, and it can't be profitable. It's not in its nature to be profitable. It's been sustained historically by other publishing operations in the same corporation-textbooks, bibles, whatever. Or by rich people like Bennett Cerf [co-founder of Random House in 1925], who were very passionate about doing this but didn't have to make a living doing it. When these people got to the point of wanting to sell these businesses, they were getting old and had no succession. They sold their business to corporations; the corporations thought these were glamorous businesses. They used words like ''synergy,'' thinking that one thing leads to another. But that doesn't happen in the real world.


[INSIDE]: So you think synergy is a myth?


EPSTEIN: Of course.


CURTIS: I agree. Many publishers are acquired by entertainment complexes and conglomerates that have the idea that the books an editor acquires this morning will be on the producer's desk this afternoon. And we'll buy not only the audio, we'll do the movie, we'll do the merchandising. And it never materializes.


EPSTEIN: That synergy business never amounted to anything. When GE bought RCA and found that it also bought a company called Random House, it took one look at it and said, ''This isn't what we wanted. There's no way to make money at this. We've got to get rid of this.'' Eventually, a very, very rich man bought Random House [S.I. Newhouse of Advance Communications] because he liked the idea and he wanted to be associated with it. He ran it as well as he could. S.I. was a pretty good businessman. And after 12 years he saw the same thing: you cannot make money doing this. So now, Bertelsmann and Holtzbrinck have bought all these imprints, the ghostly remains of once-interesting publishing companies. And once they get rid of their redundant overhead, combine the warehouses and that kind of thing, they, too, will end up with a bunch of unprofitable trade-publishing companies.


CURTIS: You will see a day, I think and hope, when the fast companies eat the slow ones, and the small companies will eat the big ones.


EPSTEIN: But the price of entry will be very low. So there might be a great many little companies that do this. And I think the more the better.


CURTIS: You can make a profit selling 100 copies of a book, and you contrast that to a company like Random House or Harper or Bertelsmann that loses money selling 500,000 copies of a book. This is a bizarre world.


BROCKMAN: I tell you what, Richard. You represent that first book. I'll represent the one that loses money.


CURTIS: I have the greatest respect for you, [John], but it's kind of a strip-mining way of approaching publishing—get your money out quickly. It's basically a way of making huge short-term profits.


BROCKMAN: You say that as a wise man looking down from the mountain. If you're representing an individual, you have a fiduciary responsibility to do the best you can, every deal you make. That's what I do. I like to do good books, but it's about business, something nobody's talking about at this table. Maybe you guys are working with the wrong authors. The whole world is not The New York Review of Books. I'm just saying that the culture's changing, and people may be reading different things.


[INSIDE]: So is it good, then, that the chain book stores exist and flourish?


BROCKMAN: It's not a bad thing for the public that people all over America can get to a bookstore.


EPSTEIN: It's a wonderful thing, but they can't find all the books we would like to sell them or all the books they would like to find.


BROCKMAN: No, you mean all the books you and your friends write to each other ... You talk about, with sadness, the sophisticated, independent booksellers. But I don't feel like I have to have a relationship with people who work in bookstores.


[INSIDE]: O.K., but a lot of people have relationships with books themselves—with the physical paper-and-ink product. What happens to that emotional and cultural resonance when you go from having a physical object to a virtual one?


CURTIS: Everybody saves the books that he or she reads. Your home library is basically a repository and extension of your intellect and your memory and your mind. So when I'm surrounded by my books, I feel like I'm surrounded by the totality of what I've read. And if that didn't exist there, I don't know if I would be the same person. But on the other hand, half of the books that I've read are no longer there, because they got sold, they got given away, I moved.


[INSIDE]: So will e-books replace ''real'' books, or will the next generation have both?


EPSTEIN: They'll co-exist.


BROCKMAN: For people our children's age, nobody knows. They'll figure it out for themselves. ■

First published by Inside magazine, March 20, 2001.

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