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Saturday, January 22, 2011

Jason Epstein on Self-Publishing

The February 10 issue of The New York Review of Books contains a timely review (subscription required to follow link) of a book by British sociologist John B. Thompson, Merchants of Culture: The Publishing Business in the Twenty-First Century. Jason Epstein's review provides a capsule history of the publishing industry (of which he was a notable member) over the past fifty years, and also looks ahead to a dramatically different future. Among other developments, he cites "the rapidly growing self-publishing industry."

Epstein believes the self-publishing industry, "relying on print-on-demand technology, has created infrastructure that groups of sophisticated editors might adapt to create their own lists for worldwide sale online while arranging with traditional distributors to market physical inventory to traditional retail accounts." He thinks these editors could be incubating the next Random House. From the man who invented the trade paperback, these might be prophetic words.

Epstein also points out in a footnote that "Self-publishing has an illustrious history. Milton published Areopagitica himself and Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass. When he could not find a publisher for his first novel, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, Stephen Crane published it himself." Epstein also mentions Ulysses (published by Joyce with bookstore owner Sylvia Beach), The Joy of Cooking, and such recent bestsellers as In Search of Excellence and Christmas Box. Self-publishing has a distinguished past and the possibility of defining publishing's future.


  1. Great post, Jennifer. You make me want to buy Merchants of Culture--gotta see how I'm gonna build my editorial empire :)! Seriously, it sounds like a fascinating look at the industry.

  2. Fascinating, and important, as we're all feeling our way through the evolution of the industry.