Back in the days when Simon met Schuster (a by-product of the former’s misguided attempt to sell the latter a piano) and Bennett Cerf acquired Random House because his publisher predecessor needed to redeem his marital peccadilloes from the wrath of a father-in-law investor, book publishing was probably a whole lot more fun and certainly more free-wheeling than it is today. Offices were located in human-scale brownstones, lunches were long and lush and best of all, publishers could actually discover and sign on a writer because they admired the work without statistics regarding social media followers.
The recent panel, “Publishing: The Book Trade” presented by the Center for Jewish History and American Jewish Historical Society, assembled a few of the old time pivotal players for an engaging dialogue facilitated by Altie Karper, editorial director of Schocken Books. Jason Epstein and Jane Friedman, both boasting staggering credentials and a younger Jonathan Karp of Simon & Schuster, considered a major player on today’s scene, reminisced about the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s when writers like Steinbeck, O’ Neill, Malamud, Bellow or Wouk might drop by with a manuscript.
While these veterans spoke about their accomplishments with a kind of inconspicuous pride, another Jonathan Karp, the AJHS executive director, was deliberate about placing these personal memories in a more significant historical context.
In his introduction, Karp of AJHS emphasized that it was young, upstart Jews, like Richard L. Simon, Max Schuster, Bennett Cerf, Alfred Knopf and Robert Gottlieb who were responsible for revitalizing the publishing world. He says, “We know about the many important contributions Jews made as modern writers and artists, but it’s time we paid more attention to the countless Jews who operated behind the scenes, the facilitators, impresarios, agents and entrepreneurs.”
Publishing had been the preserve of conservative WASP gentlemen, unwilling to take chances on the edgy or the groundbreaking. Well-educated young men, many of Jewish-German ancestry, used family money to infuse the industry with an effervescent cocktail of literary modernism. Karp emphasized that they “helped shift the arts from their dependency on patronage to more of an expression of market forces.” Their legacy is already an important part of cultural history.
No discussion of publishing would be complete without a consideration of the dawning digital age. We once again have Jewish visionaries as initiators of a new era. Jane Friedman, the former CEO of Harper Collins, is now directing Open Road Integrated Media, a company that digitalizes the hundred-year-old classics. Karp of Simon & Schuster hails the advent of a “much more exciting and interesting industry.” Epstein, co-founder of The New York Review of Books and Library of America not to mention the inventor of the trade paperback, endorses the ebook for its ability to “store and deliver material anywhere in the world at no cost.” “So”, he adds, with no discernable regret, “the 500 year old industry born with Gutenberg is obsolete.”
As to the concern that with self-publishing we will lose the important filter once provided by editors, Epstein replies, “The filter is human nature. People will not read the unreadable”. Embracing change, fearless vision rooted in discernment along with confidence in the market – that is after all what makes them culture brokers, once again at a crossroads, now as then leading the way.
Susan Reimer Torn, a writer who lives in New York City, blogs at susanrtorn.wordpress.com