Jason Epstein, the NRC and our Espresso Book Machine

A few weeks ago, NRC Books editor Michel Krielaars met Jason Epstein, co-founder of the New York Review of Books and ‘daddy’ of the Espresso Book Machine, the self-publishing wonder you can see in action at both ABCs.

Michel was so impressed by both Epstein and the EBM at ABC Amsterdam that he wrote two articles about it for the NRC. They are translated and reprinted here with permission of the author.

Epstein was also featured in last month’s Vanity Fair article “The Lions of Summer”.

Tea with Roth and Nabokov

Written by Michel Krielaars and translated by Bryna Hellmann-Gillson.

The original article appeared in the NRC on July 26th, 2013.  It can be found here (please note that it’s in Dutch and viewable to subscribers only).

Just like that, I’m sitting in the lobby of an Amsterdam Hotel with Jason Epstein, founder of The Library of America, co-founder of The New York Review of Books, and the ‘grand old man’ of the American publishing world. From our first handshake, our talk was memorable. Epstein, now 85, had been Philip Roth’s and Vladimir Nabokov’s editor and, shaking his hand, I felt as if I were meeting those two literary supermen.

Epstein didn’t think much of Roth. ‘Portnoy’s Complaint,’ he explained, ‘was good, because it was about the problems of a typical Jewish family, but after that I think his work gradually tapered-off.’ As a faithful Roth fan, I decided I’d better change the subject and, like an eager groupie, I asked about Nabokov, ‘What was he really like?’

His answer exceeded my curiosity. ‘He was always pleasant, even fun to be with.’ He went on to explain that their friendship cooled when their opinions about America’s Vietnam policy began to differ. ‘Nabokov supported the war completely. He hoped it would cause the downfall of Communism and he’d finally get back his estate and house in Saint Petersburg. In all his years as an expatriate, he never bought a house. For him, it was Russia or nothing.’

Epstein had another good story to tell, a Lolita-anecdote. It seems Nabokov got the idea for that story from his son, Dimitri. He’d come home from school and told his parents what the girls on the school bus were talking about. ‘So Nabokov got onto the bus a few days later to eavesdrop,’ he told me and followed that with a string of wonderful stories.

Publishing in the America of the fifties and sixties, I realized, must have been amazing, built as it was on the tsunami of literary talent that washed up on the coast of New York. In his entertaining memoir Eating, Epstein combines his own publishing and writing life with his love of eating well, an activity, it seems, intimately connected with reading and making books.

Epstein’s wisdom shows in the way he puts his role as literary impresario into perspective. As we parted, he said, ‘Publishing is a peculiar business. You write the book and the author takes the credit.’

Double espresso: paper version

Written by Michel Krielaars and translated by Bryna Hellmann-Gillson.

The original article appeared in the NRC on August 2nd, 2013.  It can be found here (please note that it’s in Dutch and viewable to subscribers only).

Just six minutes and Jason Epstein’s handbook for publishers, Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future, rolled out of the Espresso Book Machine at the American Book Center in Amsterdam. It was my first print-on-demand experience, and it felt as life-changing as being deflowered in public.

The Espresso Book Machine has nothing to do with making coffee and everything to do with making books. It’s a mini-printing press, five by five feet, in a glass box. Like Charlie in the chocolate factory, you can watch the entire process. Choose a title from the 7.7 million in a digital cloud like Google Books, or upload a pdf of your own book that only you’ve read until now.

Maria or Steven presses the start button, and you watch the pages being printed, one at a time. Your cover, on a separate pdf, rolls through a second printer, and the real show begins: the pages are pressed between the covers, the glue flows, the whole thing is cut to paperback format, and your book slips out into your hands. For €12.50 it’s yours, and it’s perfect.

The American Book Center prints about thirty-five books a day, a small percentage of the thousand they sell on an average day. On shelves near the machine, there’s a display of some espresso books: a thesis in Arabic, some novels, and the best-seller Gay & Happy, a ‘guide for gay men’ written and self-published by Steven van Lijnden.

In the USA, as usual years ahead of Europe, the espresso book is already a success, largely because so many good bookshops and publishers have disappeared. ‘It’s high noon,’ Epstein told me. ‘Publishers had better get their lists digitized today, or they’re going to be gunned-down.’

If he’s right, a lot will change for writers. No longer dependent on traditional publishers, they’re already finding new ways to produce and market their books. It’s an exciting idea, and I’m really curious. I’m going to read Book Business tonight. Its fourth chapter is called, intriguingly, Goodbye to All That.

Photo credit: Jason Epstein’s photo by AP, taken from huffingtonpost.com.