DD, RH Pathfinder Jason Epstein, Singular Innovator, Editor, Publisher, Dies at 93

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Jason Epstein, Credit: Peter Peter

Jason Epstein, one of the most profoundly influential and visionary figures in trade publishing and literary culture of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, whose indelibly innovative, entrepreneurial and editorial contributions helped shape Doubleday, Anchor Books, Random House, Vintage Books, and thus Penguin Random House, died February 4 in Sag Harbor, Long Island, at 93.

Epstein, The Literary Entrepreneur
At age 25, as an editorial trainee at Doubleday and Company, Mr. Epstein first demonstrated his ongoing entrepreneurship upon being given approval to create a line of paperback reprints from the publisher’s hardcovers and from literary classics. He called it Anchor Books, thereby inventing the trade-paperback format.

In 1962-63, he was integral to the founding of the New York Review of Books, which was started up to fill the void from the strike-idled New York Times Book Review. Inspired by the celebrated literary critic Edmund Wilson’s dream of standardized editions of American classics, in 1979 he began The Library of America, still a thriving modern classics publisher, and like the former’s trade publishing imprint, also now a client of Penguin Random House Publisher Services.

He also began in 1989 “The Reader’s Catalog,” a pre-Internet compendium of 40,000 “backlist books that might have been hard to find in shopping-mall stores,” discontinuing selling them over prohibitive shipping costs. In 2003, he co-founded On Demand Books, whose The Espresso Machine incubated the print-on-demand business.

Epstein, The Editor and Publisher
In 1958, Bennett Cerf recruited him to join Random House to bring in and edit books, while also tending to his own non-interfering sidelines. Nearly twenty years later he was appointed the imprint’s Editorial Director, including its Vintage Books trade paperbacks, until 1995, and was Acting Publisher from 1976-1984. Epstein retired from Random House in 1999.

Epstein acquired and edited works by Vladimir Nabokov, E.L. Doctorow, Norman Mailer, Saul Alinsky, Gore Vidal, Alice Waters, Jane Jacobs, Paul Goodman, Philip Roth, and Robert Ludlum, among innumerable others. In 1961, he published THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer, with Looking Glass Library, a Children’s book business he began as a sideline, and later sold to Random House.

Epstein On Editing
In a 2012 interview, Epstein spoke of how “naturally” editing came to him: “It’s a complicated skill that involves more than helping the writer find a voice and organizing a paragraph. 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.”

Epstein’s own memoir, EATING (2009), brought together his recipes—he was a nationally renowned cook, baker, gourmand, and New York Times weekly culinary columnist—with his publishing recollections.

Perhaps most impactfully, Epstein also was a mentor and teacher to several generations of publishing professionals, who cherished his knowledge and flowered under his guidance. Two of them, Erroll McDonald, Vice President, Executive Editor, Alfred A. Knopf, and longtime Random House Editor and Publisher Peter Gethers, offer tributes to the irreplaceable Jason Epstein.

Jason Epstein
August 25, 1928-February 4, 2022

Posted: February 7, 2022