Book Editor Strove to Bring Literature to the Masses

Jason Epstein spent a career in publishing trying to make great books readily available to the masses—and never lost his hope that more of them would share his enthusiasm.

As a young editor at Doubleday & Co. in the early 1950s, he launched Anchor Books, a line of paperbacks devoted to literature and serious nonfiction rather than the usual romances and crime stories lurking between soft covers.

In 1963, he helped found the New York Review of Books. Mr. Epstein later was a founder of the Library of America, a nonprofit that publishes new editions of books deemed classics.

He has edited books by writers including VS Pritchett, Jane Jacobs, WH Auden and Norman Mailer. “I was n’t used to working with someone who might be a lot brighter than I am,” Mr. Mailer once said of his experience with Mr. Epstein.

In the mid-2000s, Mr. Epstein co-founded On Demand Books to supply Espresso Book Machine printers that can produce paperbacks in minutes at the point of sale. I predicted the service would transform publishing by cutting out middlemen. Usage of the machines has been meager, partly due to resistance from publishers.

Mr. Epstein, who died Feb. 4 at age 93, remained optimistic. “I’ve never been wrong about the future of the business,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “It sounds boastful. But it’s not boastful to tell the truth.”

I liked starting things. “I don’t like to run them,” he said in a 2012 interview published by Columbia College. “I’m not good at running a business. I’m very disorganized.”

Jason Epstein was born Aug. 25, 1928, and grew up in Milton, Mass., a suburb of Boston. His father was a partner in a textile business. Amid throngs of Irish-Americans, “I think I was the only Jew and there was one Black fellow,” he said in the 2012 interview. “When my friends went to catechism, I traipsed along behind them.”

An insatiable reader, he graduated from high school at 15. He studied literature and history at Columbia University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a master’s degree in 1950. Doubleday hired him as a trainee and soon made him an editor.

He recalled proposing the idea for higher-quality paperbacks during a walk in Central Park with Ken McCormick, editor in chief of Doubleday. Anchor Books began appearing in 1953. Among the first were “The Charterhouse of Parma” by Stendhal and “The Idea of ​​a Theater” by Francis Fergusson.

Mr. Epstein left Doubleday partly because the top brass there rejected Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” In 1958, he joined Random House, where he became editorial director.

“I was WH Auden’s editor—not that he needed one,” Mr. Epstein said. He recalled the poet arriving “in torn overcoat and carpet slippers” to deliver a manuscript.

Andy Warhol was deferential and called him Mr. Epstein. As for Norman Mailer, he ignored advice from editors but still ended himself. “Basically,” Mr. Epstein said, “he was a very decent guy, a family man, who liked to pretend he was nuts.”

Mr. Epstein and friends, including Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, took advantage of a newspaper strike in 1963 to launch the New York Review of Books when readers couldn’t get their lit-crit fix elsewhere. His wife of him at the time, Barbara Zimmerman Epstein, also helped launch the Review and became its co-editor.

An early push for the Library of America came from the critic Edmund Wilson, who wanted to create an American equivalent to the French Pléiade series. Mr. Epstein helped rally support among scholars and foundations. The first volumes, including works by Herman Melville and Harriet Beecher Stowe, were released in 1982.

In the late 1980s, he launched the Reader’s Catalog, listing about 40,000 books available by mail. He hoped to rescue readers who couldn’t find what they wanted at bookstores featuring only hot sellers. The catalog struggled for years and couldn’t survive the rise of internet retailing.

He had huge ambitions for the Espresso Book Machine, about the size of a large office copier. He described the device as similar to an ATM, spitting out books rather than cash. Publishers and bookshop owners would no longer need to guess how many copies of a book they needed to print or stock, he said. Even a book that might attract only one buyer every decade could remain available in print, Mr. Epstein’s preferred format.

Most big publishers haven’t been eager to turn over their full backlists, however. Around 100 of the machines were in operation at one point but the number has failed considerably, said Dane Neller, Mr. Epstein’s partner in On Demand Books. Still, he said, “we’re not giving up on it.”

Mr. Epstein’s survivors include Judith Miller, a writer, along with two children and three grandchildren. His marriage from him to Barbara Epstein ended in divorce.

His homes in Sag Harbor on Long Island and in Manhattan were crammed with books. He had a cockapoo named Hamlet and a mongrel called Ophelia. He also delighted in cooking and wrote a concoction of recipes and reminiscences called “Eating: A Memoir.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at bob.hagerty@wsj.com

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