Jason Epstein, publisher and editor of Random House, dies at 93

His wife, former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, said the cause was congestive heart failure.

Once described as possessing the erudition of a literary scholar and the entrepreneurial spirit of a handcart peddler, Mr Epstein (pronounced ep-styne) was just 23 when he conceived an idea who revolutionized the way books were sold.

He was working his first job as an editor, at Doubleday, earning $45 a week. Unable to afford many books, he proposed that Doubleday publish classic literature and criticism in inexpensive paperback editions. Previously, most paperbacks published in the United States were lowbrow escapist fiction.

In 1952, Mr. Epstein launched Anchor Books, with early titles by British writer DH Lawrence, critics Lionel Trilling and Edmund Wilson, and 19th-century French novelist Stendhal. Priced from 65 cents to $1.25 and published in editions of 10,000, the books sold out in four weeks.

Students were particularly drawn to what was called the paperback revolution, and other publishers followed Mr. Epstein’s lead, making literary classics and thought-provoking new works widely available in softcovers. Quality paperbacks, or “commercial” paperbacks, as they are called, have become the most profitable part of the publishing business.

Mr Epstein had brought Russian-born novelist Vladimir Nabokov to Doubleday, but left the company when she rejected Nabokov’s controversial novel ‘Lolita’, about an older man’s obsession with a pre-teen girl .

Mr. Epstein briefly ran Vintage pocket printing at Alfred A. Knopf before joining Random House in 1958. The decades-old business, still run by its founders, Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer, occupied a renovated mansion in Lower Manhattan.

“My office,” Mr. Epstein wrote in a 2001 memoir, “Book Business,” “had been a bedroom, and once in a while I would come to work and find a wayward author who had spent the night there. -down, not always alone. ”

At Random House, Mr Epstein edited works by novelists Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and EL Doctorow and poet WH Auden, who came to the office in his slippers. In 1961, Mr. Epstein published “The Death and Life of America’s Great Cities” by Jane Jacobs, which showed that urban renewal projects often uprooted entire neighborhoods, regardless of the inhabitants.

Mr Epstein was editorial director of Random House from 1976 to 1995, but continued his association with the company, now part of Penguin Random House, into the 21st century.

As a publisher, Mr Epstein was well aware of newspaper book reviews, which came to a halt in New York in late 1962, when a union strike shut down the city’s seven newspapers. Together with his first wife, Barbara, the poet Robert Lowell and his wife at the time, the writer Elizabeth Hardwick, Mr. Epstein developed the idea of ​​an independent publication which they called the New York Review of Books. Barbara Epstein and Robert Silvers became co-editors.

The first issue appeared on February 1, 1963, with articles by literary giants such as Hardwick, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag and William Styron and poems by Lowell, Auden, John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich.

The publication was an instant hit and continued to thrive after the end of the strike, which led to the closure of four of the New York newspapers. It continues to be one of the nation’s leading literary and political journals.

Mr. Epstein had a behind-the-scenes influence on the editorial board of the New York Review, which was among the first publications of the 1960s to oppose the Vietnam War. He occasionally contributed to the journal and covered the trial of the Chicago Seven – a group of radicals accused of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. His dispatches were later published in his book “The Great Conspiracy Trial” (1970).

Affable and gluttonous, Mr. Epstein befriended generations of writers, including Wilson, who had been a leading literary critic since the 1920s. In his memoir, Mr. Epstein described a lunch with Wilson at the Princeton Club in New York. As soon as he arrived, Wilson ordered “half a dozen” martinis.

“He didn’t say six; he said half a dozen, like it was oysters,” Mr. Epstein told C-SPAN in 2001. “I will never forget that. I assumed at least one of them might be for me, but I was wrong. He said, ‘Do you want half a dozen too?’ ”

Over lunch, Wilson mentioned that the United States had no equivalent of La Pléiade in France, a collection of the country’s greatest literary works. From that talkative start, Mr. Epstein became a driving force behind the Library of America, which published its first books in 1979.

The project, which now has more than 300 volumes, publishes classic works of American literature, from James Baldwin to F. Scott Fitzgerald to Eudora Welty, in uniform editions with distinctive black covers.

“It’s the big issues that ignite Jason,” former publishing executive Robert Gottlieb told the Boston Globe in 2001, “and his responses have been hugely influential. Think of how many of his big ideas have been realized. Unquestionably, he was the leading intellectual entrepreneur in publishing in our time.

Jason Epstein was born on August 25, 1928 in Cambridge, Mass. Her father sold textiles and her mother was a housewife.

As a child, Mr. Epstein became an avid reader, and throughout his life he was rarely far from a book. He attended Columbia University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1949 and a master’s degree in 1950, both in English literature.

“I always thought of my publishing career as an extension of my wonderful undergraduate years at Columbia, which I never wanted to give up,” Mr. Epstein told C-SPAN. “And by sheer luck, I fell into the book business, where I could remain an undergraduate, so to speak, for the rest of my life; these authors being my teachers and their books being my curriculum.

In addition to his 2001 memoir, Mr Epstein wrote another book, “Eating” (2009), about his lifelong love of cooking and catering. He was known for his lavish dinners at his Manhattan apartment and at his home in Sag Harbor.

His first marriage, to the former Barbara Zimmerman, ended in divorce. Survivors include Judith Miller, his wife since 1993; two children from his first marriage, Helen Epstein and Jacob Epstein; and three grandchildren.

In 1989, Mr Epstein was largely responsible for publishing “The Reader’s Catalog”, a volume containing the titles of 40,000 books, complete with descriptions, illustrations and essays. He saw it as a way to weaken the monopoly of bookstore chains and corporate publishers by making thousands of books available through a toll-free number.

“The Reader’s Catalog” never caught on, but it was seen as a precursor to Amazon. At first, Mr Epstein thought Amazon – founded by Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos – would not succeed, but he welcomed any means that would put the books in the hands of readers.

“If we didn’t have books, people wouldn’t think at all,” Mr. Epstein told C-SPAN. “I think we would be lost without them…they are the basis of our democracy. That’s why dictators like to throw them in the fire. Without them, we would have no democracy.