The Future of Publishing - A Veteran's Perspective

1 Random House is
the largest English-
language general
trade book publisher
in the world. In 1998
its ownership passed
to the German private
media corporation
law. The 500-year-old Gutenberg system, with its
physical inventories, costly warehouses and xed
retail locations, is being replaced by a radically
decentralized, digital world market served by a vir-
tually unlimited and largely unltered, multilingual
and rapidly expanding digital inventory, stored and
delivered at virtually no cost and which can be
downloaded with the click of a mouse practically
anywhere on earth.
In the digital future, anyone, anywhere, can be
a published writer, and anyone can become a
publisher. The traditional lters – agents, editors,
reviewers – will continue to identify talent, for this
is a function of human nature. However, even the
great, undierentiated mass of content made pos-
sible by digitization requires protection, for who
knows in advance when other Shakespeares will
emerge from the digital chaos?
Tomorrow’s publishers will be very dierent from
today’s multinational conglomerates with their
many imprints, costly and time-sensitive physi-
cal inventories, layer upon layer of management,
costly midtown premises and, in the United States,
a shrinking retail marketplace. Today, an edited
manuscript ready for production is assigned a
place on a publisher’s production schedule whose
stages – copy editing, design, legal vetting, galley
proofs, galley corrections, market planning (includ-
ing publicity arrangements, manufacturing, ship-
ping and so on) – will consume months before the
book is nally put on sale. In the digital future these
functions will be eliminated or compressed so that
most content will be posted online for instantane-
ous worldwide distribution and evaluation within
days of completion.
What I know about copyright is only what I needed
to know as Editorial Director of Random House. Of
one thing I was sure: our industry and the writers
on whom we depended, and the culture which
they helped create, could not have survived with-
out eective copyright. Writers must eat. Without
well-fed writers contributing over millennia to
human knowledge, we would know practically
nothing about who we are, where we came from
and where we may be going. Of ideas, the great
J.M. Keynes said “the world is ruled by little else.”
The onrushing digital future, a radical departure
from the 500-year-old Gutenberg system, while a
blessing to readers and writers, presents a complex
challenge to copyright theorists not only to con-
trive new systems of protection but new means
of policing.
Gutenberg’s press mechanized copying and made
copyright necessary. Digitization makes copying
instantaneous and viral, and renders existing laws
obsolete. I leave it to experts to nd a solution and
hope they succeed, for – to put it bluntly – they
Our civilization has been enriched, preserved, inter-
preted and handed down to us mainly by writers.
Our future too is in their hands. Copyright is the
sine qua non
of their survival. Without it, writers
cannot aord to write, and how then shall we learn
who we are?
The publishing industry... is in the early stages of a
radical transformation that will render all traditional
functions, procedures and infrastructure techno-
logically obsolete, including traditional copyright
Earlier this year, the acclaimed publisher Jason Epstein participated in the WIPO High Level Dialogue on
the Book and Publishing Industry. He shared his views about the future of publishing, and the need to
ne-tune copyright law to the demands of the digital environment. Throughout a distinguished career
spanning 50 years, Mr. Epstein’s foresight and entrepreneurial air have helped push forward the frontiers
of publishing. In addition to serving as Editorial Director of Random House
for 40 years, he co-founded
the New York Review of Books, launched the paperback revolution with the creation of Anchor Books, and
was a founder of the Library of America and the Reader’s Catalogue, the precursor to online bookselling.
The following are excerpts of his remarks at the WIPO event.

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