Some who have followed Mr. Epstein’s career have seen a contradiction between his leftist politics – often apparent in his own writing for The New York Review of Books – and his love of luxury: Montecristo cigars, bespoke shoes, gastronomy and, for his personal libraries in Lower Manhattan and Sag Harbor, mainly hardcover books.
However, he saw nothing contradictory there. His overriding ambition to reach a wide audience with books that are both intellectually satisfying and affordable could be summed up as a populist wanting the best for everyone.
Mr. Epstein saw the digital world as a potential ally in this quest, whether through e-books or print-on-demand. In 2000, he said in an interview on the PBS show “The Open Mind” that publishers “throw a book into the retail market with no idea where it’s going.”
“Barnes & Noble orders a book from Random House, we print 10, 15, 20 thousand copies,” he continued, “but who knows where and what shelf and what clerks are going to open the package and if they’re going to know what the books are about or who they are for? We do not know it.
“That explains,” he continued, “why so many books are returned unsold from booksellers to publishers. And why it is so difficult, sometimes, to find the book you are looking for in a bookstore. And why it is so difficult for authors to find their way to their appropriate readers. But in this other system, you will have targeted markets for each author. Technology makes this possible, and so it is going to happen. Not today, but eventually This will create a whole new world.
However, Mr. Epstein viewed book publishing as more than a business. For him, it was almost a vocation, a vocation that could struggle to generate profits. Editing, he said in the same interview, was “more like what priests and teachers and some doctors do than what people who become lawyers or businessmen or stockbrokers on Wall Street – what they do.
“It’s a calling, you feel you’re doing something hugely important, and it’s worth sacrificing, because without the books we wouldn’t know who we are.”
Former Times senior literary critic Christopher Lehmann-Haupt died in 2018. William McDonald and Alex Traub contributed reporting.