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Book publishing isn't a phrase we hear all that often without "dying" or "is dead" somewhere in the same paragraph. But once upon a time, running a publishing house was a prestige thing -- even if it was one with a challenging business model.

Perhaps the most prestigious publisher in its day was Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Roger Straus, the founder of the company, began the business after World War II.

"He was flailing a little bit," says Boris Kachka, author of "Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux."

Straus came from a prestigious family, and that came with a lot of expectations, says Kachka, "You know, he figured he'd run something. But he didn't know quite what to run."

The prestige of running a book company lost some of its status over the years.

"It's a low margin business," argues Kachka. "And it's the business that a certain wealthy, intellectual class would find themselves going into. It just became less glamorous, and I think a lot of that had to do with consolidation."

While other publishing giants like Simon & Schuster moved on to printing textbooks -- the most profitable part of the industry today -- and growing, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux stayed mid-sized and independent.

"The only shareholders they had to answer to were Roger's rich friends," adds Kachka.

Read an excerpt from "Hothouse" here.

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Follow Kai Ryssdal at @kairyssdal