Turning a Page in the World of Jewish Publishing

It may have been a few decades ago, but the memories are as clear in my mind as if it was just yesterday.

Over the course of many Shabbos afternoon visits, mishloach manos deliveries and high school study dates at the home one of my closest childhood friends, I always found myself fascinated by the multitude of books that graced nearly every available inch of wall space. It wasn’t just the living room of her Kew Gardens Hills home that was covered entirely in bookshelves; the hallways, seemingly in lieu of wallpaper or paint, were filled with endless volumes of both the kadosh and the secular varieties.

To be fair, my friend’s father was a prominent nuclear physics professor whose career had taken him through Harvard, MIT, Columbia and Brandeis, and clearly theirs was a scholarly home. But as a nation, the Jewish people have long been known as “am hasefer,” the people of the book. Step into just about any Jewish home and you are likely to find far more written works than in the typical American household. Sefarim, novels, biographies, commentaries, cookbooks, research and reference works and more are proof positive that we love our books.

As I write these lines at the end of April, it is still too early to predict how the Jewish book industry will fare in the face of Covid-19, but publishers are hopeful. With self-sheltering as the new normal, many are naturally turning to books for comfort and inspiration. Altie Karper, editorial director of Shocken Books—a division of the Knopf Doubleday Group at Penguin Random House—says it’s too early to make any predictions. “At Penguin Random House, we’re only beginning to see the sales numbers come in.” Karper notes that while physical bookstores have been closed to walk-in customers for weeks, Amazon does not appear to be dominating the market as some had originally feared, since it is prioritizing shipment of medical and health supplies. “Our overall sales have not seen as much as a decline as we had feared,” observes Karper. “We’re told that sales of children’s books have actually been on the upswing as parents look for activities for their home-bound children.”

Having watched elected officials, political pundits and newscasters try to predict the future since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, Karper says that it is clear that attempting to predict the future is futile and that she has high hopes for a positive outcome. “Having survived depressions and world wars, I’m confident that the publishing industry and bookstores will survive this and continue bringing books that inform, challenge and entertain to readers everywhere.”

When reflecting on the future of the Jewish book business, another factor that has been on publishers’ minds during the past decade or so is the impact of the digital age. It’s hard not to wonder if the physical printed word will one day be relegated to the annals of history. The emergence of tablets and e-readers that allow readers to devour books without ever touching a conventional page have long been considered a threat to the publishing world. Similarly, the ready supply of online reading material (often free) and the ease of online book shopping have affected the Jewish publishing world in a variety of ways.

Daniel Levine at the front of J. Levine Books and Judaica, the brick and mortar store which closed last year. Levine currently sells Judaica online. Photo: Michelle V Agins/the New York Times/Redux

Surviving in the World of High Tech

J. Levine Books and Judaica closed its brick-and-mortar store last spring and transitioned to an online storefront, ending a presence in Manhattan that spanned 130 years. In an interview with the Jewish Week, owner Daniel Levine said that the store was the oldest Jewish bookstore in the country, attributing its demise to the upswing in online sales.

“The next generation doesn’t shop in stores,” says Levine. “That’s the nature of the world.” Levine currently sells Judaica on Amazon. “That’s where people are shopping now.”

This reality can be daunting for booksellers, admits Rabbi Simon Posner, executive editor of OU Press.

“When was the last time you walked into a bookstore and bought a book, other than sifrei kodesh?” asks Rabbi Posner. “You could spend all day online looking at shiurim, Daf Yomi and just about anything and everything. It’s is hard for old fashioned, hard-copy paper books to really compete with that.”

Over the years, it is the combination of Judaica and books that have kept many a business afloat, especially when rent, location and a whole slew of other variables can mean the difference between success and failure. Koren Publishers’ Matthew Miller sees the evolution of Jewish bookstores as a prime example of survival of the fittest, but believes that despite the convenience of ordering books online, nothing beats the experience of browsing in an actual bookstore.

In Karper’s view, “bookstores will last forever, but perhaps in formats that are different than the current models.” She is heartened to see the resurgence of small and mid-sized independent bookstores that “know how to provide excellent personalized customer service and therefore have loyal, repeat customers.” Still, publicist Stuart Schnee’s experience indicates that online sales are driving the Jewish book business—especially these days, when the coronavirus pandemic has kept people at home.

“Everyone is pivoting to more emphasis on online sales,” says Schnee. “Online has been a big part of selling books for years, but now it’s the only way to buy books in most cases. Publishers offer free shipping, special discounts, free downloads and more in order to stay in front of customers and remain relevant.”

While e-books had once been hailed as the wave of the future, spelling the death of the printed word, those gloom and doom predictions haven’t exactly come true, particularly in the Jewish world. The mere existence of Shabbos and yom tov creates a continuous demand for printed matter; despite the proliferation of iPads, Kindles and other e-readers, consumers haven’t all hopped on the e-book bandwagon. According to David Kahn, Feldheim’s general editor, e-books have taken off in the general market primarily as a platform for novels, and while they hold an undeniable appeal for travelers, they have gained little traction elsewhere.

“People don’t feel as comfortable reading on them, and the layout just isn’t the same,” says Kahn. “The expectations for that market didn’t pan out as predicted. And in our market, there is almost no interest.”

For Karper, whose readers span the Jewish spectrum, e-books only add to a book’s readership; “they do not take away from sales of the print edition.”

Kodesh Press founder and editor Rabbi Alec Goldstein observes that technology has also created new opportunities for the Jewish book world, giving booksellers and publishing houses the ability to reach previously untapped audiences.

“I get orders from all over the US, even in places where you wouldn’t expect people to be reading Jewish books, like the Deep South,” says Rabbi Goldstein.

Being able to chat in real time has also presented Rabbi Goldstein with an opportunity to create virtual communities on social media. These personal interactions with readers, customers and reviewers all over the world have paid off for Kodesh Press, boosting its popularity.

Over 15,000 people visit Yeshiva University’s annual sefarim sale each year. Photo: James Estrin/the New York Times/Redux

One for the Books

The days of wannabee authors submitting manuscripts and dealing with the disappointment of rejection letters may be gone with the advent of self-publishing, but has providing the masses with the ability to have their writings printed hurt established publishing houses?

The answer to that question appears to be a resounding no.

While self-publishing does make authorship accessible to the general public, there is no doubt that a professionally published book will be a different product than one that is homegrown. Miller has often encountered aspiring authors who are reluctant to have their works edited, but he observes that the better the author, the more he wants his books to be edited in order to achieve the best possible results.

“We have high standards at Koren and have worked hard to reach a certain level of excellence, production, distribution and marketing,” says Miller. “If you want to have your book up on Amazon, go ahead. It doesn’t bother us.”

Despite heading up a publishing house, Rabbi Posner is a big fan of self-publishing and giving a larger group of people the ability to make their books available to the reading world.

“We don’t feel threatened by it at all,” said Rabbi Posner. “Our mission in life is to put out quality, sophisticated material for the Jewish community. If another publisher or an individual does that, yasher koach to them. Let the Jewish community hear what you have to say even if you can’t get a mainstream publisher to do it.”

Finding Your Niche

Every publishing house has its own niche and its best sellers can vary widely. ArtScroll, for example, has transformed the Jewish book industry, providing the layperson with a greater understanding of Yiddishkeit by translating most Jewish works.  Drawing on his decades of experience, Levine observed that with its sophisticated approach to marketing distributing and customer service, ArtScroll is, quite literally, in “a class of its own.”  While ArtScroll’s siddurim, chumashim and gemaras are always in high demand, Jeremy Stolow’s Orthodox By Design names cookbooks as one of the publishing house’s biggest moneymakers. The best-selling Kosher by Design series made Susie Fishbein a household name, and other ArtScroll cookbooks have featured celebrity chefs and social media stars including Naomi Nachman, Miriam Pascal and Danielle Renov.

Over at Koren, Miller has seen that his readers are mostly drawn to books that look at Tanach through contemporary eyes. Already in its third printing, Koren’s The Israel Bible presents Tanach through the prism of Eretz Yisrael, while the historical context presented in The Koren Tanakh of the Land of Israel—Exodus yields remarkable insights.

“The plague of darkness seems pretty bad, but when you understand Egyptian theology you realize that every Egyptian and every slave knew about Ra the sun god who was born every morning and died every night,” observes Miller. “Darkness wasn’t about stumbling around because of the lack of light, it was killing the gods of the Egyptians just before the killing of their firstborn.”

Cookbooks—like celebrity chef Jamie Geller’s Joy of Kosher and Jewlish by Jamie—are some of Feldheim’s biggest sellers. Pictured, Jamie Geller enjoying one of her tasty creations. Courtesy of JamieGeller.com

With 80 percent of Feldheim’s English books read by women, Kahn notes that a biography on Rebbetzin Vichna Kaplan was well received. Meanwhile, short story collections are enjoying their moment in the spotlight with all of Feldheim’s readers. Cookbooks, which can sell 10,000 copies in their first month before being nudged out of the spotlight by a newer release, are by far Feldheim’s biggest sellers, from the Bais Yaakov Cookbook to offerings from celebrity chef Jamie Geller. Graphic novels are all the rage in children’s books. No matter what the category or the demographic, getting an edge is key to sales, says Kahn.

“There are so many books out there today that you need something that stands out,” says Kahn. “For a biography to be successful it has to be about a very well-known person or something out of the ordinary. Our children’s book I Love You Just Because You’re You had laminated pages and that also sold well. People want Jewish content and they are willing to spend more to get it, but there has to be something special there.”

Kodesh Press has found that its readers’ preferences vary; some enjoy multiple books on a single subject while others pick and choose. Rabbi Goldstein has been seeing a renewed interest in Tanach, history, Chassidus, Neo-Chassidus and halachah.

“Personally, I think that people should read what they like, which is how you develop a love and appreciation for reading,” says Rabbi Goldstein. “Reading is a personal decision and a very private one. You can play a game or watch television with someone else, but you can’t read as a twosome.”

One of OU Press’s all-time best sellers is also one of its earliest titles: The Seder Night: An Exalted Evening—a haggadah featuring the commentary of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, whose writings are extremely popular at OU Press. Even difficult subjects have been well received. Rabbi Posner has received multiple e-mails regarding Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Koren Mesorat HaRav Kinot, saying that the commentary brought the subject matter to life, making Tishah B’Av an almost “enjoyable” experience. Out of the Depths, an autobiography of Israel’s former chief rabbi Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau (originally published in Hebrew), is another highly regarded OU Press title.

“It is such a compelling story of his indomitable will and overcoming great odds during the Shoah to become a leading national figure,” observed Rabbi Posner. “Go out and buy the book, but make sure you have a box of tissues next to you when you read it.”

The Best of the Best

The number of Jewish books on the shelves continues to grow with every passing year, but there is no secret formula to producing a book that will resonate with readers across the board.

What makes a book truly outstanding? For Miller, it is one whose subject matter appeals to him personally, created by someone with a knack for the written word.

“A great writer can make even the most boring subjects into something that you can’t put down,” says Miller. “If I had to rank the most important elements of a great book, the quality of the writing would be numbers one, two and three,” said Miller.

Kahn’s list of criteria is somewhat longer and includes books that appeal to a broad spectrum of people, books that inspire and books that beg to be read over and over again. More than just being something to be read and put down, Rabbi Goldstein sees books as experiential vehicles with far-reaching effects.

“Reading gives meaning, animates, educates and inspires,” says Rabbi Goldstein. “A great book should challenge the reader intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. There are times when I feel transformed after I read a book; when I can observe real changes in myself, that’s how I know it was a great book.”

Karper’s assessment for what makes a good book: “A book from which I learn something important that I never knew. A book that makes me think seriously about a subject that I thought I knew all about, but now realize that perhaps I don’t. A book that makes me laugh.  A book that makes me cry. Any of these, in my opinion, qualifies as a great book.”

While the effect of Covid-19 on the Jewish book industry remains unknown and although the industry has certainly been altered by today’s digital world, rumors of the Jewish book’s impending demise appear to be unfounded. With a passion for the written word still running strong in our veins, it seems clear that there are still many more chapters in the story of the Jewish publishing world that remain to be written.

Sandy Eller is a freelance writer who writes for numerous web sites, newspapers, magazines and private clients.

 

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This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2020.