Is something hurting Orthodox Jewish publishing?

kids reading
If we want books, we need publishers. Right?

I met today with the CEO and Editor in Chief of a well regarded publisher in NY (where else?). Their market is primarily the Orthodox Jewish English speaking market – probably mostly North America and Israel.

These fellows have been in the business for decades and really know their stuff.  The CEO raised a question which I found very interesting.  It was something like this:  “If the Orthodox Jewish community is growing at the rapid rate everyone says it is, and everyone is “having 9 kids, who then go and have 9 kids, why are we often selling less books than we did 20 years ago? What is cannibalizing Jewish publishing?”

Good questions. This CEO pointed to some culprits which, in his opinion, are responsible for sales shrinking for at least some titles:

1. The incredible success of Orthodox Jewish publishing.  Success might be a problem in this case. Over the past few decades there has been an explosion in the number of  books published with Orthodox readers in mind.  There are so many new titles, reprints and classics that an average consumer can’t buy them all.  So even if more books are being purchased these days, others will be getting left at the store and in bigger numbers than in the past when there were less choices.

2. Libraries – many people are using the library for getting new books rather than purchasing them. While not a new phenomenon, the impact seems greater than in the past.

3. The “new” Orthodox Jewish media – in the Orthodox Jewish English reading “world” there are now 2 hugely popular weekly magazines which didn’t exist 10 years ago (Mishpacha and Ami) and  a large, almost national newspaper, Hamodia,  (in addition to scores of local papers). One can argue about exactly which magazines and newspapers people are reading – but the massive growth and popularity of this media is self-evident.

As the CEO put it “the magazines are packed with news, stories and the serials which keep a family busy and talking for days and they cost about $5….so why buy a book? It is content, content, content.  But not from books.” In the general market, content which “substitutes” for books is more of the on-line variety.  But the impact on the publishing world may be similar.

It has become a truism that for Orthodox Jews, who do not use computers or e-book readers on the Sabbath or most holidays, there will always be a place for books. Yet,  if magazines are filling the need for reading content, and libraries can provide books for free to those who want them – what happens to book publishing?

We discussed how it seems clear (to us, at least) that it is in the public interest that  publishers bring out books.  Is it possible to encourage consumers to consider and get behind this? Can consumers become supporters of book publishing because they see it as a good thing, sort as some people “support the arts”?





17 thoughts on “Is something hurting Orthodox Jewish publishing?

  1. Naomi

    Most Jewish books are already heavily sponsored and are full of private dedications.

    Maybe the book publishers need to do some thinking about how they can better position themselves to take on their main competitors – the magazines? What makes them better? Why should people buy them? And how can they clearly and powerfully communicate this to potential buyers?

    In other words, branding.

    1. admin Post author

      Naomi – my experience is while it may seem that most Orthodox Jewish books are “sponsored” that is not true for most titles. But regardless, these books need to sell for publishers to be willing to publish future titles.

      Your point about branding is spot on and we actually discussed the idea of “branding” and this is not particular to one publisher. This is an industry wide concern. Hopefully more on that in the future!

  2. Arnie

    Nice post, but I don’t think the excuses are really accurate.

    Most US libraries, at least in Bergen County, NJ (with a huge Jewish pop.) don’t stock Feldheim, Artscroll or most of the other primarily orthodox publishers, so when I want to read one of their books I have no choice but to buy it.

    Newspapers/magazines?? Come on, you can’t compare them to books. I actually read my news online for free and spend the money on books. Every Jewish adult who buys English papers has internet access to read the news.

    I think the real reasons for drop in book business are:

    1. Quality – There are lots of quality Jewish books being published, but there are also so many that just aren’t and unfortunately, the bad ones tend to harm the whole market by turning readers off. It makes it hard to discern between the books worth buying and the fluffy ones. So readers just head to amazon for some real, factual writing (Jewish and non Jewish).

    2. Intellectual Integrity – unfortunately, these days some major Orthodox publishing houses will refrain from publishing works that seem to go against the perceived “daas torah”, even if those works are historically and factually accurate. Many of the biographies of gedolim tend to be heavy with sweet stories and vignetes and light on historical facts and insights. Smart readers are passing.

    3. Price – Books by Jewish publishers are much more expensive. i can get the latest and greatest best sellers on Amazon for half the price of what I need to pay to read the story of the Rosh Yeshiva from Chelm. With the price of printing and publishing much lower now than ever before, and with the option of On-Demand printing, these publishers should be able to lower their prices and attract more readers. The average Frum english book is between $20 – $25 + tax/shipping. That’s a big purchase in these tough economic times. How many of these purchases can you make? Comparable books on amazon are literally half as expensive with no tax and free shipping.

    1. admin Post author

      Excellent points. The margins the publishers make are very small. The production costs are often higher as there is a lot of editing, translating and shipping involved.

      It is true there is plenty of chaff out there and that is true for the general market as well. There are plenty of publishers putting out books which are not “party line” at all. And it is not easier for them.

  3. SA

    I think that many people have become too busy and distracted to actually sit and finish a book. I read a lot, but frankly, I can’t even remember the last time I’ve read a book — Jewish or general.

  4. David

    While Arnie is certainly correct – all of his points are correct – however, there is a much more crucial factor. Most of these publishers are under capitalized. Consequently, they do not really advertise. It is the lack of advertising that is the most direct cause of poor sales. Look at the advertising that non-Jewish publishers put out for their books. Look at the way they work with Borders and Barnes and Noble. When you walk into a Jewish bookstore, you are confronted with thousands of book spines, which say nothing to the buyer. Yes, there is thetable with new books etc. But if the publishers advertised properly, then we would ask for the book. There is no reason why the Orthodox community cannot purchase 5,000-10,000 copies of a really good book when it is released. Instead, only a couple hundred are sold and the publisher prays that the 1,000 copies he printed will get sold.
    If the book publishers would advertise properly, then the print media – weekly newspapers and magazines would have a book review section – just like the Sunday Times – because they want the advertising revenue.
    And yes, the more books you sell, the cheaper the price becomes.

  5. Lorelai Kude

    I don’t know if the Orthodox publishing industry is more impacted than the “regular” publishing industry, I think Jews tend to buy more books. The ebook readers have taken a huge bite out of hard and soft cover book sales, and the PRICE of a new book has probably doubled over the last decade+. People tend to read what’s free first (your comments on magazines) but also if there is an author or series someone is crazy for, there will be the sales behind the books (l’havdil, Harry Potter / 50SOG). Better advertising and engagement in social media for sure is needed, but most of all – Orthodox publishing needs a HIT, a mainstream hit that will bust the boundaries of the demographic and bring in readers who are not Orthodox.

  6. Adam Eliyahu

    I am a writer of fiction recently published. Many of my short stories had been used for other people’s anthologies. I submitted my collection of short stories to a major Jewish publisher for consideration. He replied that he loved my writing and had stayed up all night reading. He added that unfortunately he was unable to publish my stories as a collection because they were not ” kosher” enough. He gave me a list of Jewish publishers and begged me to me submit my stories to them. All gave the same response. My stories were not , God forbid, unclean but they were told from the baal tshuva perspective. I think the Jewish publishers are not changing with the world. They need to provide the best products ( I.e. writing that is up to the secular standards) and perhaps take a few risks. until now they have had a captive market and their readers were ignorant of good fiction. They might be surprised to find that not all the readers where black. Some wear blue jeans. And we we’re not being provided for.

  7. Sol Rosenberg

    The problems facing jewish publishing are the same as face mainstream publishing (where I spend my professional life).

    The previous commentators have all made the points very well – and they are not different than the discussions in the mainstream publishing.

    Price is certainly an issue. The distribution channel is an issue. Digital is an issue. As is Branding, piracy, libraries, quality, etc.

    The Solutions? You can also take a page out of those successful who have found the right price point, refined a distribution channel that serves their audience and otherwise continue to delight their audience.

    Perception of value – it’s a big thing. They can’t produce & sell books in 2013 the way they did it in 1980.

  8. mrmoose

    Was he talking about the industry as a whole or his publishing house? I would imagine that ArtScroll has taken at least 75% of the market and the other players are shrinking

  9. Ron Coleman

    I remember when a new English book from Feldheim or Artscroll was exciting, because there was so little out there. Now it’s dizzying, and in fact as some of the commenters over there say, a great deal of it seems to be prefabricated. And yes, the quality is very uneven.

    Also, I don’t know about you, but the renaissance in Holocaust obsession among the orthodox is puzzling to me.

    A lot of these books — especially the Holocaust ones — seem to be the same thing over and over again. Looking at the “new titles” table just makes my eyes just glaze over.

    Once I learned that a lot of Judaica books from major houses are, essentially, vanity projects (i.e., funded by the authors themselves) much about why there is so much that is so poorly done (and so lightly edited) became clear to me. Publishers are shooting themselves in the foot by undermining the value of their imprimaturs.

  10. Judah S. Harris

    Fostering imprints at the Jewish publishers might help focus the collection of titles and assist in branding. Publishers would also be smart to look for tie-ins with other media – magazines, radio, websites and visual presentations online – for select titles. Lastly, let’s get some more exciting cover design happening. Unless it’s an illustrated children’s book, there are many Jewish fiction and non-fiction offerings that have not invested in exemplary cover design that compels attention (first step to actual purchase).

  11. Libi Astaire

    Thanks for an excellent post and a lively discussion from all who posted comments. As someone who is both an author of Jewish historical novels and writes for one of those magazines, here are a few general things that I’ve heard through the grapevine:

    1. Most people today have short attention spans. In magazine terms, that means they don’t have the patience to read a 3,500-word article – unless the article is chopped up into more manageable bite-size pieces accompanied by flashy graphics. Where that leaves books is an interesting question.

    2. The guys in yeshiva and kollel work hard all day learning, so in their free time, if they do choose to read something other than Gemara, they want something light. It would be interesting to know if this is why there is a decline in sales of Torah seforim; with more guys learning in yeshivah/kollel today than 20 years ago, maybe our success in that area means there’s less of a market for new English-language Torah seforim geared toward a general market because the “general market” has shrunk.

    3. The quality of frum literature is very low, so people will check out the books from the library, or read the serials in the magazines, rather than risk paying a lot of money for a book they won’t like.

    What do I take from this? If I were a frum publisher in today’s world, I wouldn’t try to be the general “be everything to everyone” publishing house for the frum community, because it seems that the magazines are filling that niche. Instead, I would try to occupy the niche of publishing only high-quality seforim and literature that a) readers won’t find in the frum magazines and b) will appeal to readers who turn to books precisely because a book offers a richer, more in-depth reading experience.

    What about sales and market share? Didn’t I just say that the market for those types of books has shrunk?

    Here’s where I put on my author’s hat and say that I wish frum publishers would be more creative in their thinking about marketing and distribution. It seems to me that their marketing and distribution mainly consists of putting their books in the Jewish book stores in frum neighborhoods and their ads in the frum magazines. And “zeh oh zeh.”

    But it also seems to me that so much more could be done on the grassroots, and even kiruv, level: e.g., work with out-of-town communities to do book clubs, author tours, etc., which will bring these books (and Torah hashkafos) to people who would otherwise not know about them. Another thing is to try to get book reviews for the books in general publications. For instance, new books in my Ezra Melamed Mystery Series get reviewed in the Jewish Book Council’s quarterly magazine. I can’t say how much that impacts my sales, but I do know that the books are in Jewish libraries in out-of-town places, so I’m assuming that they’ve heard about the series either through that magazine or through my own sales efforts.

    Yes, I know that the big name frum authors are already doing the lecture circuit to the frum community. And yes I know that this sort of marketing is more time-intensive and costly. But since we’ve already got an out-of-town/kiruv infrastructure in place, I’d be curious to see what would happen if the frum publishing community did try to reach out more to the wider Jewish public. And as an author who also successfully gives lectures/book readings about Jewish history, to help sales of my books, I know I’d love having the support of a publishing company behind me, rather than having to do all the arrangements myself.

    1. admin Post author

      Libi – thanks for your comments. As a book publicist who has worked with many publishers, authors and titles focused on the Orthodox market, my experience is that there are publishers willing to invest in promotion of books beyond placing ads and getting books into stores. I have worked with publishers to promote all their titles, or to focus on a select title. In addition, I work directly with numerous authors in a similar capacity. When the author is active and is also willing to bring on additional support (like a book publicist), the results are almost always much better.
      When I work with authors as a “book shepherd” I encourage them to bring up marketing and publicity early on in their discussions and to ask for concrete plans and details. Having this information ought to be one of the most important pieces of information that authors use in choosing where to publish.

  12. Raphaël Freeman

    Stu, I would respectfully disagree. 95% of books that are published are author-invested. It’s very rare to go to a Jewish publisher and not have to pay, whether it’s a fee of $12,000 to “help” with the costs or commit to buying 1,000 books.

  13. Dassie

    Thank you for addressing this issue.

    Just to add to what others already wrote: For years, I’ve thought price plays a huge role in book-buying reluctance. I understand the publishers have compelling reasons, but frum books tend to be large hardbacks that sell for 100 shekels (or more) per book. (Not to mention the excess room such large bulky books take up.)

    Also, because as mentioned, sometimes the quality of a book isn’t fantastic (although frum quality continues to improve in leaps & bounds over the years), people don’t want to pay so much for less than fantastic.

    I’ve resisted buying books that seemed interesting simply because of a reluctance to pay over 100NIS to take a chance on a book I may not love and may only read once.

    Buying 3 books (for example) should not be such an expense, but it is at these prices. If I need to invest over 300 shekels somewhere, it’s not going to be on books…unless those books are absolutely amazing and draw me to read them again and again.

    And yes, I tend to use frum libraries rather than buying books for the reasons stated above.

    I’d love to support frum publishers and authors more, but it’s difficult to do that when one must choose between, say, getting some plumbing fixed and buying a couple of books.

    Books simply should not be so expensive.


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