Publish and Perish or Digital death
By: Yaakov Rosenes
About the author: Yaakov Rosenes made Aliya from Canada after graduating from Trent Univ. and U of I Chicago Circle. In the 70's he held various research and administrative positions at Yad HaRav Herzog, Feldheim publishers, and Machon Yerushalayim. In the 1980's he founded the Judaica Archival Project, a Preservation and Access program for Rabbinics at JNUL. Since the 1990's the Project has offered bibliographic and book-finding services at www.virtualgeula.com.
Since the advent of the Internet, the nature of reading and publishing has changed radically in the secular world. Also today Jewish publishing is something entirely new. Now that it is acceptable to bring a lap-top computer into Kollelim we find literally thousands of Avrechim working on original (and frequently worthwhile) Seforim. Today over 75% of the 4000 new Torani titles appearing annually are privately printed by the author. At least half of these books are sold from homes. Many authors are experimenting with print-on-demand technologies and printing smaller editions to lower their costs. Other authors are posting their Seforim online as PDF files or as e-books. In short Jewish publishing which used to be dominated by 10 major publishers and distributors has become a market with thousands of players. Store owners have no shelf-space for new titles. Readers are jaded from too much material. Authors are frustrated because they can't sell or even give-away their Sefer. Fortunately and unfortunately every Rabbi, Scholar, Admor, Mashpia, Maran and Baba has created his own literature and is trying to attract own readership. In short today's Torani publishing has become a free-for-all.
How many Sifrei Kodesh are printed every year?
In Israel alone 50 every week are recorded by the book depository department at JNUL. I terms of cost at an average of $2000 per book means that Klal Yisrael invests over $5,000,000 per year in printing new Seforim! This number has doubled every 5 years for the last 30 years but the readership is growing at a much slower rate than the "printer ship".
How much does it cost to print a Sefer today?
From 1K to 10K. It depends on the size of the book, the size of the edition and how it is bound. A Soft cover edition of 500 copies can cost as little as $1000. A hardcover edition of 500 pages of 1000 copies can cost over $10,000 to print in Israel.
What do you mean by Publish and Perish?
Self-explanatory, when your brother-in-law gets a copy of your new Sefer and puts it straight on the top back shelf of his bookcase it means even your closest audience has no time for your creation. The point of printing a Sefer is to open up a dialogue with a readership. Unfortunately today most new Seforim are what is called "vanity publishing" which sadly turns into a monologue between the author and himself.
Who is printing Seforim today and who should not print a Sefer?
Everybody who is sitting in a Bet Midrash with a lap-top or tablet computer is probably working on a Sefer. On any typical morning in my Kolel there are at least 10 Avrechim with computers on the desk. Some of them even wear their Tefillen while they edit their Sefer. Any first time author should think many times before he starts to work on a Sefer. Is it original? Who will read it? Don't I need an editor? Why is my Rav encouraging me ? Maybe he thinks it will be therapeutic? What does my wife or my father-in-law or my brother-in-law really think? If the answer is not clear to any of the above questions please do not print more than 50 copies, soft cover.
How did you print Seforim 40 years ago and how is it done today?
When I came to Israel in the 1970's we still used a monotype press attached to a mechanical keyboard which set letters in molten lead. Today offset printing presses are prevalent where pages are prepared in a phototypesetting machine copied by a huge negative camera and then taped into paper frames to expose on to printing plates. This method works for a press-run of thousands. Since the invention of the laser printer in the 1980's virtually anyone can print his own primitive book. So today when a new author can expect to sell or give away only 200 copies at the most it pays to skip the typesetting and the plates and to print the pages via a quality commercial digital printer or online printing service.
What is happening in the secular world and how is the Torani world different?
At least one major chain of brick and mortar bookstores has gone bankrupt and several others are faltering. Amazon.com is selling more e-books than printed books ! Many magazine, newspaper and paperback publishers are putting their major resources into digital editions. However only a few have actually shut down their print editions. In the Torani world we have Shabbos and we have to concentrate more to understand what we read. Therefore the market for the new editions of: Humashim, Mishnayot, Shasim, Turim and Shulkan Aruch etc. is healthy and growing. However the self publishing authors (many of whom are not only very sincere but also very talented) is the where the market is crashing. One bookstore owner told me when he sees an author coming in his front door with a pile of Seforim he runs out the backdoor in order not to embarrass him since he doesn't have any shelf space for yet another Avrech with yet another new Sefer.
How has the Web changed people's reading habits?
The web is not a place to read anything serious. Most people read the opening line of the opening page and then surf ahead. The media is simply too full of distractions to make a pleasant reading experience. Most people if they want to concentrate on a text will print it and take it with them to really absorb what it says. Only a small percentage of today's readers really read books - most of us skim the first few pages and head for the newspaper.
Would you recommend putting your book on the Web?
Light reading perhaps. Giving away a chapter is a good way to promote a Sefer. For serious reading or learning - It's suicide. Many people will download the file but very few will print it and even fewer will actually read it. As Yannai HaMelech noted after he wiped out Hachmei Yisrael."The Sefer Torah is there in the corner - If anybody wants to learn it he can come and use it. RH"L
Is the Feldheim bankruptcy a sign of the future?
Yes and No, if the publishers will make some adjustments they have a good chance to survive. First of all the role of the publishers is to select the best talents and to prints the best Seforim. Most of our Jewish publishers became vanity publishers in the 70's and 80's. A particular publisher I once worked for used to dig up unpublished manuscripts of questionable value and then look for rich and naive descendants who would pay a pretty penny to see their grandfather's Sefer in print and then try to convince the Velt that this was a major work from a Gadol of the last generation. Other publishers specialized in finding new and wealthy authors who would subvent (plus some healthy profit) an entire edition of their new work and then market it as a major masterpiece and 2 years later quietly dump the entire stock for a song on a naive distributor. The publishers who we see today are still in business and going strong are the ones who didn't use these tricks but simply read carefully what they publish.
The Future - Is it entirely gloomy?
In my opinion the future of Jewish publishing eerily echoes the past. Before the printing press every reader hired a Sofer to copy his Rav's Sefer, specifically for his own personal study. Copying books wasn't a business, only the Sofer was paid for his time. Recently I have met several Talmidei Hachamim who are making use of scanned books to print out exactly what they want to learn and then they bind their print-outs into folders. Others bring them to a professional book-binder.
Are we returning to the époque where books are copied one at a time for personal study only? I believe so. Maybe this is a good thing? Shouldn't Jewish study be freed from the false paradigm of "the best seller" which is a very non-Jewish commercial concept? Shouldn't we free ourselves from our own enslavement of having to see every book on the market and consciously tune ourselves into what we really can focus on. Living in an age of so much noise shouldn't one train himself to concentrate on the music?