Giving Jewish Books the Business
By RACHEL SOMERSTEIN
The book business is in a bad way. As a result of poor sales over the past few months, nearly all major publishers, from Simon & Schuster to Doubleday, have cut staff; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt temporarily halted new acquisitions, a move that led its publisher, Rebecca Saletan, to resign (she has since joined Riverhead); and, across the nation, independent bookstores have shuttered, unable to compete with behemoths Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Amazon.com.
There are also those perennial squeezes (the Internet, decreased advertising revenue) putting big-name newspapers to bed and whose death-knocks most recently rapped on the New York Times' chamber door. The demise of print media necessarily means fewer reviews. Those periodicals still standing, like the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Los Angeles Times, have dramatically shrunk their book-review sections. And in January 2009, the Washington Post folded Book World, leaving the New York Times Book Review one of the last stand-alone book-review sections left in American newspapers. Fewer reviewed books will make it more difficult to get the word out about great titles—which leads to a further decrease in sales.
What does all this doom and gloom mean for the Jewish book business?
To find out I phoned Danny Levine, owner of J. Levine Books & Judaica in midtown Manhattan. The shop, opened in 1905, has been in the Levine family for five generations; Danny Levine has been at its helm for 30 years. He is quick to point out that J. Levine has survived the Depression, two World Wars, the rise of the Internet, and the proliferation of chain stores. Levine is so confident in his business model, in fact, that in 1991 he boasted to the New York Times that his store is “recession-proof.” What’s his secret? And what ought we, as consumers of Jewish books, to expect of what is so often cast as a hopelessly gloomy future?
N.B. Days after our interview, John Updike died. Although far from a Jewish writer, it seems appropriate to invoke Updike’s 2006 response to a New York Times Magazine article predicting a digital future: “So, booksellers, defend your lonely forts,” he said in a speech at the American Booksellers Association. “For some of us, books are intrinsic to our sense of personal identity.”
How is the Jewish book business doing and where is it headed?
By nature our industry is not flippant. Ours is a need-based product. Passover, it’s one of the most celebrated holidays of the Jewish religion—everyone needs a Haggadah. Obviously, now people will buy a paperback rather than a hardcover.
I see that in times of trouble our business seems to thrive, because we’re a spiritual entity. The calamities of Madoff teach people that the dollar is not to be worshipped. What matters is spiritual, God, and those are the things you buy from a company like J. Levine.
How has the Internet affected the industry?
The advent of the Internet was a major assault on the average bookstore. It was also major assault on the Jewish industry, because previously the only place to get a Jewish book was at a Jewish bookstore. But Amazon became a Jewish company, selling Jewish books and things like that, undercutting the prices terribly, offering 40 percent off and free shipping, and just destroying the whole market.
So what’s happened?
Some Jewish publishers got smart and don't sell to Amazon. Amazon will say the book is not available, but at least they'll have the chance to be sold and distributed at a bookstore. Also, in general, Amazon has lowered [its] discount. It gives huge discounts on bestsellers, but for average books is not so generous, and prices can be very very high for certain books.
How else has the business model changed?
It’s a partnership: the publisher publishers, bookstore promotes, publisher also promotes—we all work together to [serve] the public. But the publisher[s] [have] started to want to do it all themselves. It happened with some of the textbook publishers. Bookstores used to be big suppliers to different yeshivas, and little by little the publishers raised the discount they gave to the synagogue and lowered the discount for the bookstore. Publishers would say, "Bookstores were slow to pay." They'll say they'd rather get the money up-front from the synagogue, not having any feeling for the chain of normal distribution. If you look at the volume they've taken away from bookstore sales, it’s enormous. I used to do $200,000 of school business every year and now not.
Some of these Jewish publishers’ websites have specials where they give 33 percent off and free shipping. It’s unfair business practice—they have the ability to go as low as they want. That really bothers me because every time a customer goes to their website they're putting a dagger through the heart of the Jewish bookstore.
What advice would you give to other booksellers?
If you don’t make yourself unique, these Barnes & Nobles have great Judaica sections.
Here in Manhattan the rents are astronomical. I thank God own my building, but if you don’t, and can’t control your rent—how much can you make on a book? Throughout the country you have to not let your costs or your landlord control you.
The Jewish bookstore sells also prayer shawls, yarmulkes, ketuvahs. These are all “sidelines” that can be big business.
I myself have developed a website over the last 10 years, with over 10,000 products on it, and have a lot of things that Amazon does not have: books from Israel, self-published people, books from companies that don’t want to deal with Amazon because they really kill the market.
What do you think of the Amazon Kindle?
I think it is ridiculous. First of all as an observant Jew, on Shabbat when you do a lot of reading you can’t touch it.
People like to share books and give them to children, pass them on. Jews have always had a love affair with the book. That is not going to come to an end.
What books are selling well?
I myself am an Orthodox Jew, but my biggest seller is the Reform Mishkan T’Filah. Historically, Reform Judaism is the fastest and biggest growing market, because of things that I don’t necessarily agree with—patrilineal descent and interfaith couples, gay marriage and all these things. The Reform are affluent and have money and want to affiliate with the Reform Movement. At the same time, the Conservative Movement has dwindled.
What about secular Jewish books?
We are called the people of the book. I think we’re going to continue to read and as a people we’re going to support writers and applaud literary works.
What sells? Fiction or nonfiction?
I have been very active in the Jewish Book Council. They have a national Jewish Book Award and last year (2007) they gave a fiction award, the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, for Tamar Yellin’s Genizah at the House of Shepher. This year (2008) there was the nonfiction The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado. Everyone wants to read the winners.
What are you reading now?
The Garden of Peace. A marital guide for men only by Rabbi Shalom Arush. He has written a bunch of books, including The Garden of Emunah. It’s a blueprint for making marriages better.
What does he suggest?
You’re a woman so I will not tell you what it says. But it can really make a difference—it’s life-transforming.
What would you say to future generations of Jewish writers, given the pressure within the Jewish community to become a ‘professional’?
Writing is something you can do while you have a day job. You don’t have to sit in a room and write all day long. Something like that Rohr Prize was designed to knock people off their feet: I can make $100,000 if I write a great book.
So do Jewish writers have a good future?
Definitely a good future. The fact that Judaism has survived how many thousands of years when we’ve always been a small people, a wandering, strange and different people—others always tried to kill us and get us we and thank God we have survived. What is leading is the Torah. The Torah has survived, and books are always going to be an important part of our society.
What do you think about the heyday of the three-martini lunch?
The excesses of the hedge funds were just awful. Kids were coming out of college straight making big bucks. It just didn’t make sense and I knew it couldn’t last.
My whole industry is never one where you make a lot of
money. We’re so limited. How many Jews are there in the world? It’s such a
small percentage, compared with opening a Muslim shop. I love what I do and I
love the Jewish people and I want to make a difference in this world.