Tammuz 5773 / June 2013
The Future of Frum Publishing
It has been very busy here at Torah Temimah over the last few months. During that period of time, we took a giant leap forward.
For one thing, we launched our own website. I’m really not happy about it, but…I’ll leave that for a future newsletter. Nevertheless, once we decided to do it, we needed to do it right, and, indeed, we did. In fact, we received a lot of compliments on the attractiveness, user–friendliness, and innovative features of our site.
We were also busy preparing for my trip to the United States. This idea—a publisher delivering open seminars in various locations—was a first for the publishing industry. Baruch Hashem, the seminars were very successful, and, im yirtzeh Hashem, in the future I will deliver more in other locations around the world.
I would like to present in this newsletter my primary message at those seminars, whose recordings are now available on our website.
When you think about it, there are tens of thousands of Jewish–book enthusiasts around the world. On the other hand, the fact is that there are fewer and fewer sales of frum books. It doesn’t seem to make sense. How can it be?
An outsider might suggest that we are suffering from the same phenomenon from which the secular publishing world suffers: the advent and increasing popularity of ebooks. However, according to inside sources, that simply isn’t the case. For whatever reason—good or bad—ebooks have not yet caught on in the frum world. What, then, is the source of this malady?
There are actually several sources, all of which are due to the natural currents of life.
One major cause is the power of periodicals. People are spending their reading time and money on them, reaping immense pleasure devouring their diverse subjects and presentations. By the time they finish reading their subscribed issues, the next ones arrive, demanding their attention. So when should they read books? And where should they get the money to buy books? After all, they spend a lot of money on the Jewish newspapers and magazines.
Also, there are the kind-hearted Jews who help their brothers and sisters by establishing free libraries and gemachim, so the one bookseller who does muster up a sale ultimately sends his books to stretch a looooong way.
And there is the effect of the intoxicating internet and its infinite store of information. How can a mere book compete with it?
Finally, there are simply many youngsters with reading difficulties. Many who don’t suffer from this nevertheless have short attention spans and don’t enjoy relaxing with a long book; if they do choose to read, they will probably opt for short articles.
Neither you nor I object to people reading periodicals periodically, nor do we grumble about the free libraries or gemachim. I bless them all with good health, wealth, and yiras Shamayim. The critical question is: how damaging is this trend to the book industry?
The reality is that the quality of the books that are actually published is rapidly decreasing, further eroding their potential to entice buyers. Why? Because lack of sales means lack of funds for the necessary investment into book production. Whereas the publisher should invest his own capital and pay the author a reasonable royalty, the author is usually expected to finance his book’s preparation himself, a reality that discourages the excellent authors from writing. Even when they do write, they lack the funds to hire qualified and experienced staff who can properly edit the book at all levels of production. When so few good authors publish—and that, without the support they need—readers complain that the new titles are of such poor quality that it doesn’t pay to buy them…and they don’t, causing a downward spiral in sales.
I, for one, am still prepared to invest the necessary funds into the editing, proofreading, layout, graphics, and marketing of my titles, while still paying the author a reasonable royalty. I am sorry I can’t offer this to every would-be author, but I am prepared to offer it to eight authors of excellent manuscripts who submit in the coming year.
And I also have a couple of ideas for reviving and propping up the book industry, but they require the public’s support.
At some time or another, every single person finds himself in a situation where he needs to give an actual present (as opposed to a check), and we’re always searching for new gift ideas (thanks to which new creative businesses keep popping up). My suggestion: purchase a book at your local Jewish bookstore and give that as a present! You might not want to buy a book for yourself, but almost everyone I know would love to receive one! They come in all shapes, sizes, genres, and prices. In case the receiver doesn’t like your choice, he can exchange it (unlike the flowers you gave your host last Shabbos). If this idea would catch on, we would generate new book sales on a massive scale, reviving a struggling industry.
Here’s another idea, which, although not novel in its own right, is new in this context: sponsorship. As long as the old-fashioned publishing model worked, publishing was a business like any other, so the idea of sponsoring a book was unheard of (except for those titles that required a large investment). However, due to the current publishing reality, as we explained above, sponsoring a book nowadays is no different than supporting a day school, yeshivah, or kollel. We all recognize the importance of spreading Torah and Jewish values. The book, each one read by thousands and thousands of people (sometimes even tens of thousands), can easily have a farther–reaching effect than active outreach efforts.
This is my sober assessment of the situation. The book industry is, unfortunately, on the decline, and it is important for you to be aware, sympathetic, and supportive. With public patronage, I am hopeful that we can revive it. Ultimately, the future of frum publishing is in your hands.
Rabbi Eliyahu Miller
Publisher and General Editor