1997, I have been asking notable publishers and
editors, a bookseller, and a journalist who follows these topic about
the book business and the remarkable, disturbing alteration we have
seen in its structure. Generously, they have told me how they entered
the book trade; spoken about writers they’ve published and declined
to publish; described the (changing) class structure of their domain;
talked straight about money, commerce, and corporate capitalism;
described their way of practicing responsible publishing. They have
taken us into the precarious business of selling books, and have
traced the advent and threat/promise of electronic publishing. Without
exception they have been serious readers, usually of more than one
language. They have recognized that times have changed. They have
observed with wary friendliness the generations coming up. They have
spoken out of the old values and honorable traditions of
book-publishing. They, and I, have wondered whether these can still
exist in corporate publishing. Several eminent editors recently
published books doubting it. It’s been difficult not to agree.
thought it was time to look closely at a single publishing company,
one that had played a significant role in European and American Jewish
– and non-Jewish – culture. I would follow its fortunes from the
days of its cultivated founder, through his death and the sale of his
company to a privately-owned corporation, to its being re-organized as
a small sub-division of a gigantic media conglomerate. Its existence
is full of twists and ironies, of displacement across continents, its
founder’s intention revered but re-interpreted in a new time. Its
story is corporate but, also, is composed of the intersection of
enlightened personalities and the works of great writers with the most
awful events of the twentieth century. Following it, I would examine
the play of high culture with corporate mind-sets and see how it
new conversations began in Volume 5, Number 2,
and will appear in the next two issues of Archipelago,
culminating this series that may serve as an opening into an
institutional memory contrasting itself with the current corporate
structure, reflecting on glories of its own, revealing what remains
constant amid the flux. The people speaking here are strong-minded
characters engaged with their historical circumstances. Out of that
engagement have appeared, and continue to be published, a number of
books that we can say, rightly, belong to literature.
Books: A Brief History of a Publishing Company
also Part I
Schocken, a German Jewish magnate and philanthropist, established the
Schocken Verlag in Berlin, in 1931.
During the seven years his company existed – was allowed to exist
– in Weimar, then Nazi, Germany, it published 225
titles of classic Hebrew works important to the educated, assimilated
Jews of its founder’s class and generation. Owner of a chain of
department stores, Schocken was a man of wealth and leisure who
devoted himself to collecting fine art and literature. While
re-investigating his Jewish roots – he was “greatly influenced”
by the TALES OF RABBI
NACHMAN OF BRATZLAW, translated by Martin Buber, whose
friend he was – he became convinced that the great works of sacred
and secular Hebrew writing should be translated into German and
published for the sake of his fellow believers.
Salman Schocken emigrated to Palestine, while Lambert Schneider, his
managing editor, and Moritz Spitzer, editor-in-chief, remained in
Berlin, operating the company by virtue of an active exchange of
letters with him. In Palestine, Schocken established the Schocken
Publishing House, Ltd., under the direction of his son Gerschom. Then,
Schocken and his family, except for that son, took ship for the United
States, where he immediately joined the widening circle of brilliant
German Jewish refugees adding their luster to American cultural and
intellectual life. Five years later, enlisting the aid of Hannah
Arendt and Nahum Glatzer as editors, he founded Schocken Books in New
Schocken died in 1959.
The firm continued under the direction of his son Theodore and
son-in-law, Herzl Rome, until the younger Schocken also died, in 1975.
The heirs managed to continue publishing for some time, until they,
too, began to age. When the company’s revenues began to decline,
they let it be known that Schocken Books was for sale. André
Schiffrin, managing director of Pantheon, was especially interested
and in 1987,
persuaded Random House, Inc., to buy Schocken Books and place it under
his direction. Random House, Inc., which included the publishing
houses Random House, Knopf, and Pantheon, was by then owned by Advance
Publications, a privately-held corporation of the Newhouse family,
which also owned Condé Nast, the magazine publishing company.
wisdom says that Schocken Books was in difficulty at least in part
because of an unexpected success. In 1981,
it brought out WHEN BAD
THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE, by Rabbi Howard Kushner.
The book sold a huge number of copies. The result was what so often
happens to small companies after a very big windfall: suddenly, the
firm had more money than it knew how to spend wisely. (Something
similar happened to Atheneum during its first year, according to
According to this version, Schocken Books began to pay larger advances
to authors new to its list, which were not then earned back in sales,
and the company began to slide.
the time Random House acquired Schocken Books, the Newhouse family, as
Advance Publications, was particularly concerned by the rate of return
on their investment, which it considered inadequate.
House, Inc., (or “Big Random,” the publishing imprint being “Little
Random”) in 1989,
when “the first waves of change swept over the place,” was
organized as follows. The president of “big” Random House was
Robert Bernstein. The directors of the various imprints reported
directly and separately to him. (Robert Gottlieb, editor-in-chief of
Knopf, had left for the New Yorker
in early 1987,
following the firing of William Shawn – The
New Yorker is also owned by Advance Publications – and
been replaced by Sonny Mehta, publisher of Pan, in London. At that
time, Knopf, Pantheon, and “little” Random House were separate
entities within “big” Random House.)
Newhouse fired Robert Bernstein and brought in a new CEO,
Alberto Vitale, from the Bertelsmann-owned Bantam Books, part of
Bantam Doubleday Dell. “Alberto looked around, and he saw that
Pantheon – Pantheon, mind you! – was one of the leaking holes as
far as money was concerned. He made certain stipulations to André
which André didn’t accept, and André was fired. And that inspired
certain kinds of reorganization.”
the early- to mid-‘90s,
Vitale reorganized “big” Random House. He neatly trisected the
trade division. Having consisted of between eleven and sixteen
imprints, it was now re-arranged into three groups: the Knopf Group,
the Random Group, and the Crown Group. The Knopf Group came under the
aegis of Sonny Mehta and included Alfred A. Knopf, Pantheon, Schocken,
Vintage, and several smaller imprints. The editorial directors of
Pantheon, Schocken, and Vintage would thus report to Sonny Mehta,
president of the Knopf Group, rather than directly to the president of
the corporation, Alberto Vitale. When S.I.
Newhouse sold Random House, Inc., to Bertelsmann Gmbh. in 1998,
that structure was kept in place. (Later, Anchor Books and Everyman’s
Library, which had been part of Doubleday, also owned by Bertelsmann,
were moved into the Knopf Group.) The fourth, separate division of
Bertelsmann in the U.S. is the Bantam-Doubleday-Westside Group.
is Random House, Inc., now organized.
André Schiffrin as editor-in-chief of Pantheon/Schocken was Fred
Jordan, who remained in place until 1993,
when Arthur Samuelson became editorial director of Schocken Books.
Samuelson proposed an ambitious plan to refresh the backlist,
commission new translations, and publicize Schocken books “in a kind
of quasi-commericail mode.” During that time, Dan Frank, formerly an
editor at Viking, then at Pantheon, was named as his counterpart at
Pantheon, and the two imprints worked separately. In 1999, Arthur Samuelson left Schocken and was replaced by
the present co-directors, Altie Karper and Susan Ralston. Having come
from inside the Knopf Group, these newest directors have (as they
explain) carefully woven their operation back into the workings of
Pantheon and Knopf, warding off functional isolation of their small
imprint within the conglomerate.
the first of these conversations devoted to the history and presence
of Schocken Books, I spoke with Altie Karper, managing editor of
Schocken Books and Pantheon. The second is with Susan Ralston,
editorial director of Schocken and a senior editor at Alfred A. Knopf.
We spoke twice in New York, in the editorial offices of Schocken Books
– located between those of Pantheon and Knopf – in early May of
this year. Susan Ralston’s determination to keep Schocken alive and
thriving within the corporate structure is evident; her analysis of
that structure “from the bottom of the inverted pyramid,”
instructive. I was particularly curious to learn how she saw the
founder’s intentions as being relevant, or perhaps no longer so, to
contemporary Jewish book buyers, and, equally, how her reading of them
fit into the ethos of Bertelsmann.
Schocken’s intention; or, marketing Kafka
McNAMARA: I would like to continue talking about
Schocken Books, about the intention of the founder, Salman Schocken,
and how that intention is being carried out in the midst of structural
changes in the book trade. Without dating these changes, which
everyone recognizes but dates back to a different starting point, I
will note that the publishing “industry” certainly is not now what
it was five years ago, and not what it was ten years ago.
McNAMARA: Schocken is in a special kind of
circumstance, because what Salman Schocken endured, took his
publishing company through, was much more serious and dire than
corporate changes, wouldn’t you say?
RALSTON: You’re referring to his flight from
McNAMARA: Yes indeed.
RALSTON: That certainly was more dire. It was a
matter of life and death.
McNAMARA: But he was able to establish three
publishing companies, in fact: one in Berlin, one in Jerusalem and Tel
Aviv, and then in New York. And he was able to do that and keep it
going for some time. Amid this, a small but pertinent instance of what
caught my attention: when Max Brod offered Schocken world rights to
the work of Kafka, the then editor-in-chief didn’t want to take them
because he didn’t think Kafka was “marketable.”
RALSTON: But of course many people have made many
errors in publishing. There’s nothing like picking up P[ublishers]
W[eekly] and seeing a rave for a book you turned down, to
take you down a peg.
McNAMARA: Imagine how it was then to consider
publishing Kafka! That sort of question always interests me. But then
another editor persuaded him that these works by Kafka were relevant
to what Schocken Verlag was trying to publish, because of the
quality of Kafka’s mind and its relationship to the existing
brilliance and importance of secular Jewish culture in Germany and the
German-speaking lands. Surely, these are editorial decisions that
occur all the time. That Schocken Verlag was capitalized by Salman
Schocken, and that, nonetheless, this decision had to be made is worth
examining. I wonder now if you can tell me how you see Schocken’s
intentions being carried forward?
RALSTON: Before I took on this assignment I had
some conversations with Sonny [Mehta, president and editor-in-chief of
the Knopf Publishing Group] about my sense of what I would and could
do. For example, Schocken has published numerous books on the Kabbalah,
but I do not connect to that spiritual practice, that side of things.
I never read those books, never buy those books, either as a consumer
or as an editor, and I’m really not qualified to publish them.
Nonetheless, it’s a topic that is not limited even to Jewish
readers; at the moment, there is tremendous interest in the Kabbalah
in our culture. Fortunately for me and for Schocken, Altie knows a lot
more about it than I do! That’s only one of the ways that she and I
mesh into a good team for the imprint.
are things that come out of my particular experience as an editor that
I felt I could bring to Schocken, that Schocken needed, and that would
fit into the corporate structure we have now. I have twenty years
worth of expertise in publishing books of cultural and social history,
illustrated books, and extremely complicated multi-author special
projects. And that’s expertise that Schocken did need.
the area of social history, my feeling is that there is a readership
beyond the exclusively Jewish market; that people – mostly
Jews, but others as well – are interested in the dynamics within the
Jewish community, the relationship between Jews and the non-Jewish
community, between the religious Jews and the secular ones, between
U.S. Jewry and Israel, between the religious and secular Jews in
Israel – all of these issues. Also, the contemporary issues of
religious continuity, family life, intermarriage, and identity affect,
or afflict the Jews, particularly – but they do affect other
populations, too, as we all melt into the pot.
I felt that there were subject areas that I had dealt with before,
though not in a specifically Jewish context, that I could now address
in the more specific context, but also that I could take care that
Schocken not be lost as a little, parochial entity in this big
was one side of it. Another side was that, having done many books at
Knopf that were a little bit out of the mainstream, I knew about
special marketing. If you look, you will find that the Jewish market
is huge. I mean huge. Jews are people who buy books. They buy
them for gifts, and they buy them for themselves. We do have, here at
Random House, a tremendous sensitivity to that market. Frankly, there
have been years when there were more “Jewish books” coming out of
Knopf than out of Schocken. If you look at some of the major books of
the last few years, there was Nathan Englander’s volume of stories, FOR
THE RELIEF OF UNBEARABLE URGES, and Nomi Eve’s novel, THE FAMILY ORCHARD, Leon Wieseltier’s KADDISH,
Benny Morris’s RIGHTEOUS
VICTIMS, a book I edited on the Arab-Jewish conflict;
there is always a great deal of material coming out of Knopf and
Random House, and certainly out of Crown, on these subjects. So,
within the corporate setting, a person who’s specializing in books
of Jewish interest is not as isolated as you might think.
corporately we have a strong interest in serving that market. But the
next question is, if you’re going to publish a list that is in any
way limited in its potential readership, how do you function?
McNAMARA: What does that mean exactly, limited in
its potential readership?
RALSTON: Well, that’s the big question.
Everything’s limited. First fiction is limited, poetry is limited,
etc., so, to say that books of Jewish interest are limited…
McNAMARA: … is like saying they are limited to
RALSTON: There was one other area I discussed with
Sonny: fiction. It’s been quite a while since there was any
substantial fiction, except [Aharon] Appelfeld, from Schocken.
McNAMARA: Though there were the novels by [S.Y.]
RALSTON: Yes, and we tried to do the Yiddish
classics; they didn’t sell very well. The first new book we
published after I came on board, is the novel THE
FUNERAL PARTY, by Ludmila Ulitskaya.
McNAMARA: It has gotten beautiful reviews, and
looks very interesting, I think. I began reading it on my way here.
RALSTON: It’s really a good book; but here is a
case in point. This is the first appearance in this country of an
author who is quite well known in Russia and in Europe. In America,
the book got sensational reviews, which contributed to an additional
sale of maybe 150
copies, period. This is such a hard way to make a living! And it had
nothing to do with the fact that the book came from Schocken. It’s a
“first fiction,” that other limitation on the market. And it’s
hard for anybody, in any imprint, to make that category sell well.
McNAMARA: It wasn’t a book I would have thought
of as first fiction.
RALSTON: No, because she has been published before—but
this was her debut in English, so it qualifies.
asked about living within the Bertelsmann structure. When the former
editors left, there was a lot of talk in The
Forward and other Jewish papers about how this is the end
of Schocken, it’s going to be closed down, will “those Germans”
close it down, you know what I mean.… And the fact was, it never
ever occurred to them to close it down. Bertelsmann takes a great deal
of pride in Schocken, its accomplishments, its rich history. And it’s
profitable! It has a great backlist and a good bottom line. It was a
matter of replacing the editorial director, who left the company; and
I think I was a good logical choice, not least because I already knew
my way around the company.
come into Random House from the outside, you need six months just to
figure out who’s who, what’s what, and how to get things done. It’s
a very complicated company. Schocken is an imprint within the Knopf
Group, reporting to Sonny Mehta. We have very close ties with
Pantheon, because we’re not big enough to need our own support
staff, as Altie has told you. It works smoothly.
faced a huge rush of submissions in the beginning. It seemed as though
every agent in New York had reached into the file and taken out all
the old Jewish projects and sent them over. But I wasn’t fresh out
of the box myself, so I don’t think I made too many errors there. We
have the same constraints on us for acquisitions as the other
imprints, i.e., the P&L
[profit and loss statement] has to work, and not be, let’s say,
manipulated, massaged. As with anybody else in the Group, nobody cuts
us any slack.
state of Jewish publishing: “Judaica” and “books of Jewish
McNAMARA: You’re an experienced editor. Would
you talk about how you see your duties, or perhaps outlook, in this
“specifically Jewish context,” as you put it?
RALSTON: The main issues, I feel, are these. One
is the question about publishing what I call “Judaica,” as opposed
to the more general term, “books of Jewish interest.” It’s not
only my intellectual differences with, or ignorance of, that more
narrowly religious material, it’s also about whether the
[bookselling] reps can sell it. I’ve worked at this place for twenty
years. I know there are books that don’t get much attention during
that sales call, when they have two minutes for each book on the list,
and maybe, if they do yours in thirty seconds, they have
three-and-a-half minutes for something with more potential. I don’t
want to invest our money, time, emotions in projects that our reps can’t
be completely behind, and that the booksellers are not going to
Jewish publishing industry is healthy, actually. Between Jason
Aronson, the Jewish Publication Society, Jewish Lights, ArtScroll, and
all the other small, independent publishers, Judaica publishing is
going forward. I feel that, even though I’m not furthering that
line, I’m not doing anything to hurt it by concentrating on my
there is the Holocaust material – very difficult, because,
emotionally, it’s overwhelming. It keeps coming, as well it should;
and yet we have to be very, very careful about what we publish. We got
badly burned by the FRAGMENTS
waters are going to close over that when the report [THE
WILKOMIRSKI AFFAIR: A STUDY IN BIOGRAPHICAL TRUTH, by
Stefan Maechler] is published.
just saw a manuscript the other day that was a “typical” Holocaust
memoir, extremely well written, by a woman who does not impose what
she knows as an adult on what she perceived as a ten- or twelve-year
old in Poland. It’s brief; it’s brisk; it kills you. Can we
publish it? We ask that question every day.
very grateful for the World Jewish Congress program, which I’m sure
you know about.
McNAMARA: Will you describe it, please?
RALSTON: Elie Wiesel, who is our most
distinguished living author here at Schocken, and the World Jewish
Congress put together a program, with great financial support from
Bertelsmann by the way, called the Holocaust Survivors Memoirs
Project. They hired an editor. People can send their memoir to him and
they will be given advice about publication.
McNAMARA: An editor.
RALSTON: Yes, well. I don’t know how he’s
doing it; I bet he’s a Tylenol addict by now. – He suggests
whether it could be preserved in an online archive, in an e-book, or
go to a university press, and so on. This means that there is a
clearing-house of sorts; writers are not totally dependent on the
trade publishers; I’m not just writing back to somebody saying, “I’m
sorry that you reached in and ripped your guts out, and I can’t
publish your book.” That makes my job a little easier; but not much.
I still feel a very strong moral obligation to the writers, to read
all these manuscripts when they come in.
McNAMARA: Yes, there is a responsibility to them.
RALSTON: I sometimes wonder if I’m a becoming a kind
of masochist; but, nonetheless, the manuscripts come, and I read.
that was a big issue. Anybody publishing books of Jewish interest
during the past two decades, when the survivors have finally begun to
talk and to write, has had to make numerous decisions about publishing
Holocaust memoirs—which by now are actually a saturated market.
McNAMARA: Is that a fact?
RALSTON: That’s the received wisdom: that it’s a
saturated market, that people don’t go out and buy Holocaust
memoirs. Is it true? I don’t know. They are still being published,
particularly by university presses with endowments for that purpose.
Are people buying them? Who are these people who buy them? I don’t
know. Anybody who has the kind of bent or personality to buy Holocaust
memoirs after they’ve read four, and have had a real taste of how
horrible people are to people, I don’t know if they can … If they
get hardened to it, then I don’t ever want to meet them; but I think
most people don’t get hardened to it. They get drained.
are other questions that influence these decisions. What is the
responsibility of an imprint with the name of Schocken, in 2001?
Who are its readers and what do they want? And what is the larger
responsibility of our generation to the past?
new Schocken Bible
McNAMARA: One undertaking here at Schocken that
has interested me is your commission of a new translation of the Old
RALSTON: The Everett Fox translation.
McNAMARA: I grew up knowing the King James or
Authorized version, and we had the Douai version; but in English, of
the Old Testament is there no standard translation for Jews to read?
RALSTON: The standard translation of the Hebrew
Bible, the name Jews prefer to “Old Testament,” is the Jewish
Publication Society’s translation. It’s the one that’s most
used; so I suppose you would call that the standard. Other people have
translated certain books, such as Robert Alter, who translated
Genesis. Arthur Samuelson decided to go with Everett Fox.
McNAMARA: Yes, of course, I beg your pardon. –
It’s a curious question, isn’t it, why to make a new translation?
The Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz made a new version, not I think of the
whole Bible, but at least parts of the New Testament, that became,
then, the Bible Poles now use. We have the Jerusalem Bible, a
beautiful translation. As well, a great deal of re-translation is
being done now in the classics of literature.
RALSTON: Much of this translation initiative has
to do with correction. Think about the argument of whether it’s the
“Red” Sea or the “Reed” Sea: people are each other’s throats
over this one. But a lot of it has to do with archaeology, and
scholarship, and feminist agendas, and so on – such as, are we
going to call God “He”? Those are issues that come in the liturgy,
as well. There is always room for scholarship. And Everett Fox has his
own agenda. There are many words in his translation that are not
synonyms, they’re the literal renderings.
just looking in his book for something, one of the strange words he
uses. Here: “When they measured by the omer, no surplus had the
one-more, and the one-less had no shortage. Each-man had gleaned
according to what he could eat.” What he was doing here is taking
these compound words in Hebrew and, where other people give synonyms,
he’s given you the literal, compound word. That’s his program,
important for translations to be used in the synagogue. We would never
undertake to publish Everett Fox’s translation alongside the Hebrew.
However, Jossey-Bass, which is part of John Wiley, is doing that. They’ve
licensed the translation, with Michael Lerner’s commentary, and they’ve
licensed the JPS
Hebrew version. They’re going to be selling the volume in the “synagogue
market.” I think people will always want to translate the Bible for
their own day.
McNAMARA: Do you “paperback” your own books?
RALSTON: Yes. Let me just go back a step. One of
the things that Schocken used to do was to paperback other publishers’
books. I thought I was going to continue doing it. But the fact is,
now we’re in the computer age, firmly, and the tiniest little
bookstore on Main Street is also in the computer age. They know
exactly how many copies they sold in hardcover. You are really up
against it if you go to them with a book that they didn’t sell well,
or that they returned in great numbers.
only books that I get offered from outside Random House, now that
everybody is conglomerated, are books that nobody in one of the
conglomerates wants. Why would Viking offer me a book when they have
Penguin? Because Penguin doesn’t want it, you see. The only books
Knopf and Pantheon – offer outside are the books that Vintage or
Anchor don’t want to bring out in soft cover. Schocken has always
had the practice of paperbacking its own books. That’s why it has
maintained bottom-line health in backlist. And we’ll continue to do
example, next summer, we’re bringing back a novel by Elie Wiesel
OATH, which has long been out of print. We’re
committed to having all of his work in print. We’re bringing back
another book called IN
THIS DARK HOUSE, by Louise Kehoe, published by us in 1995
or so, and then by Penguin in paperback. It never got what it should
have achieved in the way of sales. We think enough time has gone by.
It’s a very strong memoir, and our reps are behind it. But, by and
large, if you looked at my publication schedule, you’d see that the
hardcover titles on it this year will appear again in paperback in a
year or year-and-a-half.
McNAMARA: It’s good, I think, to know publishers’
ways of thinking. I think back once more to my wonderment at the idea
that Kafka was not “marketable.”
RALSTON: We’ve all read reviews in PW
of books that we turned down, and we think, “What editor bought
this?” That’s what makes it a horse race, I guess.
Books, social theory, and the college market
McNAMARA: I have an article here, printed in 1971,
by Theodore Schocken, called “Schocken Books: Twenty-five Years of
Judaica Publishing in America.” He writes about the initial program
of the New York house, which “took its cue from the activities of
the Berlin firm” – that is, translations of scholarly volumes, as
before, but also, “pictorial volumes,” books by contemporary
writers, translations of modern Israeli fiction, and also, the
Schocken Library, the paperback list. Except for the translations of
Kafka, he goes on, the house devoted itself solely to publishing “the
Jewish book.” “This policy imposed serious economic limitations,”
goes on to say, “And while the books were warmly received by the
Jewish community and widely and favorably reviewed by both the general
and Jewish press, sales remained small, and the marketing of the books
turned out to be a costly task. Thus, after the first four highly
active years in which about 60
books were issued, the firm decided to cut back its work drastically
during the 1950s.”
And then Salman Schocken died in 1959.
It sounds, then, as though they published twenty, or fewer, books each
year. Do you know anything about that time?
RALSTON: No, I don’t. Over there is a
fiftieth-anniversary poster that lists all the authors, and a look at
the backlist catalog gives you an indication of what had been
published that survived.
I came to Schocken, some friends of mine who had been in college in
said, “Oh, Schocken. I still have all my Schocken books on my
bookshelf.” And those friends weren’t Jewish. The editors
back then had a great bent toward social history, political
philosophy, labor, and so on.
McNAMARA: Yesterday, I spent two hours in the
Pantheon/Schocken library. It was a bit like being back in graduate
school, without the dismay of it. I saw so many old friends on the
bookshelf. Theodore Schocken writes a lovely passage about why they
published those kinds of books: “A major part of the program is
played by the Jewish paperback.” I thought this quite moving:
“The ambition to put Jewish books of high intellectual caliber into
the hands of the young Jewish reader, which played such an important
part in our traditional program, is being largely fulfilled through
the Schocken paperbacks. The young American Jew arriving for the first
time on the college campus finds the Schocken paperbacks in his
university bookstore and is assigned by professors in a variety of
courses – sociology, history, literature, comparative religion. Thus
convinced that they have general acceptance, he often ‘discovers’
the Jewish books, which in the past his parents or his rabbi had tried
in vain to interest him in.”
RALSTON: Force on him.
McNAMARA: “Indeed, some of the Schocken
paperbacks are among the most popular college ‘adoption’ titles.
These include Roth’s A
HISTORY OF THE JEWS, Zborowsky &
Hertzog’s LIFE IS WITH
PEOPLE, Scholem’s MAJOR TRENDS IN JEWISHMYSTICISM, Bernard Baumberger’s THE
STORY OF JUDAISM, Sartre’s ANTI-SEMITE
AND THE JEW, and Spiro’s KIBBUTZ.”
And then: “Schocken paperbacks are issued in a uniform format of
pleasing design” – with that Schocken “S” – “and great
attention is paid to colorful, tasteful covers. Ben Shahn, Marc
Chagall, Leonard Baskin and Bernard Reder have contributed
illustrations for Jewish titles.”
came of age among such books; and many other like me, as well.
RALSTON: The more things change, the more they
remain the same.
McNAMARA: I was thinking about that in terms of
your ruminations, not so much on Judaica, but on what the intelligent,
educated Jewish reader wants now. Because it does seem in a way more
like the same, except, well, what also struck me – it certainly
struck me when I was in graduate school in the very late ‘60s,
– is the left-leaning tenor of the list.
RALSTON: That is what I meant when I said
political philosophy, labor studies, etc.
McNAMARA: We find ourselves living in a
reactionary time now, I would say. Is it possible to think in terms of
political philosophy or leftist issues? Are there leftist issues
RALSTON: I don’t know why you’re asking me
that. I ought to go away and think for an hour! I certainly think
there is a liberal or left constituency, though it’s unorganized and
in disarray, and it’s now in opposition. Probably, after sitting on
their duffs for eight years thinking the world was going to go their
way, many people in that constituency are going to be re-energized. We
already see it with the environmental movement. But this is a personal
observation. It has nothing to do with what I’m publishing., because
that kind of project isn’t even coming near us these days, and we’re
not going out and looking for it.
McNAMARA: You needn’t answer, of course,
although I find it worth asking, given the context of this discussion.
RALSTON: Well, my feeling is that the world is
infinitely more complicated than it was when the left elaborated its
principles. Communism proved to be a wrong answer. Socialism proved to
be an unworkable system. Capitalism came to rule the world. Thoughtful
people, today, believe that it behooves them to figure out a way to
achieve a measure of social justice in a capitalist world, a world
that is overrun by rampant material self-indulgence. Good luck. That’s
going to be very difficult, especially without the government willing
to move forward these very big issues.
this is a digression, and the question that you asked was a good one,
based on what you read to me about the college youth. Academic
marketing is tremendously important to us and, in fact, to anyone in
Random House Inc., who publishes an intellectually demanding or
challenging book – and who publishes a paperback.
always been part of the Schocken program to do our own paperbacking.
When I negotiate for a new book, I negotiate with an author/agent who
knows that, when he comes to Schocken, this is where he’s also going
to be published in paperback. It’s a very important part of our
profit line. Of the titles that you read to me, a number are still at
the top of our academic marketing sales histories, Gershom Scholem’s
books, for instance.
yes, paperback academic adoptions are still very important. A young
Jewish person who hasn’t had much exposure, or has resisted
exposure, to Jewish books discovers them in the college bookstore—that’s
a lovely dream. I hope it was true for Mr. Schocken. It would be nice
if it were true for me. But I have no empirical evidence that that’s
the case. The evidence that we do have is that there is a burgeoning
interest in Jewish studies. Every little campus in the most remote
town in America has a Jewish studies program. Many have been endowed
by Jewish alumni, and on a lot of campuses you’ll find many
non-Jewish students who want to study Biblical history in that
context. And so, the possibilities of where we can sell our books have
expanded tremendously with the expansion of attention to Jewish
matters on college campuses.
McNAMARA: If you think of your readership as
generally Jewish – and also non-Jewish, of course – you do know
that you have a highly educated, alert, intelligent readership. I’m
not sure that assumption is always made elsewhere in publishing. You’re
talking about academic marketing: do you think that there’s a real
distinction, or do you think that there is a crossover from, or to,
the general readership?
RALSTON: Sometimes, but not as often as before, we
hope that a title will make money back for us as an academic-adoption
book. It’s good when it does; but you can’t buy a book and
predicate it on that, because that’s not exclusively the kind of
publisher we are. We are a front-list hardcover publisher, and then we
paperback our books and hope that they have a continued life. I mean,
by selling our titles to, having them adopted by, professors.
we cannot do, here, is publish academic work — monographs and
dissertations. That has to go to a university press. We cannot afford
them. And the whole publicity angle that is so important to publishing
now is very hard for us to break into. When a book is review-driven
but not actively promoted or advertised, that way lies disappointment.
I have had Knopf books that were on the cover of The
New York Times Book Review, when they still had reviews on
the cover. What we would see was a sales spike of, maybe, seventeen
copies. These were positive reviews, but people read them and felt
that they knew enough about the book, they weren’t motivated to buy.
published that little novel I gave you, THE
FUNERAL PARTY, and the reviews were spectacular. Our net
sale in hardcover was something less than 7,000
copies. You would think that people would be running out to buy it: it
wasn’t even an expensive book. No. The reviews were great, and we
can use the quotes for the paperback edition and her next book, but
reviews have much less effect than they used to; even The
New York Times Book Review is much less influential than
one might hope. Review organs around the country, as you know, are
closing down or consolidating or shrinking. The San
Francisco Chronicle, the Boston
Globe, two important newspapers, have either stopped
reviewing books, or are going to have fewer reviews and more
interviews with or stories about the authors. Many of us who work in
publishing can’t quite figure out how that’s going to help us; why
people would buy the book because they read that the author had a
dysfunctional childhood, instead of reading a review of the book. What
motivates the buyer?
on investment and the economics of conglomerate publishing
McNAMARA: Let me go back a ways, please. You said
that the Newhouses, the former owners of the Random House company,
were concerned about rate of return on their investment.
RALSTON: I would think so.
McNAMARA: What did they want, and what were they
RALSTON: The business was really not good in the late
not privy to their numbers, but if you were here then, you would hear
people saying, “Oh this is what you think the bottom line will be?
Well, that’s not good enough any more.” Tightening up of budgets,
etc., was happening around that time.
McNAMARA: I remember when Lee [Goerner, late
publisher of the defunct imprint Atheneum] came home one day and said
he’d heard that editors at Random in England had been told that they
had to show a rate of return of fifteen percent.
RALSTON: Told by whom?
McNAMARA: I had the sense that every book they
published was expected to earn that. I’m not certain of this, now,
or who said it. It was one of those things he heard, and he didn’t
tell me the source or extent of it. He was disturbed, though, if not
appalled by the false economics of it.
RALSTON: Well, we were told by Bertelsmann, when
they bought the company in 1998,
that they expected a fifteen percent ROI.
That’s an extraordinarily high rate of return on investments for
McNAMARA: On every book?
McNAMARA: They obviously were moving that way,
publishing companies, I mean, as they were becoming conglomerates, in
the late ‘80s
and even in the early ‘90s.
But what I am always told is that publishing is countercyclical, and
the rate of return on investment is never high.
RALSTON: Exactly. The rate of returns – the
books coming back – is high, but the rate of return is not.
McNAMARA: Part of the reason the high rate of
return is demanded, we are told, is because they have such a huge debt
RALSTON: I’m not qualified to comment on that.
McNAMARA: In any case, what we see now are all of
these things that don’t have to do, per se, with what publishing was
when there were houses, back in the golden years, the good old days…
RALSTON: …when everybody was a gentleman who had
a private income and suede elbow patches, and did it for love, and so
forth, but as a business…
McNAMARA: …although they always expected to make
money, of course, as it’s also always said.
RALSTON: Yes. They weren’t crazy, after all.
Before I was in publishing I was in the arts. When I came to
publishing, I met somebody I had known in my previous career. He said,
“You know, when I worked in the arts I thought publishing was a
business, and now that I’m in publishing, I see that it’s an art.”
In terms of what you make on your money, he meant. But I feel we used
to have a stronger sense in publishing that there were books that we
weren’t going to make any money on, but that we should publish
because we should publish them. It had to do with prestige. It could
happen in relation to any subject, that this was a book that would add
luster to your name. Frankly, I did a lot of those books. They were succès
d’estime, not de
commerce. I don’t see much of that any more. What I do
still see is the willingness to nurture young writers and bring them
along through four or five books.
McNAMARA: That many?
RALSTON: Well, three or four: hoping that they’ll
break out. The break-out expectation is, I think, lower than it used
McNAMARA: That means what: “break out”? That
they’ll sell more copies?
RALSTON: Well, that they are going to have a book
that’s really going to go to a higher level of sales than they’ve
ever enjoyed before; that isn’t going to have heavy returns; that
will get not just respectful reviews, but the kind of reviews that
send people into stores to buy a substantial number of copies.
Usually, it’s quite dramatic. You’ll have a writer like Kazuo
Ishiguro, let’s say, who wrote a couple of books that, maybe, sold 7,500
copies; 12,000 in paperbacks. Then Sonny [Mehta] got hold of him,
with REMAINS OF THE DAY,
and bingo! To the moon! And other writers: Julian Barnes, Graham
Swift, a number of English writers, particularly novelists, whom Sonny
brought to Knopf, who have made great leaps. Or there is Carl Hiaasen,
to take another example, who is not English. But with skillful
marketing, brilliant marketing, they have achieved another plateau,
another level of sales. Everybody wants that. I think there is still
willingness to nurture the talent, until they come along with that
book that elevates them. Then, of course, you have to deal with
expectations the next time around; but that’s the game.
terms of Schocken, to sum up: the spiritual books are not particularly
interesting to me. Books dealing with historical and contemporary
issues are of interest. The issues I’d like to deal with I think
Schocken can deal with, without anyone saying that we’ve abandoned
our past. And I’m completely comfortable with being part of this
corporation and being owned by Bertelsmann. I don’t feel, in any
way, censored. The person I report to is Sonny Mehta. If we disagree
it will be about a book’s potential, not its contents. We’re all
very cautious now; we all want to be very, very careful in this
Jewish communities and the costs of publishing books
McNAMARA: What is the nature of the market, or the
readership, you depend on?
RALSTON: One of the complications of publishing
books of Jewish interest is that there are three masses within the
Jewish community. One of them is the ultra-Orthodox and the
religious-right: these people are antique, let’s say, in their
attitudes. They think that these books are full of the devil. They don’t
buy these books.
then, at the other end, are the entirely assimilated people who are
marrying out of the faith, raising their children with no Jewish
education or identity. They, too, are not interested; they’d rather
read what the American mainstream is reading.
there is this great mass in the middle, which in itself is completely
diversified. It’s out there. We do have ways of reaching it. The
annual Jewish book fairs all over the country are a powerful weapon
for us. The rabbi network is powerful. The Jewish press is bubbling
all over the place, it’s noisy and it’s busy. That is where the
readership is, in the middle.
question that you brought up at the very beginning, though, is really
a key one. I see this as one of the great problems of Schocken at this
moment. On the one hand, we know that the engine of profit is the
backlist. The Schocken books that were published years ago have often
been repackaged and reissued and recovered, but, nonetheless, they are
standards. And there are more recent books that have quickly become
standards on the campus. We know that’s a fact. Therefore, what we
should be doing, logically, is publishing more books that are going to
have a long life of that kind in paperback. Which means, for one
thing, predicting what is going to be wanted.
McNAMARA: Is that possible?
RALSTON: Predicting? I don’t think so. Our
academic marketing people go to all the scholarly conferences, and
sometimes they come back and say to us, “You know, I’m hearing a
lot about X,”
and you get the feeling that that’s where intellectual interest is
tending, but you can’t really predict in a such way as to say, “If
I publish this book, it will have that life.”
McNAMARA: Branding hasn’t touched you yet. (laughter)
RALSTON: Well, people won’t take it just because
it’s a Schocken book. It has to be relevant. I don’t think
branding has touched any imprint in the world, at all.
The question is: if, logically, we should be trying to refresh that
stream, that desire should have a great influence on what we acquire
for the front list. But the requirements we face are quite different.
Because, for a front-list book, a hardcover trade book, you have to
look first, obviously, at merit. But nowadays we also have to remind
ourselves that the number of independent bookstores continues to
shrink. There are a few little pinpoints of light on the horizon, but,
by and large, the news is not great. Getting the support of the chains
for a book like this is almost impossible. Getting a book put on the
chains’ automatic reordering list is not easy. Books that have been
in print for thirty years and are still continuing to sell,
particularly in college towns, will be in the Barnes &
Noble system. As soon as they’re sold out, they’ll be reordered;
nobody even has to think about them. Well, how many books do you think
are at that level?
we have to think about publishing a book that’s going to get
reviewed; that can be publicized; that can fit into certain kinds of
promotional programs, Father’s Day or Jewish holidays; whose author
is marketable; and for which there is a general audience. It’s
possible to publish small and to publish profitably, if you do it
right. If you don’t waste money on redoing the jacket twenty times,
if you don’t pay the author a whole lot, if you print as many as you
can sell, not 50,000
copies, you can have a success on a small scale.
within the context of a commercial publishing house it becomes much,
much harder, mainly because the costs of belonging to that
corporation, that are assigned to every book, are tremendous. A person
sitting in Vermont running a small Jewish publishing house with a
commission sales force and personal ties all over the place is going
to be able to operate closer to “on a shoestring”. In fact, there
are numerous Jewish publishers that are not at the bottom of an
inverted corporate pyramid, with the Knopf Group, the trade division,
Random House, Bertelsmann, on top of them. They can publish into a
niche market far more effectively than we can. We, no matter how smart
we are in terms of structuring the deal for a book, cannot operate on
a shoestring. Because the same percentage of overhead costs are
allocated from the sales of a 5,000-copy
book as from a 100,000-copy book. But with a 5,000-copy book, you also have the problem of making people
see it and know it’s there.
McNAMARA: It has to be on the book-buyers’ radar
if people are going to see it.
RALSTON: Exactly. So, the idea that you can
publish a book that is actually not going to make any money until it’s
in paperback is a very hard notion to put over, with the fiscal
accounting being as close as it can be, and with so much being
expensed in the first year of the book’s development. It’s
difficult to work out a formula like that. At the same time, we may
fall into the trap of publishing books that only fit into one end in
the marketplace. I think it’s a challenge to do something else.
this book that you see by Martin Gilbert, THE
JEWS IN THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, I’m thinking front-list
here. I want something that is of a quality that later we can put it
into paperback. But I am not thinking of paperback in order to get it
onto college campuses. That is hugely helpful to Schocken, but I would
not be able to publish something that I could get on a front table in
Noble, if its sure fate in life were only to become a supplement to a
textbook. I have to reach the trade audience first. We did not have a
big, illustrated gift book, which can be bread and butter, not just
for the first year, but going on. And, in fact, a book like this,
after two years, can come out in paperback. It’s slightly oversized
for a paperback, but there will be people who will want to wait for
the lower price.
McNAMARA: This is the one that will be in people’s
houses, in their libraries, and they are going to give them, perhaps
as gifts, but as serious gifts.
RALSTON: And professors will adopt Martin Gilbert’s
other books of history of the twentieth century.
also have a number of books coming dealing with subjects such as the
great Jewish comedians of the ‘50s
Altie talked about that, as well as the book she’s acquired on
Chabad, the Lubavitch missionaries. These are books that are going to
be written by lay people who are knowledgeable, who have journalistic
ability and good writing skills, and they will be of general interest,
we think. And they are books that, when people see them on the table
at a Jewish book fair, are going to be a little lighter in feel than
our books in the past. I don’t mean physically lighter, of course!
Nor that we’re launching a humor line or a fluff line, or anything
like that, but that we want our books to appeal to people who want to
read about their history.
the last thing I would say about this is that we have not by any means
turned our back on serious publishing. It’s simply that we’re not
a company publishing books primarily meant for, or initially meant
for, the course-adoption market. But a book that we think will maybe
break even in hardcover, but will really work in the college market:
that would be wonderful.
McNAMARA: And so, in effect, you’re not saying
that you’re not going to be publishing books in social thought, for
RALSTON: To the contrary.
McNAMARA: But the definition of social thought has
now become larger and more complex: that is what you seem to be
RALSTON: Yes. We have a major project scheduled
for Fall 2002
about the cultures of the Jews, in three volumes. It’s called CULTURES
OF THE JEWS: From the Bible to Contemporary Israel and
America. It is written by twenty-two academics who are based either in
Israel, America, or France. Each is an expert in a particular time and
place. They were each asked to take a cultural artifact--an image, a
story, a letter--and extrapolate from that what the culture of the
Jewish community was like in that place and time, how it interacted
with the larger culture, and what they took from each other. It begins
with two essays on the Bible. One is by a literary critic who talks
about the evolution of the concept of the nation in the Hebrew Bible,
as the text goes through that early history and shapes the myths. The
other is by a scholar who places the Israelites in the context of West
Semitic and Caananite culture: where they lived, and the borrowings
from each other that turn up in the Bible, which people gloss over now
because we don’t want to admit them.
essays then go through Antiquity: the Greek period, the Roman period,
the Byzantine period; Arabia at the time that the Moslem religion was
founded; Arabia in its highest period of culture of the twelfth
century; the beginnings of the Ashkenazim in Germany and France in
medieval times; the culture of the Jews in pre-Catholic Iberia; the
culture of the Sephardim who went to Amsterdam and London when they
got kicked out of Iberia; the culture of those who went to North
Africa. There is an essay on folk culture in Israel and how it is
drawn from all the different groups that have come in. There is an
essay on amulets and childbirth magic over about four centuries. There’s
one on the Jews of the Italian Renaissance and their adoption of
aspects of that very visual culture, and so on. These are very
specific eras and communities, many of them in no contact with other
communities anywhere else, and each of them slightly different, and
each of them sharing certain things. This is going to be a very
McNAMARA: Oh yes, that’s quite remarkable.
RALSTON: Yes, it’s a remarkable project. We
expect it to be pretty big in the trade – but we also expect it to
become a major college work. The three volumes are Antiquity, the
Middle Ages, and the Modern Era, structure along the lines and
breaking points of Jewish history courses. This kind of project, which
we feel is going to become a benchmark the way Cecil Roth or Zborowski
and Hertzberg were for their era, is vital to us. All these scholars
are engaged in an intensive study of Jewish culture and history, and
of course theological scholars are also very active and still
exploring. The world of Jewish scholarship is vast. A number of these
authors have indicated that would like to talk to me about other
projects that they have in mind. And as I have gotten to know them,
and seen books that they have published elsewhere, usually with
university presses, I’ve thought, “Well, here’s somebody that
might very well write at greater length for Schocken on some aspect of
his subject.” So, it goes on, and it will come back.
McNAMARA: I have caught a sense of fizz and
ferment in what you’ve just described.
RALSTON: In that world.
McNAMARA: Yes, like a grounding.
RALSTON: Yes. In that world, there is a grounding.
I can’t say that there’s fizz and ferment here, though, because
this is a corporation. But I never doubt that there are certain
projects that, when all is said and done, we can do better than other
places can. The problem is the cost. Very much so. It’s the cost.
McNAMARA: Earlier, speaking off the tape, you made
an important remark. In the evolution of Schocken Books, you
suggested, when you see certain kinds of books appearing at about the
same time, perhaps those choices were governed by the agendas of the
editors-in-chief. I suppose you were referring to the editors you’ve
known, but, in its way, that would do doubt have been true in the
past. It would have been true when Schocken himself was alive and
actively directing the company; equally so when his son and son-in-law
were running the company. It’s a useful notion to think about at any
time, of course. What is Schocken’s agenda now?
RALSTON: Is your question, what’s my agenda?
McNAMARA: Perhaps it is. You and Altie now are
RALSTON: Well, that’s true only in the most
technical sense. I’m the editorial director; she’s the managing
editor and she also acquires. However, we are integrated into Pantheon
on a day-to-day basis. One individual is the promotion/ publicity
director for both Pantheon and Schocken, another is the production
director for both imprints, still another the marketing director for
both. They’re not Pantheon staff doing work for Schocken out of one
drawer in their desk.
for my agenda: I sense that my predecessor’s goal was to make
Schocken independent of the other imprints. My goal is to integrate it
as much as possible, because I don’t want Schocken books to appear
to be an afterthought for anyone here. I want people to say, “What
are we publishing in September?” and have that “we” mean both
imprints. I don’t feel that Altie and I are Schocken, period, at
all, in any way. I’d be terrified if that were so.
McNAMARA: Because you would be small and isolated?
RALSTON: Yes: and then who would do these
functions for us? How would we get our books sold?
agenda is also to publish the kinds of books that interest me.
It sounds selfish. But it’s because in the past I’ve been
obliged to work on books that I really wasn’t very interested in.
When that’s the case, you don’t give your all in the same way. You
don’t respond to proposals the same way if you’re not interested
in the subject, or if it’s Greek to you, or if you’re horribly
against it in terms of the ideas it expresses. Of course I want to
publish books that interest me. I wouldn’t be in the business if I
didn’t. I’d not be a real person if I wanted to publish books that
didn’t interest me, and I wouldn’t do it very well. But I also
want to publish books that will not be marginalized by their
particularity or their limited sales potential. I don’t want to
publish books that will be marginalized because they’re at Schocken,
when they would not be so marginalized if they were at Jewish Lights,
let’s say, as a comparison.
McNAMARA: What do you mean by “marginalized”?
RALSTON: There are proposals for topics that are
too narrow for a trade publisher; they belong in a university press or
a professional press or an independent Jewish press, a house where
they don’t have to compete for time--with the [bookselling] reps, at
sales conference, or in the marketing meetings--with books of more
general interest that have more of a chance for success in the
I said before, we have a strong special-markets division dealing with
the Jewish market, among others. But if you have a book that is only
going to be sold through those non-retail outlets, why publish it in a
company that spends millions of dollars a year to market and sell to
Noble and independent and secular book stores? Why do it here? Here,
we have the resources to publish books that can be sold in all these
channels, and we must take advantage of that. And I’m not suggesting
that I have to do books that will only have thousands and thousands of
readers; that I have to dilute the list, or the Jewish-interest of the
list, in order to reach beyond it. If you publish intelligently, you
can sell 6,000
copies brilliantly and make money. If it’s a book that only has 6,000
readers, you’ve done a great job. If you have 50,000 copies out, and there are only 6,000 buyers, you’ve made a big mistake.
constraint of being part of a corporate entity comes there, in
figuring out how to publish intelligently; it doesn’t come anywhere
else. Nobody says “you can’t do Jewish books, you shouldn’t do
Jewish books,” nobody says this is “too Jewish for us,” this “isn’t
Jewish enough for us”; nobody censors us, or anything like that.
McNAMARA: Well, there is this. Have you had not to
take a book you wished to take because of that?
RALSTON: No. There have been a couple of books
that I wanted to buy that Sonny didn’t sign off on. This is every
editor’s experience. He had his reasons; but his reasons never had
to do with objections to the content. Sonny’s objection to a book is
either that something about it causes him to think we can’t publish
it successfully – again, that has no ideological or theological bias
– or he thinks that the editor concocted a P&L
(laughter), that it’s unmoored, let’s say, from reality.
I pick and choose very carefully. It can be agonizing. I’ll read
something that I’m glad to have read, but then decide, “No, we
shouldn’t be doing this here.” I had a submission, for example,
from an agent representing a writer who has written numerous
non-fiction books and articles about Jewish and women’s experience.
Her name is known. This is her first novel. I read about a hundred
pages and thought, “This woman has not made the transition to
fiction.” Taking her on just because of her celebrity wasn’t
is of Jewish interest?
McNAMARA: So: your agenda. Behind it, isn’t it
perhaps the question – and often this can’t quite be articulated
– what is, then, “of Jewish interest”?
RALSTON: That is an interesting question. It’s
like the joke: if there are two Jews, there are three synagogues.
Nobody ever agrees on everything.
do I think evokes Jewish interest? This is a community with a broad
spectrum, the Jewish community. People are interested in different
things. If you look at the books we’ve acquired, that tells you what
our sense of this spectrum is. So, THE
FUNERAL PARTY was a beginning in fiction. There is a
place for new innovative fiction, not necessarily in English, but in
translation, for Schocken.
McNAMARA: Do you know of writers coming up, or
fiction writers whom we need to know about – I mean, all of us need
to know about – but who are Jewish writers?
RALSTON: No, I wouldn’t be able to say. In these
past fifteen months I must have read twenty novels that we are not
going to publish. I don’t necessarily remember their names.
do believe – I said this to Sonny a year-and-a-half ago – that the
Jewish community is interested in reading about itself. I made a list
of books that, I thought, if Schocken had published them, would have
been good for us. One of them is JEW
VS. JEW, by Samuel Freedman. And the Jewish community is
interested in reading general cultural history; it’s interested in
– I just read this – here, in Jonathan Woocher, SACRED
SURVIVAL: The Civil Religion of American Jews. In 1986,
he defined the “American Jewish civil religion” as “an activist
religion emphasizing the prestige of Jewish survival and social
justice.” He finds its first ingredient in the story of the passage
from the Holocaust to the rebirth of Israel. These words said
something to me. There are many, many, people who identify themselves
as Jewish, belong to Jewish organizations, even may be affiliated with
synagogues: to them, being Jewish is not just an ethnic identity –
but it is not a spiritual identity, either: it’s a civil religion.
They believe in giving to charity. They believe in helping the
downtrodden. It’s that old liberal, activist ethic which a lot of
people now say represents their Jewish identity. Then, there’s the
McNAMARA: What, exactly, is the “ethnic thing?”
RALSTON: For example, a number of people who now
trying to figure out exactly what little village their ancestors came
from over there; and they’re reaching back beyond their
grandparents. The Jewish genealogy site went up.
In a year, it had more than two million hits.
most important project on our table now, which Arthur initiated, is
that twenty-two-author, three-volume cultural history of the Jewish
people that I told you about. This work is going to establish where
Jewish historical scholarship is at this time. I think that that’s a
very rich mine. People are truly interested in it.
also think that, perhaps ten years from now, there is going to be
another wave of writing. It’s not going to be the memoirs of the
Holocaust survivors. Rather, their children are going to age, and they
are going to start telling their story, or a story of some kind. That
is still ahead of us.
my “agenda” is to publish books that will be as interesting to
other Jewish people as they are to me. That’s it!
staying healthy and afloat
RALSTON: But my other goal is to do things that
keep the place healthy and afloat.
have a legacy from the great old days of publishing. The people who
run this company understand the value of the integrity of this
imprint, that it means something. We can be flexible about the
boundaries of what the imprint is going to publish. But I have to make
sure that we keep up to that standard. I don’t know if, ten years
from now, when I’m gone from this place and other people have come
in, and other people are running Bertelsmann, and maybe another
company owns Bertelsmann, whether that old standard is still going to
be kept up.
I came here, Donald Klopfer [co-founder,
with Bennett Cerf, of Random House] was here. He was right
next door to me. Bob Gottlieb [former
editor-in-chief of Knopf] was here. Jason Epstein [former
editor at Random House; founder of Anchor Books and “The Reader’s
Guide”] was here; André
[Schiffrin, former editor-in-chief of Pantheon, now director of The
New Press] was here. The people here now are trying to
maintain their level of commitment and integrity in an increasingly
what is the marketplace going to be like in the future? Three years
from now, somebody may say, “You know, there’s another whole realm
of publishing of Jewish interest that you could get into and publish
electronically.” It could come. I think it will.
McNAMARA: I think it will.
RALSTON: That’s the agenda: simply, not to
disgrace ourselves, not to let the side down, but, at the same time,
not to endanger our survival by sticking to a publishing program that
doesn’t answer our own, particular corporate needs. The tradition of
the imprint is not, really, a certain kind of book. It is simply the
tradition of quality.
of Part II
the next issue, Vol. 5,
Arthur Samuelson, former editorial director of Schocken Books will
talk with the Editor of Archipelago about
the history, the present, and future
series of conversations about Schocken Books is made possible by the
Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy.
In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a friend e-mailed Archipelago:
has been outstanding. Kept the 1540
Broadway building open all night on Tuesday for those who had no place
to get to, free food, and then instantly gave $2,000,000
to the Firemen and Policeman for victims, aid, etc. I doubt I will
ever say anything negative about them again. There seems to be genuine
concern for all the employees, constant e-mails and phone messages,
encouraging people to stay home if they are more comfortable
doing that, with of course no penalty. I am impressed.”
I, A Conversation with Altie Karper, Archipelago,
Vol. 5, No. 2
A Conversation with Marion
Vol. 1 No. 3
A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie, Vol. 1
No. 4 and Vol. 2, No. 1
A Conversation with William
Strachan, Vol. 2, No. 4
A Conversation with Samuel H.
Vaughan, Vol. 3, No. 2
Reminiscence: Lee Goerner
(1947-1995), Vol. 3, No. 3
A Conversation with Odile
Hellier, Vol. 4, No. 1
A Conversation with Calvin Reid about Electronic Publishing, Vol. 4,