i n s t i t u t i o n a l  m e m o r y  



 Since 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.

I 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 worked.

These 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.




Schocken Books: A Brief History of a Publishing Company


See also Part I


Salman 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.

In 1934, 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, in 1940, 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 York.

Salman 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.

Conventional 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 Michael Bessie.[1]) 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.

At 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.[2]

Random 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.)

In 1989, S.I. 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.”[3]

During 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.

Thus is Random House, Inc., now organized.

Following 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.



In 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.



Salman Schocken’s intention; or, marketing Kafka


KATHERINE 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.


KATHERINE 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?

SUSAN RALSTON:  You’re referring to his flight from Germany.


SUSAN RALSTON:  That certainly was more dire. It was a matter of life and death.

KATHERINE 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.”[4]

 SUSAN 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.

KATHERINE 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?

SUSAN 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.

There 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.

In 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.

So, 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 company.

That 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.

So, 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?

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  What does that mean exactly, limited in its potential readership?

    SUSAN 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…

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  … is like saying they are limited to readers!

SUSAN 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Though there were the novels by [S.Y.] Agnon.

SUSAN 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  It has gotten beautiful reviews, and looks very interesting, I think. I began reading it on my way here.

SUSAN 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  It wasn’t a book I would have thought of as first fiction.

SUSAN RALSTON:  No, because she has been published before—but this was her debut in English, so it qualifies.

You 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.

To 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.

I 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.


The state of Jewish publishing: “Judaica” and “books of Jewish Interest”


KATHERINE 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?

SUSAN 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 respond to.

The 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 strengths.

Then 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 controversy.[5]The waters are going to close over that when the report [THE WILKOMIRSKI AFFAIR: A STUDY IN BIOGRAPHICAL TRUTH, by Stefan Maechler] is published.

I 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.

I’m very grateful for the World Jewish Congress program, which I’m sure you know about.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Will you describe it, please?

SUSAN 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.


SUSAN 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Yes, there is a responsibility to them.

SUSAN RALSTON: I sometimes wonder if I’m a becoming a kind of masochist; but, nonetheless, the manuscripts come, and I read.

So, 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Is that a fact?

SUSAN 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.

There 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?


The new Schocken Bible


KATHERINE McNAMARA:  One undertaking here at Schocken that has interested me is your commission of a new translation of the Old Testament.

SUSAN RALSTON:  The Everett Fox translation.

KATHERINE 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?

SUSAN 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.

KATHERINE 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.

SUSAN 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.

I’m 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, then.

It’s 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.


Schocken paperbacks


KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Do you “paperback” your own books?

SUSAN 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.

The 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 that.

For example, next summer, we’re bringing back a novel by Elie Wiesel called THE 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.

KATHERINE 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.”

SUSAN 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.


Schocken Books, social theory, and the college market


KATHERINE 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,” he admits.

He 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?

SUSAN 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.

When I came to Schocken, some friends of mine who had been in college in the ‘70s, 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.

KATHERINE 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.”

SUSAN RALSTON:  Force on him.

KATHERINE 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.”

I came of age among such books; and many other like me, as well.

SUSAN RALSTON:  The more things change, the more they remain the same.

KATHERINE 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, early ‘70s – is the left-leaning tenor of the list.

SUSAN RALSTON:  That is what I meant when I said political philosophy, labor studies, etc.

KATHERINE 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 remaining? 

SUSAN 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  You needn’t answer, of course, although I find it worth asking, given the context of this discussion.

SUSAN 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.

But 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.

It’s 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.

So 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.

KATHERINE 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?

SUSAN 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.

What 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.

We 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?


Return on investment and the economics of conglomerate  publishing


KATHERINE 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.

SUSAN RALSTON:  I would think so.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  What did they want, and what were they getting?

SUSAN RALSTON: The business was really not good in the late ‘80s. I’m 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.

KATHERINE 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.

SUSAN RALSTON:  Told by whom?

KATHERINE 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.

SUSAN 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 book publishing.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  On every book?


KATHERINE 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.

SUSAN RALSTON:  Exactly. The rate of returns – the books coming back – is high, but the rate of return is not.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Part of the reason the high rate of return is demanded, we are told, is because they have such a huge debt structure.

SUSAN RALSTON:  I’m not qualified to comment on that.

KATHERINE 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…

SUSAN 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…

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  …although they always expected to make money, of course, as it’s also always said.

SUSAN 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.


SUSAN RALSTON:  Well, three or four: hoping that they’ll break out. The break-out expectation is, I think, lower than it used to be.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  That means what: “break out”? That they’ll sell more copies?

SUSAN 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.

In 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 market.


The Jewish communities and the costs of publishing books


KATHERINE McNAMARA:  What is the nature of the market, or the readership, you depend on?

SUSAN 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.

And 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.

Then, 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.

The 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Is that possible?

SUSAN 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.”

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Branding hasn’t touched you yet. (laughter)

SUSAN 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.

No. 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?

So, 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.

But 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  It has to be on the book-buyers’ radar if people are going to see it.

SUSAN 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.

About 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 Barnes & 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.

KATHERINE 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.

SUSAN RALSTON:  And professors will adopt Martin Gilbert’s other books of history of the twentieth century.

We also have a number of books coming dealing with subjects such as the great Jewish comedians of the ‘50s and ‘60s. 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.

However, 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  And so, in effect, you’re not saying that you’re not going to be publishing books in social thought, for example.

SUSAN RALSTON:  To the contrary.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  But the definition of social thought has now become larger and more complex: that is what you seem to be saying.

SUSAN 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.

The 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 important publication.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Oh yes, that’s quite remarkable.

SUSAN 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  I have caught a sense of fizz and ferment in what you’ve just described.

SUSAN RALSTON:  In that world.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Yes, like a grounding.

SUSAN 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.


The editor’s agenda


KATHERINE 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?

SUSAN RALSTON:  Is your question, what’s my agenda?

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Perhaps it is. You and Altie now are Schocken Books.

SUSAN 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.

As 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Because you would be small and isolated?

SUSAN RALSTON:  Yes: and then who would do these functions for us? How would we get our books sold?

My 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  What do you mean by “marginalized”?

SUSAN 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 marketplace.

As 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 Barnes & 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.

The 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Well, there is this. Have you had not to take a book you wished to take because of that?

SUSAN 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.

But 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 reason enough.


What is of Jewish interest?


KATHERINE 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”?

SUSAN 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.

What 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.

KATHERINE 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?

SUSAN 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.

I 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 fiction.

And – 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 ethnic thing.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  What, exactly, is the “ethnic thing?”

SUSAN 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.[6] In a year, it had more than two million hits.

The 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.

I 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.

So, my “agenda” is to publish books that will be as interesting to other Jewish people as they are to me. That’s it!


Also: staying healthy and afloat


SUSAN RALSTON:  But my other goal is to do things that keep the place healthy and afloat.

We 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.

When 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 unhealthy marketplace.

And 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.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  I think it will.

SUSAN 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.





End of Part II



In the next issue, Vol. 5, No. 4, Arthur Samuelson, former editorial director of Schocken Books will talk with the Editor of Archipelago about the history, the present, and future

 of Schocken Books.


 The series of conversations about Schocken Books is made possible by the
  Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and Public Policy.




Note: In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a friend e-mailed Archipelago:

“Bertelsmann 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.”



See also:

Part I, A Conversation with Altie Karper, Archipelago, Vol. 5, No. 2


A Conversation with Marion Boyars, Archipelago, 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, No. 4


Authors and Books Mentioned (published by Schocken Books, unless otherwise noted):

S.Y. Agnon, DAYS OF AWE (ed.)



Aharon Appelfeld, THE CONVERSION




Bernard Baumberger, THE STORY OF JUDAISM






Samuel Freedman, JEW VS. JEW: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry (Simon & Schuster)


Carl Hiasson, STRIP TEASE (Knopf)

Kazuo Ishiguro, REMAINS OF THE DAY (Knopf)


Stefan Maeschler, THE WILKOMIRSKI AFFAIR: A Study in Biographical Truth

Benny Morris, RIGHTEOUS VICTIMS (Knopf)



Theodore Schocken, “Schocken Books: Twenty-five Years of Judaica Publishing in America,”

Judaica Book News, Fall/Winter 1971.


André Schiffrin, THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS (Verso)

Melfred E. Spiro, KIBBUTZ

Graham Swift, WATERLAND (Picador; Poseidon Press)

LAST ORDERS (Picador; Knopf)

THE SWEET-SHOP OWNER  (Picador; Knopf)

Ludmila Ulitskaya, THE FUNERAL PARTY


















Jonathan Woocher, SACRED SURVIVAL: The Civil Religion of American Jews (Indiana University Press)

Various authors, CULTURES OF THE JEWS: From the Bible to Contemporary Israel and America (forthcoming)

Leon Wieseltier, KADDISH (Knopf)

Benjamin Wilkomirski, FRAGMENTS

Mark Zborowsky & Elizabeth Hertzog, LIFE IS WITH PEOPLE: The Culture of the Shtetl


Related links:

Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc.

Schocken Books

List of Books Published by Schocken Verlag, Berlin1933-38

The Schocken Institute for Jewish Research of The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, housed in the Schocken Library building in Jerusalem, is a research institute dedicated to the exploration of Hebrew liturgical poetry. The Schocken Library Building is an architectural masterpiece. Upon his arrival in Israel in 1934, Salman Schocken, the publishing magnate, commissioned the German-Jewish expressionist architect, Erich Mendelssohn, to design a building for the purpose of housing the collection of books, manuscripts and incunabula that Schocken had brought with him from Berlin.”

Schocken Books Teachers Guide to THE FIVE BOOKS OF MOSES, tr. Edward Fox

Anthony David Skinner, “Collecting Memory: Salman Schocken and the Jewish Renaissance,” National Foundation for Jewish Culture: Jewish Scholarship

A Kafka For The 21st Century by Arthur Samuelson, publisher, Schocken Books

“On the occasion of the publication by Schocken Books of a new translation based on the restored text of The Castle, PEN … sponsored an evening of tribute, reflection, and re-examination of the work of Franz Kafka. The evening, directed by Tom Palumbo, took place on Thursday, took place on Thursday, March 26, 1998, 8:00 p.m. in The Town Hall, New York City.” Jewish Heritage Online Magazine broadcasts recordings of that evening.




[1] See “A Conversation with Cornelia and Michael Bessie,” Archipelago, Vol. 1, No. 4:


KATHERINE McNAMARA:  Atheneum had what you called “luck.”

MICHAEL BESSIE:  Sure did. How many publishing houses that pretend to be literary have a number-one best-seller on each of their first three lists?

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  And those were?

MICHAEL BESSIE:  The first was the Schwartz-Bart. Second, the first THE MAKING OF THE PRESIDENT 1960, by Theodore White. And the third was THE ROTHSCHILDS, by Frederick Morton, which sold very well. The timing was right, as we said before, and, to a certain extent, as Mr. Dooley said, “The victor belongs to the spoils.” Cornelia will tell you about what young Roger Straus told us when he went back [to Farrar, Straus & Giroux] — for the second time, I guess — after they’d had that terrific success with that novel by the lawyer, what was his name, Scott Turow. Roger said, “You know, everybody’s now got to have an assistant.”

 CORNELIA BESSIE:  Young Roger, whom I’m very fond of, has a marvelously clear and keen view of publishing. He once said to me, “The most dangerous moment in a publisher’s life is after the first big success.” It’s a very smart observation.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  But you didn’t bobble it.

MICHAEL BESSIE:  In a sense, we did.

CORNELIA BESSIE: All of a sudden, there were 60 people on the payroll.

KATHERINE McNAMARA:  When was this?

MICHAEL BESSIE:  In the course of two or three years after our start. We had to make a second call on our investors; we collected another almost a million, because we needed it.


[2] André Schiffrin, who moved to acquire Schocken Books, has written a widely-remarked-upon polemic on the enormous changes in the book business. In the following passage he describes his acquisition of Schocken Books as a hoped-for outlet for pressure from the Newhouse family to increase return on investment:


For a while, I thought we might be able to break out of the trap of Newhouse’s profit expectations by expanding Pantheon through acquisitions…. If we could find the right firm, however, and could integrate it successfully, Pantheon might make more money. I was therefore very interested when, in 1987, I was approached by lawyers asking if we would take on Schocken Books….

Schocken had never been very profitable and had been maintained by the family’s holdings in real estate, just as the original Schocken had been subsidized by a department store in Berlin. The purchase price, by Newhouse standards, was small, and I felt it was important to provide a safe haven for the company. I insisted to Newhouse’s people that such a deal would make sense and, after months of detailed investigation, an agreement was made. It later struck me as ironic that a purchase that entailed so little risk should have been made with such care, while the far more dubious purchase of Crown was made so peremptorily.

With the financial pressures from Newhouse intensifying, the thought of relaunching Schocken gave me a new lease on life. We decided not merely to reissue the old books, but to deal with them in a manner worthy of their importance. New translations of Kafka’s work were commissioned, under the editorship of Mark Anderson of Columbia University’s German department. Previously untranslated material from Kafka’s oeuvre was included. We took on a series of books, some dealing with Israel and Eastern Europe, and others on the history of World War II. Schocken’s excellent list on the Holocaust was brought back into print, though I was shocked to hear from one of Random House’s (Jewish) vice-presidents, Bruce Harris, that he wished “we would stop hitting him over the head with all these Holocaust titles” because they were not going to make enough money.

By the fall of 1989, our joint list [Pantheon/Schocken] had grown substantially, and I was proud of the books we had added to the imprint. But because we wanted to remain faithful to the company’s history and its authors, the possibility of quick profits was ruled out. In the first years our investment lost money, since the repackaging of the list and the retranslation of Kafka were expensive undertakings.

In the end what appeared at first to be a temporary solution to Pantheon’s problems with Random House became, in fact, the source of additional pressure on an already strained relationship.

-André Schiffrin, THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS: How International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (London and New York: Verso, 2000, pp. 85-87)


[3] I quote Susan Ralston but have drawn on information given me by Altie Karper and other sources.

I might add that I remember the firing of André Schiffrin. It was a cause-célèbre in publishing and among a number of outspoken writers, because of his distinguished history (he had been the protégé of Kurt and Helen Wolff, the German Jewish publishers and founders of Pantheon and contemporaries of Salman Schocken) and because of Pantheon’s reputation for publishing books of high literary quality and of social and political thought. A strong but finally useless protest was made by some editors and writers, among them Studs Terkel, who picketed Random House. They charged that the owners’ untraditional demand for a high profit from a serious publishing house caused de facto market censorship. André Schiffrin, op.cit., discusses this matter at some length. A critical history of the “wave of change” at Random House is beyond the scope of this discussion, but such a history is needed and should be written.


[4] Used when speaking of Kafka’s work being represented by his friend Max Brod, the word “marketability” is nuanced with historical irony. In Part I, Altie Karper said: “Interestingly enough, after ‘33 was when Schocken began publishing Kafka. Kafka had been published by a  number of secular German publishers. Then along came the rule that Jews could be published only by Jews, and Christians only by Christians; and that’s how Schocken acquired Kafka. What’s even more interesting is that one of Kafka’s publishers was Verlag Kurt Wolff, which was the predecessor of Pantheon. It is kind of nice that we’re all back together again, here.”

More to the point, Arthur Samuelson wrote:

“When the Nazis introduced their racial laws they exempted Schocken Verlag, a Jewish publisher, from the ban against publishing Jewish authors on condition that its books would be sold only to Jews.…

Max Brod offered Schocken the world publishing rights to all of Kafka’s works. This offer was initially rejected by Lambert Schneider, Schocken Verlag’s editor in chief, who regarded Kafka’s work as outside his mandate to publish books that could reacquaint German Jewry with its distinguished heritage. He also doubted its public appeal. His employer also had his doubts about the marketability of six volumes of Kafka’s novels, stories, diaries, and letters, although he recognized their universal literary quality as well as their potential to undermine the official campaign to denigrate German Jewish culture. But he was urged by one of his editors, Moritz Spitzer, to see in Kafka a quintessentially ‘Jewish’ voice that could give meaning to the new reality that had befallen German Jewry and would demonstrate the central role of Jews in German culture. Accordingly, BEFORE THE LAW, an anthology drawn from Kafka’s diaries and short stories, appeared in 1934 in Schocken Verlag’s Bücherei series, a collection of books aimed to appeal to a popular audience, and was followed a year later – the year of the infamous Nuremburg Laws – by Kafka’s three novels. The Schocken editions were the first to give Kafka widespread distribution in Germany. Martin Buber, in a letter to Brod, praised these volumes as ‘a great possession’ that could ‘show how one can live marginally with complete integrity and without loss of background.’ (From THE LETTERS OF MARTIN BUBER [New York: Schocken Books, 1991], p. 431)

Inevitably, many of the books Schocken sold ended up in non-Jewish hands, giving German readers – at home and in exile – their only access to one of the century’s greatest writers. Klaus Mann wrote in the exile journal Sammlung that ‘the collected works of Kafka, offered by the Schocken Verlag in Berlin, are the most noble and most significant publications that have come out of Germany.’ Praising Kafka’s books as ‘the epoch’s purest and most singular works of literature,’ he noted with astonishment that ‘this spiritual event has occurred within a splendid isolation, in a ghetto far from the German cultural ministry.’ Soon after this article appeared, the Nazi government put Kafka’s novels on its blacklist of ‘harmful and undesirable writings.’ Schocken moved his production to Prague, where he published Kafka’s diaries and letters. Interestingly, despite the ban on the novels, he was able to continue printing and distributing his earlier volume of Kafka’s short stories in Germany itself until the government closed down Schocken Verlag in 1939. The German occupation of Prague that same year put an end to Schocken’s operations in Europe.”

-Arthur Samuelson, “A Kafka for the 21st Century,” 
Jewish Heritage Online Magazine


[5]FRAGMENTS, by Benjamin Wilkomirski, tr. Carol Brown Janeway, purported to be a Holocaust memoir by a survivor who recounted the terrible experience of his childhood. However, sometime after publication, the author was proved to have used a false identity and to have constructed a fiction. He is said to be a somewhat disturbed person.



next page


contents download subscribe archive