Author Sharon Hart-Green spent nearly a decade writing her debut novel, “Come Back For Me,” about the the lives of first and second generation WWII refugees and Holocaust survivors in Canada and Israel. It was a well wrought work of fiction — a real page-turner — filled with the struggles and secrets of characters dealing with the pain of memory and loss. But it looked like no one would ever get to read it.
As the former University of Toronto professor of Hebrew and Yiddish literature worked on her book, she discovered the frustrating reality for writers of new Jewish fiction today: It is extremely hard to get published. It is thanks only to the timely appearance of a new Canadian niche publisher, New Jewish Press, that “Come Back For Me” has seen the light of day. The new outfit chose the novel as its first fiction publication.
Gone are the days when Jewish novelists could think of submitting manuscripts to the Jewish Publication Society or Schocken Books, once the largest and best-known Jewish publishers in America. Neither JPS nor Schocken, bought by Random House in 1987 and an imprint of Knopf Doubleday, acquires works by new novelists anymore.
In the US, there is only one publisher focusing exclusively on Jewish literary works: Fig Tree Books, based in Bedford, New York. Another, Mandel Vilar Press, whose mission is to unite the works of the best writers of Central and South America with the leading ethnic and minority writers of North America, has a modern Jewish literature collection, which includes works by authors including Thane Rosenbaum, Nava Semel, and Andrew Potok.
Established writers like Dara Horn, Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander and David Bezmozgis may have an easier chance of having their next novel accepted by a large, mainstream publishing house. But for first-time novelists like Hart-Green, it is nearly impossible to break in.
Hart-Green was realistic about what she was up against. “There are very few opportunities for Jewish fiction writers to get published these days,” she told The Times of Israel.
The first-time fiction writer was fortunate that New Jewish Press came on the scene just as she shopped around her manuscript.
New Jewish Press is the inaugural publishing program of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Toronto. Launched in late 2015, it has five titles in its catalogue to date, including “Come Back For Me.” The press seeks to produce books on Jewish themes for a general reading audience, while complementing existing scholarly and trade publishing.
“Our goal is to make outstanding books on Jewish culture, history, philosophy, and religion available to the broader Canadian and international community,” said co-publisher Malcolm Lester, a veteran of the trade publishing business in Canada.
Edward Trapunski, co-chair of the Canadian Jewish Literary Awards, agreed about the important role played by New Jewish Press, and praised Lester’s eye for Jewish works with the potential to appeal to a broad audience.
“This is a good time to launch New Jewish Press, because Canadian readers are more appreciative now of works from different cultures, both from around the world and within Canada,” Trapunski said.
“New Jewish Press can publish titles that may not have made it without this specialized press. It can take the risk because it is not a totally commercial enterprise,” he added, referring to the fact that it is supported in part by charitable donations.
Prof. Anna Shternshis, director of the Anne Tanenbaum Centre, praised “Come Back For Me,” reporting that it was positively reviewed by all members of New Jewish Press’ vetting committee. However, she said, she doubted the press would continue to accept fiction and poetry submissions going forward.
According to Shternshis, an expert in Yiddish studies and Soviet Jewish culture, the main idea behind New Jewish Press is to encourage university scholars to break out of the academic publishing mold and write in a more popular style about their research.
Shternshis cited historians Irving Abella and Harold Tropper’s widely read 1982 book, “None is Too Many,” about Canada’s restrictive immigration policy toward Jewish refugees during the Holocaust years as an example of the kind of works the press is looking to publish.
“It was read by hundreds of thousands of people and changed the public discourse on the Holocaust,” she said.
It appears that Hart-Green’s novel may be a one-off at New Jewish Press. “We don’t have the knowledge among the group to evaluate fiction. We are a university and we are in the business of non-fiction,” Shternshis said.
Got literature ‘reflecting the Jewish-American experience’?
That leaves Fig Tree Books as the sole publishing company in North America devoted exclusively to literature reflecting the Jewish-American experience. Hart-Green’s Canada- and Israel-focused novel, however, would presumably have not fit Fig Tree Book’s mission.
Fig Tree Book’s publisher Fredric Price told The Times of Israel he has received over 1,000 manuscripts since he began in 2014. Initially, more than 95 percent of them were fiction.
“That changed after we published Abigail Pogrebin’s memoir ‘My Jewish Year’ earlier this year, which has done very well. Now we are getting about 60-70% fiction and rest non-fiction, which is a good balance,” Price said.
Since establishing Fig Tree Books a few years ago, Price has published seven books, two of which are reprints of classic novels.
“If I can’t find a book of the quality I’m looking for and that really says something, I won’t publish it,” he said.
Price said he welcomed all submissions meeting his company’s guidelines, including those from from first-time writers of Jewish literature — but only through an agent. It is not his express mission to publish debut authors, but he acknowledged that Fig Tree Books would be a more likely address for a newbie’s manuscript than for the latest book by an established writer, who may be able to get a good offer from a large publisher.
“I will always be topped financially by the Random Houses of the world. Whatever I bid, they’ll bid higher,” Price said.
Niche publishing embraces the ‘digital revolution’
“New writers of Jewish fictions face huge challenges. The digital revolution affected all publishing, but it’s been especially hard for niche fiction writers and publishers, such as those focusing on Jewish concerns,” Gold said.
“Publishers are not willing to take a chance, leaving writers with almost nowhere to publish their work,” she said.
Gold, who divides her time between Toronto and Jerusalem, provided a response to the problem by starting JewishFiction.net, the only journal in English (online or in print) devoted solely to Jewish fiction, in 2010. To date, she has published over 300 works in 18 issues from writers living all over the world (some of the work is translated from Hebrew and other languages). According to Gold, the freely accessible site has 70,000 individual readers in over 140 countries.
About a quarter of the authors Gold publishes are famous, like Aharon Appelfeld or A.B. Yehoshua. She devotes the rest of the journal to new writers. However, she only publishes approximately one in 20 submissions, “first-rate fiction” chosen through a process of blind peer review.
A published author herself, Gold feels the new writers’ pain. “I never fail to be touched and impressed by the great work out there, and I know how hard it is to find a publisher.”
Recognizing the quality of Hart-Green’s writing, Gold published an excerpt from “Come Back For Me” on JewishFiction.net and was pleased that New Jewish Press ultimately picked up the novel.
Her advice to new novelists is to shop their manuscripts around to a variety of high quality small presses. There are so few niche Jewish publishers that writers need to think about other niches their novels fit into.
“For instance, if your novel has a feminist theme, then look for feminist presses,” Gold suggested.
‘If your novel has a feminist theme, then look for feminist presses’
Publishing stories and excerpts from novels in journals like JewishFiction.net is also important as a way of getting exposure and a foot in the door of the publishing world.
“A lot of publishers are on my journal’s mailing list. They’re always looking for the next hot thing,” Gold said.
Recognizing that most Jewish writers fear being “ghettoized” and prefer being published by a mainstream publisher, Gold encourages them to try to get published wherever they can.
But some new novels may be the right fit for a niche Jewish publisher, and as of now there are still a couple of those left.
“Many people don’t want to be pigeonholed as a Jewish writer or a Jewish book, but if you don’t have that hangup, I may be the only place to go,” said Price.
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