PHILADELPHIA – The Jewish Publication Society has distributed thousands of volumes since its 19th century beginnings, but now JPS is writing a new chapter in its history – and hoping it is not the final one.
JPS prides itself on being the oldest publisher of Jewish books in English. On Jan. 1, it will turn over a major aspect of its publishing process to the University of Nebraska Press, which will assume the production, distribution and marketing of manuscripts, according to Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz, the CEO of JPS. In addition to his JPS responsibilities, Schwartz was recently hired as the new rabbi of Cong. Adas Emuno, in Leonia.
Economics was the motivating factor, Schwartz said.
As part of the arrangement, Nebraska has purchased the JPS book inventory – some 250 titles, including “Tanakh,” the publisher’s renowned Torah translation.
The venerable 120-year-old institution is thus set to embark on the newest phase – and perhaps the most radical – in its long history of issuing high-end scholarship and esteemed biblical commentaries, as well as contemporary novels and poetry.
The cost to Nebraska will be $610,000, said Donna Shear, the director of NU Press who was the head of production and marketing at JPS in the mid-1990s.
“Because we’ll be selling all their books, including the new ones they’ll develop, we had to own the list in its entirety,” ” said Shear. “We’ll own the inventory and sell it, and have a profit-sharing arrangement with JPS.
“We felt this was a good fit for us. We do many Judaica titles, and the history of the Holocaust is big for us. We respect their level of excellence and want to protect their brand integrity.”
The agreement between the two well-established publishing units was approved by the JPS board on Sept. 13, and marks the end of a long search for an academic partner that will allow the publisher to concentrate on finding and shepherding good books into print. With Nebraska by its side, Schwartz said, JPS can ensure these works a wider audience.
When JPS was founded in 1888, no Jewish books were published in America in any language, so JPS filled a considerable void.
It created a highly respected literary and scholarly legacy. Its authors included some of the greatest minds in the world: Nachum Sarna, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Henry Roth and Mordecai Kaplan, to name a few.
Behind the scenes, doing the choosing and editing, were other giants, such as Henrietta Szold, who went on to found Hadassah, and Chaim Potok, who oversaw the Torah translation.
For much of its history, until the mid-1990s, JPS was as much a book club as a publisher. Thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of bar and bat mitzvah children and confirmands received gift certificates to redeem for titles. The book club eventually was discontinued; it was too expensive and not in line with the reading habits of the young.
Book club members included such illustrious types as Leo Rosten and Theodore Bikel.
Over the course of the 20th century, Jewish books began to appear from commercial houses and university presses, flooding the market with titles, leading to criticism – especially as the 21st century dawned – that JPS had become obsolete.
“This arrangement will give us an expanded reach,” Schwartz said, “especially in academia, but also in the Jewish and general arenas, as well.”
He said that JPS chose an academic publisher because of its own emphasis on scholarship. “But the books of JPS will bear the JPS imprint solely,” Schwartz said, “and our core mission will continue uninterrupted.”
Schwartz said he understood why some might say JPS is obsolete, but he begged to differ.
“I can say without hesitation that nobody comes close to what JPS has done and will continue to do with its landmark biblical commentaries,” he said. “Nobody else would attempt the multiyear, comprehensive Bible-related projects we’ve been doing.”
For example, there is the massive “The JPS Torah Commentary,” which began emerging volume by volume in 1989. This was followed by “The JPS Bible Commentary,” which continues to release individual volumes of the rest of the Bible. The latest serial publication is Michael Carasick’s “The Commentator’s Bible,” three volumes of which (Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers) have already been published.
“The uniqueness of JPS is that it takes the long view in such projects, and continues to produce them year after year,” Schwartz said.
Far from being a dinosaur, he said, “we are on track to create the next great Bible for the 21st century – an electronic Bible – and with it we will once again take the lead with a groundbreaking presentation.”
Ellen Frankel, who became editor in chief in 1991, CEO in 1998 and is now editor emerita, also characterized the new arrangement as a “natural fit” because of Shear’s intimate knowledge of JPS.
“She’s been a champion of the press ever since she was marketing and sales director in the ’90s,” said Frankel, adding that this is a real “ace in the hole” for JPS.
Frankel acknowledged that the change means a decline of sorts for JPS but only, she said, in the sense of what went on “behind the scenes,” about which the public knew little.
“This will not be a diminishment of JPS as a publisher of quality Judaica,” she said. “Its business footprint is the only thing that will be diminished, not its mission and content.”
Frankel said that fewer JPS books would appear in the future, but that this was due to the current economics of the book industry and the intense competition from the Internet.
“JPS has already started an e-books program in response,” she added, “and will be accelerating it in the future.”
Schwartz said that because of the Nebraska deal, the JPS staff would be reduced, but the institution would remain in Philadelphia at the Jewish Community Services Building where it is now housed.
“Our greatest strength is our biblical scholarship, but it is not our only strength,” Schwartz said. “We plan to expand in the area of Jewish history and Jewish thought…[and] we’ll be publishing some remarkable things from Israel, translated from the Hebrew, and from France.”
To continue the JPS mission well into the future, said Schwartz, “we have to think of ourself…as a 120-year-old start-up.”
JTA / The Philadelphia Jewish Exponent