There is an old Jewish joke, but only the punch line applies to publishing books for Jewish children: ask two rabbis a question and you get three opinions. That is true of the five Jewish publishers who do trade books for children, who spoke with PW about the current state of the changing market.
The PJ Library Program, a nonprofit venture, distributes kids' Judaic books free to families in the U.S. and Canada—about 65,000 books each month. Then there are newer developments such as social networking and e-books. And like their general trade colleagues, these specialized publishers also have to deal with the liquidation of Borders, Amazon's more aggressive pricing policies, and returns.
One of the oldest Jewish publishers, Kar-Ben, a division of Lerner Publishing, is marking 36 years in the business. Kar-Ben releases 15–18 new books each year, and its goal, according to publisher Joni Sussman, "is to bring the joy of Judaism to families no matter what their level of Jewish practice."
Kar-Ben claims success in a variety of sales channels, including Jewish Community Centers and direct-to-the-public sales from its Web site. The Web site includes a blog, Facebook fan page, Twitter feed, and e-newsletter. Most of its titles are available in e-book format to the school and library market, and it plans to launch its own e-bookstore by early 2012. A big fall book is Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime, about the famous mime's surprising role in the French Resistance. Among Kar-Ben's bestselling backlist titles is the Sammy Spider Jewish holiday series by Sylvia A. Rouss, currently with 12 books in print, which has sold 413,000 copies.
Sussman notes that the PJ Library has "raised the profile of Jewish children's books and introduced Kar-Ben books to many households that may not have been familiar with our books." Marshall Cavendish credits PJ Library as the impetus for its new Jewish children's line, Shofar Books, launched this year. Publisher Margery Cuyler says, "Before, we could never make the numbers work for Judaic picture books." PJ Library will distribute Shofar's paperbacks to its participating families, and Shofar "will market a hardcover edition to synagogues, Jewish libraries, and through our normal trade channels," including Pottery Barn Kids and Target.
PJ requires its editions to have French flaps and have its logo on the cover. Some of these features add to the book's production costs and make economies of scale in printing not possible. Off the record, a few publishers remarked that they wondered how effective the program is in expanding sales of Jewish children's books. "If you are one of their recipients and you get 12 books a year, how many more do you need to buy?" asked one publisher. Nevertheless, every publisher of a Jewish book for kids will send a copy to PJ to be considered for its program.
Holiday House's distinguished tradition of publishing books about Judaism for a broad audience includes its biggest backlist bestseller, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins by Eric A. Kimmel, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, a Caldecott Honor winner, which has sold 325,000 copies since 1989. Terry Borzumato-Greenberg, v-p and director of marketing, is high on the benefits of social networking: "We post notices about our new books and award recognition that our titles receive, and we link to our author and illustrator Facebook pages." She agrees that the impact of the PJ Library program "has been meaningful."
Stuart Matlins, publisher of Jewish Lights, is feeling squeezed by all the shifts in the marketplace and remembers the good old days when its business with Borders was better than a quarter of a million dollars a year. Jewish Lights' mission is "to provide resources to help parents and children lead a Jewish life at every level of commitment." Two of its new books—Around the World in One Shabbat and The Mitzvah Project Book: Making Mitzvah Part of Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah... and Your Life—do just that.
Jewish Publication Society is in the process of restructuring, and the future of its children's list is uncertain, according to publishing director Carol Hupping. KTAV Publishing Company has been publishing Judaic titles for about 70 years, but, according to publisher Bernard Scharfstein, it has been doing fewer children's titles over the past few years because the return on investment is not there. Still, he is enthusiastic about an upcoming early fall title that he believes will do well: Morality for Muggles: Ethics in the Bible and the World of Harry Potter by Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg.
From Hanukkah to Harry and more—amen to all!