The Jewish people consider themselves "people of the book." And in recent years, publishers have come to consider them the people of the book fair. By some estimates, Jewish fairs have developed into a $3-million industry, with top fairs around the country drawing crowds of 10,000 or more in cities such as Detroit, Houston, St. Louis, Atlanta, Miami and Washington, D.C., as well as in suburban communities like Cherry Hill, N.J., West Hartford, Conn., and Rochester, N.Y., among others.
Scheduled over the 30 days before Hanukkah (which begins on November 30 this year), and sponsored by Jewish Community Centers, synagogues and other religious and cultural organizations, the fairs offer attendees a crucial link to their heritage. "West of the Hudson River, people don't find a plethora of Jewish books all in one place except at their local book fair," explained Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council, which coordinates a network of 70 fairs. "So people tend to buy their Jewish books for the year all at once at the fairs."
"We're a little more than 2% of the population, but more than that as a proportion of readers," added Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who will appear at 13 fairs this fall to promote his new book, The Golden Land: The Story of Jewish Immigration to Ameria (Crown, Aug.). "It's exciting to see people excited—not just about books, but about Jewish books."
A Family of Authors
Telushkin is one of a handful of well-known authors who make the rounds each year, whether they have a new book or not. Others include Ari Goldman (Being Jewish, S&S, 2000), Yitta Halberstam (Small Miracles for the Jewish Heart, Adams Media, Aug.), Joseph Berger (Displaced Persons: Growing Up After the Holocaust, Washington Square Press, Sept.), novelist Melvin Jules Bukiet (Strange Fire, Norton, Nov.), and Samuel G. Freedman, who credits the book fairs with sending his last book, Jew vs. Jew (Touchstone, 2001) back to press for a fourth printing.
Fair organizers have made it part of their mission to nurture up-and-coming voices as well. "It seems to me that there are very few Jewish authors in the 35—45-year—old range. I figure that if we help the younger ones along, there won't be another gap," Hessel said. "If there's a feeling an author will go places, we book them," she explained, citing Myla Goldberg (Bee Season, Anchor, 2001) and Nathan Englander (For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Vintage, 2000) as authors whose breakout debuts were partly fueled by fair appearances.
This year's hottest young author, Jonathan Safran Foer, is touring 25 fairs. Though his bestselling debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, was published last spring, Houghton Mifflin has coordinated another round of major print features on him in the cities he's visiting, such as Miami and Portland. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Dara Horn will visit 11 fairs to talk about her critically acclaimed first novel, In the Image (Norton, Sept.), which recounts a young New Jersey woman's spiritual journey, catalyzed by an elderly Jewish immigrant who befriends her. And Nicole Krauss (who is reported to be romantically linked to Foer) will visit 13 fairs to promote Man Walks into a Room (Doubleday, May), her first novel about a man who loses his memory.
In nonfiction, hot-button topics this year are Israel and spirituality. Historian Michael Oren, author of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (Oxford, June), has been drawing big crowds on his tour of 26 fairs. Yitta Halberstam and Rabbi Stephen Fried, author of The New Rabbi: A Congregation Searches for Its Leader (Bantam, Aug.), are also expected to draw considerable crowds.
"The book festivals really reinforce the reviews that these authors have already gotten," explained Walnut Creek, Calif., fair organizer Riva Gambert. "We are a community voice. And a lot of times people look to voices like ours to confirm that they should plop down the money [for a hardcover], which is not inconsequential these days."
It's also the fair organizers' mission to continue to support authors throughout their careers. Several of this year's nonfiction authors will be familiar to fairgoers, including Francine Klagsbrun, who will tour 20 fairs to promote The Fourth Commandment (Harmony, Sept.), the first book about Shabbat written by a woman; Howard Blum (The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation, and WWII, HarperPerennial, Oct.); and Bruce Feiler (Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths, Morrow, Sept.). "They have all become part of our family of authors," said Hessel, noting that Rabbi Telushkin has become an advisor to the network of fair organizers, while Samuel Freedman has joined the Jewish Book Council board.
A Network Emerges
The nation's oldest and largest fair, in Detroit, began as a two-day event in 1952 and now lasts 10 days and features 60 authors, including 20 local writers who appear in a showcase that kicks off the fair. "We sell about 4,000 titles and we have about 10,000 volumes on our shelves," said coordinator Elaine Schoenberger. Revenues from book sales add up to about $110,000, she said, while entrance fees and donations from local sponsors make up the rest of the $100,000 required to cover costs.
Around the country, other Jewish book fairs are expanding rapidly. In San Diego, a once-fledgling venue has become one of the top 10 fairs in just eight years, with 28 author events and $100,000 in book sales over six days.
In Austin, Tex., where the Jewish population has blossomed as high-tech companies have moved into the area, the 19-year-old book fair has expanded to include 15 visiting authors, up from six authors last year. In early November, Elie Wiesel is expected to draw 800 people to the fair's opening night, according to new fair coordinator Joyce Lit. She's also banking on $50,000 in book sales, while underwriters such as American Airlines and the Renaissance Hotel help offset the cost of author travel. To draw speakers to the region, Lit synchronized her invitations with those of book-fair organizers in Houston and San Antonio. "We call it the Texas Swing," she said. This year's "swingers" include Foer, Horn and Krauss.
The need to coordinate appearances for the most sought-after authors is just one of the issues that has emerged as the fairs have grown. To help resolve it, the New York City—based Jewish Book Council has developed a national network that allows fair organizers to exchange ideas about scheduling events as well as meeting the needs of their communities. It was a natural role for the JBC, which was founded in 1925 to promote Jewish books and established Jewish Book Month in the United States in 1943.
Council director Hessel first hit on the idea of creating a national book fair network in 1999, when Sophie Cottrell, then publicity director at Pantheon, asked for her help in booking appearances for first-time author Nathan Englander. Over the past four years, as the network has expanded to include dozens of fairs, many in the book industry have recognized Hessel's role in increasing the number of authors who attend the fairs (and thus book sales), as well as raising the profile of the fairs among publishers.
For the past four years, the JBC has held its annual conference of Jewish book fair organizers in the same city as the BEA, allowing conference attendees to comb the trade show floor for appealing authors and titles. Last May, 140 community representatives from 70 fairs attended the JBC's two-day conference in New York, which included a luncheon with 37 authors who had toured the fairs in previous years.
A recommendation from Hessel can easily put an author on the book fair circuit, but that's not the only way for an author to get on board. "While Carolyn is a brilliant organizer, it is also a very democratic process," said Louise Brockett, v-p for publicity at Norton, who has worked with Hessel for six years. "She's a strong anchor in New York, but the fairs are very much a network in the best sense of the word."
Similarly, Hessel and individual fair organizers don't just rely on book publicists for author recommendations. They also seek input from members of their communities, Jewish cultural publications, trade magazines, author networks and local booksellers.
For example, Harry W. Schwartz Booksellers worked with fair organizer Dorene Paley to come up with a list of titles for the two-year-old fair in Milwaukee. With the help of Ingram's database of active titles, book buyers Daniel Goldin and Ellie Gore spent 15 hours coming up with a final selection. The store then ordered and organized the books by topic, before handing them off to Paley and her crew. The roughly $15,000 in sales that comes through the fair make it the store's biggest off-site selling opportunity, according to store manager Mary McCarthy.
Other fairs take a variety of approaches to stocking books. In Austin, Joyce Lit works with Barnes & Noble, although her local store will be pulling out of the Jewish book fair business after this year. "They do all the ordering and bring in their cashiers and cash registers and give us a percentage of book sales," she said. The Detroit, fair, meanwhile, has existed for so long that it orders all its books directly from the publishers. And, increasingly, publishers are realizing that cooperation with the organizers of the annual Jewish book fairs is a good deal all around.