Jerusalem is addictive. Reasonably small and obsessively intimate, it’s a place to encounter other lives and points of view. Trading intellectual property of all kinds, writers, publishers, literary editors, agents, and film scouts from more than 30 countries met earlier this month at the reworked Jerusalem International Book Forum, held in collaboration with the seventh International Writers Festival. Honestly, it’s the new Silk Road for stories.
When my company, BMM Worldwide, opened a small office in the city 12 years ago, Israel was already transitioning from the golden age of oranges and Amos Oz toward destinations unknown. The possibility that the same innovative drive that produced PillCam could also produce the world’s leading ideas was on exactly no one’s radar—save for a handful of dreamers, some of whom became our clients.
Cut to today. Yuval Harari’s Sapiens (Harper), Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic), Jonathan Neumann’s To Heal the World? (All Points), and Netflix’s Fauda and Shtisel are all certified, internationally celebrated expressions of this wildly diverse nation’s ability to break new ground. (Watch for the forthcoming Revolt: Inside the Trenches of the Uprising Against Globalization by Nadav Eyal, which has been sold by the Deborah Harris Agency in 12 countries and is being released by Ecco in the U.S.)
The JIBF kicked off with a walking tour and there were parties, lit by fairy lights overlooking the Valley of Hinnom; Jerusalem was awash with publishing greats. Proceedings began with Joyce Carol Oates accepting the Jerusalem Prize. Her account of the grandmother who kept her Jewish heritage a secret but introduced Joyce to the life of the mind broke our hearts.
Afterward, my partner Elliot and I retreated to a quiet spot at the King David with former HarperCollins czar Jane Friedman and Henry Holt chairman Stephen Rubin to toast this overflowing wadi of content. At his keynote, Rubin kept everyone rapt with Da Vinci Code and Jackie Kennedy Onassis anecdotes. He then revealed the $1 million bargain-basement price Holt paid for Fire and Fury, which prompted a question from the audience: could the superstar publisher please publish something that would prevent President Trump’s reelection? Sending murmurs of delight through the hall, Rubin teased an atom bomb of a new book that would do just that, and before we knew it, his tease was a story on the Drudge Report. On June 4, Holt will publish Siege by Fire author Michael Wolff.
“Talk this industry up!” said Markus Dohle, CEO of Penguin Random House, who was on a panel of industry leaders. “The revenue pool has grown for all of us,” he added, explaining that publishing professionals should realize that they work in “the Silicon Valley of media, doing seed funding for 15,000 [books] in a year.” The editors, agents, and publicists are “angel investors,” Dohle continued, noting that even though “this is a business of failure... [the returns] are part of this model” and “the industry is in good shape.” He also announced that PRH has upped its entry-level salary to $40,000 (“Still embarrassing,” he admitted) and has enrolled hundreds in a new student loan assistance program.
Stefan von Holtzbrinck, on the same panel, lamented that reading standards, especially for the German baccalaureate, were pitiful and argued that more rigor needs to be brought to early education.
Jane Friedman, prophet of the billion-dollar audiobook business, pronounced 2019 “a very interesting time in publishing, not least because of the availability of content that can be delivered so fast.”
Judith Curr, president and publisher of HarperOne, revealed her terrific forthcoming HarperVia list set for September, and super scout Maria Campbell, in the Netflix Effect panel, hinted that HBO will likely air a Hebrew and Arabic drama this summer.
Reflecting on the week, it’s safe to say that American publishing veteran Esther Margolis had achieved her lifelong goal. This force of nature was determined to see Israel emerge as a global cultural powerhouse, and her tireless efforts to put the JIBF and the Zev Birger Editorial Fellows Program on the map have succeeded.
We launched BMM to offer premier book publicity, author branding, and big books, internationally sourced, to U.S. publishers and authors. Bucking gobs of advice (including from Stephen King, who told me to stay at Scribner, where I was v-p, publicity director), we created a holistic literary development model that amplifies authors’ brands. The close of 2018 saw Steven J. Zipperstein’s Pogrom (Norton) selected as an Economist book of the year. It followed BMM’s work with Norton to make The Complete Works of Primo Levi “this season’s publishing blockbuster,” according to the Wall Street Journal, and breaking out the Daniel Kahneman–inspired Denying to the Grave by Sara and Jack Gorman (Oxford Univ.).
But it was via Israel that the opportunity emerged to partner with Times of London journalist Melanie Phillips and investor Peter Thiel on a global publishing startup, EmBooks, a publisher of short-length e-books, as well as the opportunity to work with Israeli philosopher Hazony and the storied circle of thinker-authors who flocked to his Jerusalem tent. Defying expectations, Israel’s cultural influence blossomed in inverse proportion to the fortunes of its political left. While everyone was looking in the rearview mirror for the next Oz, a new generation arose who make no bones about viewing Israel as a particularist enterprise, constitutionally tolerant and universally important. These Israeli intellectuals are at ease with their ancient language, religious practices, textual heritage, ethnic kaleidoscope (most Jewish Israelis are from Middle Eastern and North African countries), and respectful exchange of views that amplifies knowledge and fosters greatness.
As the world increasingly looks east for answers, Israel’s geopolitical picture matures and Jerusalem reemerges as a cultural beacon, BMM is delighted with the ROI it has accrued since establishing a presence there. Jerusalem’s splendid JIBF, the family of publishing industry giants that keeps returning, and the apparently limitless creativity of Israelis should ensure that the world’s content pipeline will be filled for years to come.
Suzanne Balaban is president of BMM Worldwide, a literary development house. Visit BMM online.