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A New Chapter for JPS

September 12, 2011 By:
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The cover illustration from the Jewish Publication Society title "The Song of Songs: The Honeybee in the Garden," by Debra Band

The Jewish Publication Society has distributed thousands of volumes since its 19th century beginnings, but these days it's writing a new chapter of its own history -- hoping that it's not the final one.

JPS is about to turn over a major aspect of its publishing process to the University of Nebraska Press, which as of Jan. 1 will assume all production, distribution and marketing of all manuscripts, according to Rabbi Barry Schwartz, CEO of JPS. He said that economics had been the motivating factor, especially in the face of radical changes now rocking the publishing world.

As part of the arrangement, Nebraska has purchased JPS' book inventory, some 250 titles, including the publisher's world-renowned Torah translation.

With these developments, the venerable institution is set to embark on the newest -- and in some sense most radical -- phase in its long history of issuing high-end scholarship, renowned biblical commentaries, and even contemporary novels and poetry.

The cost to Nebraska will be $610,000, said Donna Shear, the director of N.U. Press who was actually head of production and marketing at JPS in the mid-'90s.

"Because we'll be selling all their books," said Shear, "including the new ones they'll develop, we had to own the list in its entirety. 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," continued Shear. "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 these two well-established publishing units, said JPS CEO Schwartz, marks the end of a long search for an academic partner that will allow the Philadelphia institution to concentrate on finding and shepherding good books into print. With Nebraska by its side, the CEO said, JPS can ensure these works a wider audience.

The JPS board voted Sept. 13 to approve the sale and partnership.

When the society was founded in 1888, Jewish books weren't published in America, so JPS filled a considerable void.

The company created a highly respected literary and scholarly legacy. Their writers included some of the finest in the world: Nachum Sarna, Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Henry Roth and Mordecai Kaplan.

Behind the scenes, doing the choosing and editing, were giants like Henrietta Szold, who went on to found Hadassah, and Chaim Potok, who oversaw the Torah translation even as he managed to write a few best-selling novels, published by a New York house.

And for the bulk 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 was eventually discontinued, seen as too expensive and not in line with the reading habits of the young.

Yet, according to one brief history of JPS, the organization had distributed close to 9 million books to Jews all over the world by the time it reached the last decade of the 20th century. Book club members included such illustrious types as Leo Rosten and Theodore Bikel.

But 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 a dinosaur, obsolete and teetering on economic ruin.

CEO Schwartz dismissed such criticism outright. "This arrangement will give us an expanded reach," he 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.

"With all the competition in Bible scholarship today, I can say without hesitation that nobody comes close to what JPS has done and will continue to do with its landmark biblical commentaries. Nobody else would attempt the multiyear, comprehensive Bible-related projects we've been doing. The uniqueness of JPS is that it takes the long view in such projects, and continues to produce them year after year."

Far from being a dinosaur, he asserted, "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 N.U. director 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." This is a real "ace in the hole" for us, added Frankel.

She 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," which the public knew little about.

"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 development had nothing to do with the partnership and all to do with the current economics of the book industry and the intense competition from the Internet.

"JPS has already started an ebooks 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 here, at the Jewish Community Services Building where it is now housed.

Asked if there were any discussion about expanding the JPS list and returning to publishing novels or poetry, which it ceased to do in the 1990s, Schwartz said that there were other things in the works.

"Our greatest strength is our biblical scholarship, but it is not our only strength," said the CEO. "We plan to expand in the area of Jewish history and Jewish thought, though we have no plans to move into fiction or to return to children's literature. But in the realms of history and thought, we'll be publishing some remarkable things from Israel, translated from the Hebrew, and from France."

To continue JPS' mission well into the future, said Schwartz, "we have to think of ourself -- in the words of our board president, David Lerman -- as a 120-year-old start-up. And I couldn't agree more."

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