Sunday, July 13, 2008

“publishing is half industry and half art”

After weaving through midtown’s Garment District, I find myself in the strongly air-conditioned vestibule of 520 8th Ave., the home of Jewish Book World. I have traversed fabric stores and sewing shops to meet Carol Kaufman, the editor of the aforementioned publication.

Jewish Book World began as a twelve-page pamphlet dedicated to reviewing Jewish works: Israeli authors, Holocaust memoirs, and other relevant texts. Starting as more recommended-summer-reading than thick-as-a-phonebook-magazine, the non-profit publication has since grown to now cover about 100 books an issue.

“We are always looking to find books of note to review,” says Kaufman. “We have the space and the mission to cover books that deserve to be reviewed but that no other magazines publish.” That’s the beauty of having such a niche-driven magazine: the more specialized it is, the more room there is to scour the back bookshelves of Barnes and Noble (typically used as mere wallpaper) to find those fleeting gems of contemporary literature.

Peggy Fox of New Directions Publishing once told me that the most important thing about publishing is lunch; Marci Alboher, similarly, alluded to the power of personal connections in the industry. Though Kaufman hesitates to exalt lunch to such an extreme, she does admit that her high-position job at Jewish Book World came to her through a friend.

“I had a friend who was a cousin of someone on the magazine’s board, so he knew they needed a new editor and recommended me,” Kaufman says.

Once editor, a position that Kaufman was literally thrown into in a “sink or swim” situation, she made more contacts, found more reviewers, and helped upgrade the status of the magazine. Since reviewers are not paid, the magazine relies on the “we’ll give you a copy of the book and your name will be in a magazine!” type of incentive, which luckily tends to work out well.

“My favorite part of editing is getting a review that blows me away – it’s so exciting to have smart and wonderful reviewers willing to take the time,” she says.

It seems as though Kaufman’s wholesome non-profit magazine is a bit of an anomaly in today’s money-driven publishing industry – the equivalent of a turkey sandwich and a glass of milk in a world of sushi and champagne.

“Publishing is half industry and half art,” Kaufman says with a resigned sigh. “Corporations are taking over and swallowing small companies, which leads to zillions of little houses springing up to publish everything else.” Even though corporate houses may toss the cigarette-scented manuscripts of unknown authors into the dustbin, there are now smaller houses willing to take a chance on that quirky (and hypothetical) love tale about the Cuban ballerina and the man who sews her tutu.

To be honest, I don’t necessarily see a problem with corporate domination in the publishing industry; huge businesses pretty much have a foothold in everything from the coffee we drink to the tissues we wipe our snot with, so why should publishing be exempt from the trend?

Corporate publishing actually seems to be inadvertently making room for those aforementioned independent, alternative publishing houses, which is certainly a positive outlet for both aspiring publishers and authors.

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