Here, Altie shares her experiences and tells us how Schocken leverages its unique brand positioning, how she brings authors like Elie Wiesel into her imprint, what the advent of e-books means for the future of print, and why her books are like children.
How did Schocken get started?
Schocken was started in Germany in 1931 by Salmon Schocken. He owned a chain of department stores which were like the Macy’s of Germany. He read a book about Hasidism by Martin Buber and it changed his life by making him aware that there was a whole Jewish culture and philosophy that he knew nothing about. He was also a philanthropist and thought that the Jews in Germany didn’t have much of a Jewish consciousness and so he decided to start a publishing house to raise awareness for Jews of their Jewish identity and heritage.
What does the Schocken brand represent?
We’re a publisher of Jewish books, not necessarily by Jewish writers, but books that relate to the experience of Judaism. What I hope comes to mind when people hear “Schocken” is that this is the place where readers of all backgrounds, cultures, and/or faith traditions will find quality books about all aspects of the Jewish experience -- books that inform, entertain, challenge, and make their readers aware of the enormous richness that is to be found in Jewish history, culture, spirituality, and thought.
As part of the global Random House company, Schocken must have resources far greater than the typical Jewish imprint. How do you leverage this unique brand positioning?
Being part of Random House Inc. is certainly a selling point when I try to acquire a book. I like to tell writers and agents that we’re a boutique imprint, because I publish nine to twelve books a year while Knopf, another prestigious imprint within Random House, for example, does 130. We’re like a designer imprint within a large corporation . If you’re a small component of a big corporation you have the best of both worlds. Authors get individualized attention as well as the advantage of the international sales force and even the power of the name Random House.
Do you have a favorite amongst the books you’ve published?
They’re like children, I like them all equally.
That’s not really true, is it?
Yes [laughs], it really is.
In an age of online reading, how does Schocken define its print brand and remain competitive?
Nowadays we publish books in both print and ebook format. We leave it to the reader to decide which method the reader prefers. They are simultaneously available.
Which do you prefer?
Well, I haven’t experienced all the forms of ereading. I’ve only tried the Sony ereader and I didn’t like it much, but the kindle and ipad have made more strides since then and I think I would like those better if I tried them. It’s the wave of the future. There will always be print books and there will be ereaders, too. Maybe this will encourage people who didn’t previously like to read, to start, since they’re comfortable playing solitaire and other games on electronic devices. I don’t think there will be an end to print books.
How do you brand Schocken as the place to be for Jewish publishing and attract great minds and authors like Elie Wiesel?
Schocken has been around, in the US since 1942 so we have a very impressive back list of authors that we’ve published over the years. We have a certain standard and reputation in the publishing community and its considered prestigious to be part of us. We’ve published authors like Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Gershom Scholem, and Walter Benjamin, beginning in the 1930’s in Germany.
How is it different from the other Jewish publishing houses?
Artscroll and Feldheim, for example, publish Jewish religious books, we publish secular Judaica. JPS (Jewish Publication Society) publishes more scholarly books, and Jewish Lights, their main beat is Jewish spirituality. We are a general trade publisher of Judaica. There are probably about six to ten Jewish publishing houses and they’re more specialized than I am. There are publishers that only publish for certain Jewish niches, but I publish a little bit of everything.
Can you tell me about some of your forthcoming books?
We just published a book called Kosher Nation by Sue Fishkoff. The subtitle is: Why More and More of America’s Food Answers to a Higher Authority . The world has never seen anything like this before; there are all sorts of people who are eating kosher who are not themselves kashrut-observant Jews. Kosher has gone mainstream. It’s a look at the history and business of kosher. We’re also publishing in our Jewish Encounters series a book about Hillel (an early rabbinic sage) by Joseph Teluskin.
We will be publishing a biography of David Ben-Gurion by Shimon Peres, president of Israel and a book about the Cairo Geniza called Sacred Trash by Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole, scholars who also happen to be husband and wife.
How many copies of a book need to sell for it to be considered a success?
That depends whether its fiction or nonfiction, poetry, a big work of biography or history, or if it’s a first book or an author’s twentieth. For example, a book by John Grisham can sell in the millions, but a new author who sells 20,000 is a big hit. There’s really no set number I can give you.
Have you ever turned down a manuscript that you later regretted?
I guess that‘s a good feeling.
It’s a good question, but no, I never have.