D.I.Y. or die
English-language writers in Israel were once at a disadvantage in the publishing world, but new opportunities in self-publishing have opened up their options, and may even be giving them an edge over their Hebrew-language counterparts
"G.U." - "Geographically Undesirable." That's how a New York literary agent described Anne Kleinberg. But Kleinberg, who has been living in Israel since 1992, decided to disregard that comment and to target an American readership for her first novel nonetheless - without the help of that, or any other, agent. Although she has written three cookery and lifestyle books, all published via the traditional route, this time round, New York-born Kleinberg opted for self-publishing.
"[I realized] that writing in a different genre meant I would have needed to start again with the New York agency scene," she said, speaking from her home in Caesarea earlier this week. "I can't get to meetings in New York or to a book signing there at the drop of a hat. So I have formatted, designed and published the novel myself, and I am delighted with the results."
Kleinberg's choice to go it alone with her novel "Menopause in Manhattan" illustrates a growing trend that could have far-reaching effects on the book world, not least for English-language writers in Israel. It's never been easier to see your name in print. Once scorned as "vanity publishing," the domain of wealthy writers with poor literary credentials, self-publishing is riding the crest of a wave powered by technology and the new economics it has engendered.
The opening up of the book world to anyone with the will and the material to be published has resulted in an explosion of self-published books. According to industry analysts, in 2009, some 750,000 titles were published in the United States outside of "traditional publishing and classification definitions," and the trend has only accelerated.
English-language writers in Israel already labor under the double disadvantages of geographical distance from English-speaking readers and the tiny pool of local publishers in English. Do-it-yourself publishing opens the door to audiences worldwide, sidestepping the gatekeepers who, until now, controlled access to printing presses and distribution. Joining the global self-publishing boom and its many support networks can also mitigate the feelings of isolation associated with being members of what Kleinberg calls "a minority whose voice is not heard" in this country.
For any aspiring local writer, the path to print can be as simple as uploading a document to one of the many companies dedicated to self-publishing. Fork out $7, and you can publish a 100-page book complete with a color cover. You can choose to print copies on demand (POD ), as they are ordered, or as an e-book, and you can be selling on Amazon within a matter of days. Another option is formatting a book to be printed locally for a limited run of copies, if an author is prepared to pay up front; the costs of printing in Israel are one-third of the cost of each book produced for the on-demand market, if not less.
By comparison, the initial obstacles to getting a book published conventionally are very high. It is difficult for writers to get noticed by traditional publishers, already besieged by piles of unsolicited manuscripts, who depend increasingly on big-name authors to minimize the risk of their investment in an industry under heavy financial strain.
Where the action isn't
For English-language writers, the local publishing options, which were never very diverse, have been contracting even more recently in the face of financial difficulties. In the words of Matthew Miller, publisher of Toby Press, the most prominent English-language publishing house in Israel, "Israeli writers in English are a bit of a sideshow even for Jewish publishers. The U.S. is where the action is."
Indeed, Miller's own publishing house, which decided as of last year to focus on Jewish religious texts rather than fiction, printed very few books written by Anglo-Israelis. "Ninety percent of the fiction we published [in total] was written by Americans," he says.
The barriers local writers face in gaining access to conventional publishers means that Israel could be a perfect laboratory for self-published writers in English. Author-financed publishing has existed here for some time in the form of companies that assist individuals writing memoirs. Indeed, as a nation of immigrants, Israel has always been full of people with remarkable stories to tell. But the new wave of do-it-yourself publishing is on a different scale altogether.
Taken at face value, the economics of it, not to mention the opportunities it provides new writers, makes sense. By publishing and selling on Amazon, for instance, a self-published writer can receive 70 percent royalties for every e-book sold. Most major publishers tend to offer authors less than 20 percent. It was this calculation that validated Kleinberg's decision to self-publish: "I number crunched and realized that if I sell 5,000 copies of a book I produce myself, a traditional publisher would have to sell 200,000 copies [for me] to get the same financial return."
Ask veterans of the self-publishing route, though, about the true costs involved and the calculation becomes somewhat more complicated.
For Winnipeg-born Beverly (Bracha ) Weingrod, who first arrived in Israel in 1949 to attend the Machon Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad program, the experience of becoming a self-published author has certainly been bittersweet. Weingrod was given a rare 1914 Yiddish cookbook by book-foraging friends 30 years ago and has translated and edited the manuscript in stops and starts ever since.
"It was not a difficult decision to self-publish," she recalls. "I was a retiree, I had time. I was surprised by how healthy and modern the recipes in the book were, and I thought there would be people who would be interested."
The conventional publishing route seemed to be going nowhere and the frustrated Weingrod sought an alternative. "I thought, I'm getting on in years and I could die before this comes out," she says. "I went on to the Amazon site and for $758 I published my book, print-on-demand."
But there were other significant costs that Weingrod had not anticipated in bringing "The Yiddish Family Cookbook" to life: hiring help for the technical specifications demanded by Amazon, purchasing rights to photos, and paying for printing extra illustrations. But the real "horror," in her words, was shouldering the burden of marketing the book. "I didn't hire an agent, and I didn't know how to sell it," she admits.
Since then, Weingrod has found herself on a never-ending journey through the United States, Canada and Israel, making presentations to family members, Yiddish speakers, synagogue groups and museums, selling 15-30 books a shot.
"The whole PR business is wearing," she explains. "I find it hard to be pushy and it makes me feel awkward, but the love of the book keeps me going."
Another unwelcome surprise was the cost of shipping a consignment of her brand-new books to Israel to sell locally. She discovered that getting the books shipped here would be extremely expensive. Weingrod ended up paying $250 to ship just 20 copies here. Dreams of profit have evaporated, and she is now ready to suffice with just covering her costs: "I had no idea at the start how much work I would have to do myself, but going back to my Yiddish-speaking roots has been a labor of love, a personal catharsis."
Weingrod's dismay at having to serve as her own publicist is a common complaint among self-publishers. Furthermore, making the content available does not guarantee a flow of customers. As Miller of Toby Press points out, "getting a book ready for sale is the easy part; marketing it is the hard bit."
Says Kleinberg: "I have spent far more time marketing my book than writing it. At 5:45 this morning I was at my computer deciding between different print-on-demand options."
Word of mouth
Such talk doesn't faze London-born Tania Elfersy, who came to live in Israel in 1994. Along with Andrea Katzman, Elfersy created and edited "Purple Leaves, Red Cherries: A Gift for Mothers with Short Stories, Journal & Toolkit," which is scheduled to be (self- )published at the end of March.
"I have a marcom background so design and marketing did not scare me," she says. "I was happy working with illustrators, proofreaders and printers myself. I thought of the idea of creating a book that would be a gift for new mothers and investigated women's publishing houses. But once I saw the Amazon route, I realized I could do it myself."
Elfersy and Katzman have plunged right into the work of publicity and reader engagement, including creating a website, blog, forum, Facebook group, video trailer, book group suggestions, merchandise shop and even downloadable e-cards with illustrations from the book. Even for Elfersy, well-versed in the language of marketing, the challenge of getting the word out about her book independently has been daunting.
"I never realized that the social networking and website would be so huge a task. But I never considered handing it over to someone else - that's the excitement of the project," she explains.
The process has also entailed a serious financial commitment. Elfersy chose offset printing, the printing process used by most large commercial book printers, rather than the more basic print option offered for on-demand books, because high quality illustrations were deemed integral to the project. To cover this cost and begin making a profit, sales will need to climb into the thousands, she notes.
"Purple Leaves, Red Cherries," which primarily targets the U.S. market, does not look or feel like an Israeli product. That might be thanks to the combination of digital technology and English language, which may ultimately provide English-language writers in Israel with a relative advantage over their counterparts in Hebrew when it comes to gaining direct access to the lucrative U.S. market. As Elfersy explains, "We are hoping to translate the book into Hebrew, but the U.S. is clearly the biggest market for us."
Does it matter where a self-publishing author resides? Is there anything distinctive about self-publishing in Israel? "We don't feel very distant from the rest of the world," says Elfersy.
Still, she points out a number of distinct advantages to being based in Israel: It was relatively simple to find contributors, designers and illustrators here through contacts and word of mouth, and there were no problems arranging meetings with exceptional talents, who happened to live close by.
In post-production, Elfersy hopes that the local, closely connected circle of English speakers will be the book's initial marketing and selling audience. Through local contacts, she has received good leads about industry professionals in the United States and Britain who might help promote the book abroad. "Israel is exceptionally diverse in terms of people's potential contacts worldwide," she points out.
Weingrod's devotion, Kleinberg's economics and Elfersy's creativity aside, there is still significant - and heavy - resistance to "normalizing" the institution of self-publishing. The idea that an author would finance his or her own work, rather than seek the backing of a publisher, invites accusations of self-aggrandizement and poor quality control. The glut of titles that self-publishing facilitates has drawn scorn from critics, publishers and other writers in the media.
For instance, an article by Neil Genzlinger published on January 28 in The New York Times Book Review berated the multitudes of (often self-published ) memoirs being printed by people "writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional" as a symptom of the "current age of oversharing," and reflected a yearning for the days when "unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended." The remarks should probably not come as any surprise, since The New York Times, as a matter of policy, vetoes all reviews of self-published books.
The antipathy to this phenomenon among parts of the media, and the refusal to review self-published books, is somewhat confounding considering that access to critiques is more crucial today than ever with such a saturated market. As Miller notes, referring to his own experience, "It was hard to get Toby Press's voice heard because there is just so much fiction being published now." In such a crowded marketplace, a published review can mean the difference between the limelight and oblivion.
However, the tide may be turning. Publishers Weekly will now consider self-published books for review. In this country, the book culture is less antagonistic to self-publishing: The choice of Haaretz's English Books supplement is, according to editor David B. Green, based on "whether a book is of interest or not," and not how it was published. The country's largest bookstore chain, Steimatzky, does stock self-published books, especially those about Israel. "If there is a book that's pertinent and suitable for our market we would stock it," says Nancy Ayalon, the chain's head buyer. Kleinberg, for one, has already secured a distribution deal with Steimatzky.
It seems that locally, at least, the psychological barrier to self-publishing is being breached. Self-published books are no longer a sign of mediocrity, egotism or desperation. As one prominent local reviewer notes pithily, we should "no longer assume a self-published book is garbage."
Elfersy points to the range of online resources available to help readers make choices: "People don't buy drivel. Now people can check inside a book even before they buy it to see if it's for them. There are reviews and comments online. There is more stuff out there, but it's your choice to select."
Meanwhile, this country has yet to produce a self-publishing blockbuster, but that could simply be a matter of time. A significant population of English-language writers here is just clicks away from a global audience. As the sites devoted to this subject put it, writers from William Blake to Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King to Beatrix Potter - all had self-publishing episodes in their lives.
Publisher Miller injects a note of skepticism into this rosy scenario: "If you want a memoir for your grandchildren, then self-publishing is fine, but if you think you're going to be the next Dan Brown, forget it."
Still, writers out there need not be discouraged. To take a cue from romantic fiction, the fastest growing e-book genre, the love affair between local Anglo writers and self-publishing is just beginning.