Toby Press Cutbacks Cast Pall Over Local English-language Book Scene

Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren
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Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren

The Toby Press, a leading Israeli English language publishing house, is significantly scaling down its publication of new titles, Anglo File has learned. Local publishing professionals described the layoff of Toby's lead editor and plans to cut about half of its upcoming list of new offerings as a great loss to English speaking literati. Having won prestigious awards for some of its books, Toby Press is considered by many to be the premier address for native English speakers in Israel interested in publishing their writing.

"It's very unfortunate, Toby has done a wonderful service for English literature in Israel," said Linda Stern Zisquit, a New York-born poet from Jerusalem on hearing of Toby's cutbacks. Her translation of poems by Israeli writer Rivka Miriam was published by Toby Press late last year.

Saddened at the prospect of seeing fewer publications by new and original writers, she added: "I don't know of any other publishing house in Israel that brings out poetry in English at such a high level."

Toby Press canceled three planned works from its autumn calendar, which originally consisted of six or seven books, according to its owner, U.S.-born Matthew Miller. "It's true that we took a look at the autumn catalog and we did have to cut back some of the list," he told Anglo File.

"I don't know of one publisher in the world who didn't have to cut back," he said Monday, referring to the tough times the book industry currently is going through. While he refused to name the crossed-out titles he said that some of the books had been partially edited already when he decided to drop them. A couple of book industry insiders here and abroad said that many publishers are being compelled by the current climate to cut new publications, and one in the U.S. said even partially edited books are on the chopping block.

"There are a couple of changes, and we've reoriented some things but we're not closing down," Miller stressed, pledging that Toby will continue to publish original English language works along with its regular list. Four new titles are coming this fall, he asserted Wednesday after finalizing Toby Press's autumn catalog, which includes works by both Israelis as well as English-language writers from abroad.

"Toby Press published outstanding literary fiction," Carolyn Starman Hessel, the director of the New York-based Jewish Book Council, told Anglo File. "I am very unhappy to hear of their current difficulties but unfortunately they are not alone in this economy. Publishers can no longer 'take a chance' in these times. I am especially saddened because the proprietor, Matthew Miller, is such an outstanding person."

Senior editor laid off

The Toby Press early this week laid off its editorial director and senior editor, Deborah Meghnagi Bailey, who had worked for the Jerusalem-based company for nearly eight years. "She will continue to work for us on the outside," Miller told Anglo File. Meghnagi Bailey, a London native who immigrated in 1996, declined to comment for this article. Former diplomat Yehuda Avner, the author of a recent Toby Press book she edited, told Anglo File "she was one of the finest editors I have ever worked with."

Manchester-born Avner's new book "The Prime Ministers," in which he describes his experiences assisting four Israeli leaders, is currently second on the Steimatzky bestseller list for nonfiction books. Miller implied he was paring down Toby Press in favor of Koren Publishers Jerusalem and Maggid Books, which he acquired last year.

"Three years ago, we were one hundred percent Toby," Miller told Anglo File, adding that the two additional imprints have caused an overall increase in the number of publication his company puts out. "Given the fact that we have grown from six to eight books a season three years ago to probably 30 books this coming season, we've had to be a little more selective," the Jerusalem resident said. "We had to rebalance. We're a little bit more focused than we used to be."

A well-known brand established in 1961, Koren is popular for its Bibles and Jewish liturgical books. Maggid publishes works of Orthodox Jewish thought in both Hebrew and English. Upcoming titles include books by Rabbis Berel Wein, Shlomo Riskin and Jonathan Sacks, as well as a new edition of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's acclaimed commentary to the Talmud.

"We've had to look at the books themselves," Miller said, explaining his criteria for canceling the planned publication of three titles this fall. "Because we've got so many things going on, we can't afford to do the kind of things we were doing before, when we could take more risks," he continued.

Miller, a native New Yorker who lived for many years in London, founded Toby Press two years after he immigrated in 1997, "with the purpose of publishing fine literary and commercial fiction," according to the company's Web site.

Over the years, it published many original and translated works by Israeli and international authors - some for the first time in English - as well as English translations of modern Hebrew literature, such as works by Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, Etgar Keret and Haim Sabato. About three years ago, Toby started publishing translations of internationally acclaimed books in Hebrew.

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