Why Not Be Crazy in Hebrew?

For nearly a decade now, Toby Press has been publishing literature, much of it Israeli, in English translation in the American market. Recently its owner decided to bring out his first title in Hebrew.

There is a new and unique recent addition to the increasingly complex landscape of Israeli publishing: The Toby Press, which to date has published books only in English. Now it has issued its first Hebrew book, a translation of American author Donald Harington's "The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks" (see box). "They say that you have to be crazy to get into the book business," says Matthew Miller, Toby's owner, "so why can't I be crazy in Hebrew?"

Miller, a New Yorker who lived in England for many years and immigrated to Israel in 1997, established the company in 1999. He sold an industrial manufacturing firm owned by his family, and decided to use the proceeds to pursue an old dream: to open a publishing house.

The press started out in cyberspace, locating authors through the Internet and selling its books online. Today, its terrestrial offices are located in the German Colony in Jerusalem, but the distribution center is actually in Connecticut, with some 20 marketing and sales people operating in the U.S. market.

Toby publishes prose of several kinds: Original and translated fiction by such American and European authors as Harington, Yasmina Khadra and Crystal Wilkinson; English translations of modern Hebrew literature, such as works by Amos Oz, Aharon Appelfeld, S. Yizhar, Aharon Megged, Amir Gutfreund, Etgar Keret, Haim Sabato, Alona Kimchi, Emuna Elon, Haim Lapid and others. It also publishes books by Jewish authors around the world, most of them in English, including the recent novels of Naomi Ragen and Tamar Yellin, whose "The Genizah at the House of Shepher" won the first Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature, a prestigious new $100,000 award for "emerging writers," presented by the Jewish Book Council (a Hebrew edition of the book is forthcoming). The English translation of Amir Gutfreund's "Our Holocaust," also published by Toby, was a runner-up for the same prize.

Toby's presence as a player is becoming impossible to ignore. At the International Book Fair in Jerusalem, in February, Miller hosted a celebratory dinner for the company's authors, to which many literary figures were invited. Excerpts from Harington's book were distributed at its booth in the fair. Anyone leafing through the Anglophone world's important book supplements, from The New York Review of Books to the literary sections of the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, cannot help but notice the ads run by The Toby Press or the reviews of its titles.

Harington's book, which follows multiple generations of a small-town Arkansas family, constitutes the press' first foray into Hebrew publishing. "We began with Harington because he is my favorite author," Miller says, "and we have three or four of his books in the process of being translated. Maybe in a year or two, after we establish a relationship with Hebrew-language editors, we'll start publishing original Hebrew writing as well."

Of his entry into the Hebrew book market, he says, "Why should I mind trying? Many of our books in English are translated from French, German, Italian and Spanish. We live here in Israel, where there is a great reservoir of talent - translators, editors, writers. It's not so hard to get the Hebrew business started."

On a plane every day

Miller, married and a father of five, was born in New York in 1954. He studied at Oxford and spent many years working for a large European industrial manufacturing company. He was based in England from 1981 until he moved with his family to Israel a decade ago.

Miller: "I worked for a corporation for many years, and since we had many factories in Europe, I was on a plane almost every day. I lived this way for 20 years, and so I read a lot. When the business was sold and we made aliyah, I wanted to stay involved with books, but I knew that I could not be a writer, because I don't have it. Either you do or you don't. So I decided to become a publisher. I have always been drawn to the field."

Miller likes the principle embodied in the Hebrew word davka - a term of defiance for which even he, a native English speaker, has yet to find an accurate translation. "It's something like 'just so,' or 'even so,'" he says. "I like to publish books that everyone else has rejected, or that no one has heard of, and davka to make those a success. Many of the books we believe in, others do not believe in. No one thought that Haim Sabato's books were worth translating into English; everyone thought it would be too difficult. We did it. It was hard to translate, and we didn't sell many copies. Amir Gutfreund's book was rejected by many New York publishers, and it did well with us."

And speaking of davka, the font used by The Toby Press for its first Hebrew book is not the mythological FrankRuehl used by most local publishers; instead, Toby wished to innovate and used a new font, called Shefa, designed by Nadav Ezra. Reading a book in this font, it should be noted, is not at all an unpleasant experience.

Why do you run an English publishing house from Jerusalem, of all places?

Miller: "We can do much more in Jerusalem than in New York. Here it is easier to find Hebrew-to-English translators and editors in English, French and Russian. So you spend a little more on FedEx. I couldn't have done this 10 years ago. E-mail and the Internet make it possible. Customers like Barnes & Noble or Borders don't need to see me more than once or twice a year. Communication with them is through e-mail and shipping companies. We come to New York two or three times a year, no more than that."

The Toby Press has quite an agenda for the coming years. The plan is to publish between six and eight titles in Hebrew a year, translated from English, German, French, Italian and more, as well as English editions of Hebrew classics by such authors as Haim Nahman Bialik, Yosef Haim Brenner, Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, Uri Nissan Gnessin and others.

"It's strange," comments Miller. "There are 50 institutes for the study of Hebrew literature in America, but there are almost no English texts of Hebrew works available. After all, no one learns how to read them in Hebrew, so it all needs to be translated." The press also hopes to break into the French book market and to publish French editions of some of its titles, such as those by Harington, Ragen and Sabato.

"We're very eclectic," Miller says, trying to define his company's taste. "Our books come from three areas: American writing, especially from the South; Jewish writers from all over the world - the U.S., Holland, Argentina and England; and Jewish authors who write in English and live in Israel. We also have a few Israeli authors translated into English."

Toby's most successful books so far have been those of Harington and Gutfreund, each of which sold some 10,000-12,000 copies. "By New York standards, it's a small number, but for us it's more than respectable," he explains. "But we're still waiting for the book that will sell a million copies."