For the last 12 years, Kathy Macdonald and her business partner, Jane Rosenberg, have run SayFair Books, supplying Judaic books to synagogue gift shops, Jewish Community Centers and Hebrew schools throughout the United States and abroad.
The Massachusetts-based business provided a personal touch to book buyers, advising small shop managers on what would appeal to young children, as well as what would make ideal b’nai mitva gifts. Macdonald and Rosenberg took their charge as book purveyors seriously, frequently contacting publishers if they found errors in Judaic content and urging them to correct the mistakes.
But with the sluggish economy and the rising popularity of electronic reading devices such as the Amazon Kindle, and the Barnes & Noble’s Nook, SayFair is going out of business.
“SayFair’s closing will leave a gaping hole in the Judaic book industry,” said Barbara Zimmt, who co-managed the Judaic shop at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills for six years. “It was an excellent gateway to providing Jewish books to Judaic shops. They knew what would sell, and what would have traction with customers. And they wouldn’t sell books that they felt didn’t promote Jewish values.”
Macdonald believes electronic books, or e-books, were the biggest contributing factor to her company’s decline in sales.
“We thought the economy would come back, but with e-books, there was no coming back,” she said. “Adults are just not buying books in non e-book form.”
E-books — which provide the convenience of holding about 1,500 books on one small device, the ease of obtaining a new book in a matter of seconds, and a relatively inexpensive price per book (usually $9.99, even for newly released titles) — are growing in popularity na- tionwide. In 2010, sales of e-books grew 164.4 percent from the previous year, according to the Association of American Publishers.
“E-books are definitely making an impact,” said Stuart Schnee, a publicist working in Israel, primarily promoting Jewish books. “But I don’t think Jewish publishers are freaking out. Most Jewish publishers are expanding to e-books. They don’t see it as a threat. They are embracing it.”
And, Schnee does not see Jewish readers ever abandoning traditional paper books entirely.
“We are still people of the book,” he said. “More observant Jews won’t use e-books on Shabbat or on holidays. And people still like using books as adornment; a Kindle can’t adorn a bookshelf.”
While Schnee is impressed with the quality of what is being published in the Jewish book world today, he agrees that the economy is taking its toll.
“Creatively, the level of the things that are being produced is great,” he said. “But financially, things could be better. The American economy definitely had an effect, and Jewish publishing is feeling it. One of the reasons publishers are open to e-books is that they are cheaper to produce and to distribute. Some people are just printing e-books; it’s a lot less of an investment.”
Some types of books, such as Torah commentaries and books on Jewish ethics, will always be printed in traditional form, Schnee believes. Books that people study in tandem with a partner would be hard to pore over as an e-book.
“There will always be places where people will use [traditional books],” Schnee said.
With fewer adults buying traditional books, and the consequent loss of companies such as SayFair, the Jewish book-buying world is at risk of losing more than just a variety of hardbound books, but also those who kept their hands on the pulse of Jewish publishing.
“Our little business has, in a small way, affected what is being published,” Macdonald said. “When something was Jewishly incorrect, we would go back and point out the mistakes, and the publishers would go back and make corrections. I’ve never heard of anyone else that did that. They either don’t care, or don’t know or don’t bother.”
Books with mistakes that were uncorrected were not handled by SayFair, and thus not put into the hands of small shop managers such as Beth El’s Zimmt.
Case in point: “Happy Sparkling Hanukkah,” a children’s board book, due to come out this October.
“Neither the author nor the illustrator was Jewish,” Macdonald said. “We were aghast at how many mistakes were in the book. There was a kid with his hands in front of his face when he was lighting the menora, as if he were lighting Shabbos candles. The dreidel did not have the nun, hay, gimel and shin, but instead had a smiling face and a heart. That’s not a dreidel, that’s a top. Nothing in the book mentions the Macabees, or oil, or eight nights, or any useful information. This is not a Chanuka book; it’s a piece of garbage. And I’m sure it will be on the shelves and on Amazon. That’s the tragedy. That’s what breaks my heart.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.)