Jewish Book Month Lasts All Year
Carolyn Starman Hessel is the Director of the Jewish Book Council, which she joined in 1994. In 1999, she founded the Jewish Book Network, a popular program that currently tours more than 200 authors to hundreds of Jewish book programs around the country.
How did Jewish Book Month become so popular?
Well, first of all, I want to clarify: Jews read all through the year, not just in Jewish Book Month. It’s become such a big thing we forget Jews read all along. We’re the people of the book and we live up to our name. Books of Jewish interest are booming—the industry is booming. Also, Jewish Book Month is not November. It’s the 30 days before Hanukkah.
What is a Jewish book?
Our definition is very broad. A Jewish book has Jewish content or it can be written by a Jewish person but with no words of Jewish content. It’s my belief a Jewish writer writes with a Jewish pen and sees with Jewish eyes, so all their Jewish values come through. So we encompass a lot of books that might not seem Jewish but they are.
“Goldberg Variations” by Susan Isaacs. Her books have almost no Jewish content but she so obviously is a Jewish writer. You can tell by the tone, the flavor, the taste of her books. Or “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” [by Lucette Matalon Lagnado]. It’s about a Jewish family but it’s not overtly Jewish.
Why do so many authors and publishers want to work with you?
They are interested in working with the Jewish Book Council because we do so much to promote Jewish books. That’s our mission. We really are helping the publishers getting their books out. West of the Hudson River most of these books would have been unheard of, so we’re helping the publishers.
We are very, very democratic about who is Jewish or what is a book of Jewish interest. We will accept anybody who’s worked so hard on a book. Who are we to say no, you can’t be part of our program? We’re happy to have them participate.
Jewish Book Network has an event before or after BEA every year. Each author has two minutes to speak. If they have a book of current copyright they can sign up. Book programmers come from around the country, then they go back to their communities and decide whom they want to bring. Many of these programs are all year round now. We programmed over a thousand events this year and it grows each year.
Do you have any plans to change the program in the future?
In order to stay current you must change. You have to move forward. There was no such thing as ebooks when I first came here. Now we know books are sold in a different way. Our role is even more important now than before. There are even fewer book reviews and less touring so that’s where we come in.
We have to change. We have to increase the number of authors and increase the number of venues. We have to adapt to the ebook, which means books are not always sold at the site of the [author’s] speech but people will run home and buy it or take a picture and then go home and buy on Amazon or download it right there at the event. It a whole new method of distribution.
We also have Jewish Book World magazine which publishes four times a year. It promotes over 180 books in each magazine. The pieces go online. We have an extensive website, and authors can link to it.
These are all new things to move forward. We’re changing rapidly and I think for the good. I don’t want to be the tail that wags the dog. I want to be the dog. I want to be there first.