Einstein’s rabbi goes looking for a publisher

LETTER FROM AMERICA: I probably should leave Bonanza-land and forget about getting published by one of the large publishing houses

Einstein telescope 370 (photo credit: Reuters)
Einstein telescope 370
(photo credit: Reuters)
In Marshall McLuhan’s seminal book The Medium is the Message, he explained his idea of Bonanza-land: “The past went that-a-way. When faced with a totally new situation, we tend always to attach ourselves to the object, to the flavor of the most recent past. We look at the present through the rear-view mirror. We look backwards into the future.”
Authors and publishers are caught in this trance. When we allow ourselves to blink we need to ask, do we authors require those major publishing houses anymore? And what are the adjustments those grand old houses of publishing must make to survive? My novel Einstein’s Rabbi: A Tale of Science and the Soul is a case in point. Twenty-eight years in the making, I self-published it in 2008 at Shires Press of the Northshire Bookstore, one of the flagship independent bookstores in the United States. We believe Einstein’s Rabbi was the first novel ever published in the world by the revolutionary Espresso Book Machine, which prints fully bound paperback books in minutes. Einstein’s Rabbi has been the best-selling novel of Shires Press. Unable however to escape Bonanza-land, I have wanted my book to be picked up by a large publishing house. I found an agent, Phillip Turner, who contacted a number of publishers. To my delight, an editor at one of the top five publishing houses agreed to read Einstein’s Rabbi.
I waited the months for her reply. It finally came and opened with praise, “Rabbi Cohen has cunningly blended scientific, social, and spiritual history into a singular narrative.” I was ecstatic – and then came: “...but unfortunately, I’m afraid in today’s challenging marketplace, we’ve found it difficult to publish such titles without the author having a significant national media platform on which we can launch the book. Without major television, radio, or online partnerships to help support the book, it would be difficult for us to get this project off the ground as successfully as we all would like. Because of this, I’m afraid we will have to take a pass.”
There it was in black and white. The lifeline this preeminent New York publishing house chose was fame over content. In case I had missed that point, her letter continued, “Of course, should anything about Rabbi Cohen’s platform change – if he takes on a significant media profile, especially – we hope you’ll keep us updated, as we would gladly reconsider this position.”
The fact that I have helped write a number of speeches for the president of the United States, among other notable accomplishments, did not add up to a hill of beans.
WE RECENTLY learned the Red Sox were told to build a “sexy team.” Sexy, as the Red Sox learned last season, is not the criteria for a good baseball player, nor should fame be the criteria for what gets published. We are experiencing a period of history where change takes place at an accelerated pace, and the ability to adapt is essential.
Earlier this year Newsweek went entirely digital, across the country, including in my town of Manchester Center, Vermont movie theaters must go digital or close, and we will soon lose Saturday delivery of mail in the United States.
I am not the publisher of a major publishing house and I will admit I do not have the understanding of what it means to run such a business, particularly during this period of transition. However, I hope as a reader of books and an author who believes in the essential value and contribution of literature to a vibrant society, that the great publishing houses figure out how to survive by not choosing fame over relevance and substance. David Bowie counsels in his cautionary song “Fame”: “Fame, what you get is no tomorrow.”
And yet, all of this has forced me to adjust my Bonanza-land rear-view mirror and ask: do I really need a major publishing house? Besides the validation books receive when published by them, the main area they help with is publicity, and the truth is they are spending less and less on publicity. In our new digital and social media age I imagine that there will soon develop – if it has not happened already – entrepreneurs who will provide publicity for authors, supplying what the major publishing houses used to. Let’s face it: as the Espresso Book Machine shows, we no longer need publishing houses to physically publish a book. What we really need is a way to get the word out.
So, I probably should leave Bonanza-land and forget about getting published by one of the large publishing houses. However every time I readjust my rear-view mirror I still see them. After reading an early version of Einstein’s Rabbi, Jamaica Kincaid wrote that she hoped Einstein’s Rabbi would have a “pleasant journey.” I wish the same for those grand publishing houses, and I wish the same for my book.
Rabbi Michael M. Cohen is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont.