Koret grant boosts Jewish-themed academic books

Books on Karaite Jews don't usually fly off the shelves or create stampedes at Barnes & Noble. And that's OK with Fred Astren.

Thanks in part to a subsidy for first-time scholarly writers from the Koret Foundation, the San Francisco State University professor has found a publisher for his manuscript "Karaite Past and Jewish History."

"Scholarly books are not necessarily profit-making enterprises for publishers and are not printed in giant lots," said Astren, whose book has been picked up by the University of South Carolina Press and is scheduled to hit bookstores next year.

With the aid of the Koret Jewish Studies Publications program, Astren had both the time and money to include special Arabic typefaces in his work and utilize a proofreader proficient in both Hebrew and Arabic.

"For scholars who are at the beginning of their careers, it's very hard to break into a world where the large and prestigious publishers have long and well-established relationships with authors," said Astren. "Something like this [grant] helps me make my work more complete and include features I didn't have before. It allows people who are at the beginning of their careers to really get their voices heard."

The Koret program awards $3,000 to $5,000 to nonprofit publishers, institutions or organizations to offset publishing costs. In the past three years, the program has helped about 20 scholars from around the world to get their Jewish-themed scholarly works off the ground.

The deadline to apply for this year is Friday, Feb. 15.

"You'd be surprised. That amount of money is very significant," said Sarah Stein, an assistant professor at the University of Washington who received a grant last year.

"I think it's very significant to publishers. It's becoming harder and harder to publish scholarly books. One reason is that publishers are more and more nervous about covering costs," continued Stein, who received her doctorate from Stanford in 1999 and is putting the final touches on her manuscript, " Making Jews Modern: Yiddish and Ladino Newspaper Cultures of the Russian and Ottoman Empires."

"Of course it's easy to cover costs if you have a book about, say, the Civil War, that's guaranteed to have wide readership. So I think the changing nature of the publishing industry very much affects scholars in general but young scholars in particular."

While as recently as a decade ago, 600 to 700 university libraries would purchase any significant scholarly work, today many participate in a library network in which books are shared among several universities.

"Even a first-rate monograph that might have sold 1,000 copies 10 years ago might sell 300 today," said Professor Steven Zipperstein, who heads Stanford's Jewish studies program. "Publishers have obviously registered those changes and are publishing fewer and fewer books, and this is occurring at just the moment when Jewish studies is starting to flourish as a field. Three to five thousand dollars could make the difference between the publication of a book and its not being published."

Robert Kawashima, who received a subsidy last year, recently submitted his manuscript to the Yale University Press. He's confident the Koret program will be a factor in the publisher's decision.

"I think it's helpful to be able to contact a publisher with a grant already under your belt," said Kawashima, a faculty fellow in U.C. Berkeley's comparative literature department and author of "Biblical Narration and the Death of the Rhapsode."

"It makes the manuscript look all the more publishable. It can make the difference between publishing and not publishing."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.