Literary matchmakers

Jewish Book Council links authors to book events in Worcester and across the nation

By Pamela H. Sacks
TELEGRAM & GAZETTE
2008

The “Meet the Author” sessions hosted by the Jewish Book Council are often described as a cross between speed dating and the “Gong Show.” Each author gets exactly two minutes to make a sales pitch.

The encounters may be brutal – long-winded wordsmiths are yanked midsentence – but Nancy Greenberg comes away knowing just which writers she’ll tap for the author events sponsored by the Worcester Jewish Community Center.

The other day, Ms. Greenberg, the JCC’s adult-senior cultural arts director, sat surrounded by books written by authors who had impressed her at the council’s annual meeting in May, where the presentations took place.

Ms. Greenberg noted with a smile that Jews are known as “the people of the book,” a characterization that keeps her on her toes when it comes to choosing the right presenters for her Worcester audience. Her mission is to provide high-quality Jewish programming to the community. She said she asks herself, “How can I offer an array of books that will appeal to a wide range of people?”

The council’s role in connecting authors with the right audiences has evolved rapidly over the last five years. In 2003, 40 writers attended the New York-based organization’s annual meeting; this year, 180 made presentations.

Those numbers are a reflection of the changing publishing industry, Ms. Greenberg said. Publishers once organized book tours for authors to promote their new works. Now, only the most prominent authors, or those who have written books with obvious wide interest or appeal, are treated to tours. All others must themselves find ways to reach their prospective readers.

As the publishing industry has tightened its belt, the council, initially a small organization with a staff of two, has become a clearinghouse for Jewish authors and authors who have written books with Jewish content. The council has formed a network of member organizations linked by a listserv. There are approximately 100 members from across the United States and Canada.

The council holds its annual three-day meeting immediately before BookExpo America, the largest book trade fair in the country. All the significant publishers from the U.S. and many from abroad set up booths and exhibits showcasing current and upcoming titles. Book people socialize and trade ideas, and subsidiary and international rights are bought and sold.

This year, BookExpo was held in Los Angeles. Ms. Greenberg and other members of the Jewish Book Council gathered at American Jewish University, where workshops and “Meet the Author” sessions were held.

Members serving large Jewish populations, such as those in Detroit, St. Louis, San Diego and Atlanta, hoped to find 30 to 40 authors for their book festivals, which are held in November during Jewish Book Month. In contrast, Ms. Greenberg was looking for six or seven.

“We don’t have the critical mass to sustain 30 or 40 events in November,” she noted.

The council requires that authors or their books meet general eligibility rules, but otherwise its policies are liberal and even allow self-published authors, according to Program Director Miri Pomerantz. The authors range from the celebrated Judith Viorst to emerging talents. The genres cover the spectrum, from nonfiction to graphic novels.

“We found it is very difficult to judge what will work for Worcester versus Houston,” Ms. Pomerantz said. “There have been authors we never expected to be picked up – and they were. And others we expect to be at all the book festivals, and no one picks them up.”

Before the first session, each member was handed a thick spiral-bound book filled with descriptions of the presenters. As each one spoke, Ms. Greenberg scribbled her reactions – “Wow” to one author and “Not right for Worcester” to another. She said, laughing, that members were instructed not to draw big red Xs through authors’ names while they were making their pitches.

Last year, Howard Jacobson summed his new novel, “Kalooki Nights,” in 120 seconds. What was it like?

“Were these the worst two minutes of my life, or were they the best? Were they the shortest or the longest? The only thing I can say is they were the most fraught in preparation and the most relieved in the aftermath,” Mr. Jacobson wrote on the council’s Web site, www.jewishbookcouncil.org.

Choices had to be submitted by June 16. The council staff then went to work matching the members’ hundreds of requests with author availability.

Ms. Greenberg decided to take a risk and select newcomer Rivka Galchen, a physician with a master of fine arts degree, who will talk about her debut novel, “Atmospheric Disturbances.”

“The book was so compelling right from the start,” Ms. Greenberg said. “Sometimes you have to get right on the bandwagon, finding that emerging talent. Even though it’s a debut novel, it’s nice to be in the vanguard.”

A book by Elyse Schein and Paula Bernstein, “Identical Strangers: A Memoir of Twins Separated and Reunited,” was an easy choice. Ms. Greenberg had previously heard the twins on National Public Radio.

“I try to be realistic,” Ms. Greenberg explained. “I’m not going to pick someone who comes from California and thinks Worcester is not at the appropriate level for them. We won’t qualify for Madeleine Albright, for example.”

Once a year, the Worcester JCC co-hosts an author appearance with the Westboro Area JCC. Last year, the two groups drew a big crowd with A.J. Jacobs, the author of “The Year of Living Biblically.” Ms. Greenberg chose Mr. Jacobs because his subject had wide appeal and he’s very funny. “It was a great hook for a modern person to write what he did,” she remarked.

This year, Ms. Greenberg got every author she wanted, and people attending the JCC’s book events are in for a treat – thanks to the Jewish Book Council.