The Best Little Jewish Publishing House in London
Peter and Martine Halban run England’s most cosmopolitan and finely curated Jewish and Middle Eastern-themed literary press
What followed was an improbable case involving Princess Diana’s former lawyer and a prominent ultra-Orthodox West Bank Rabbi, which led to a year and a half of wracked nerves and mounting lawyers’ fees. The case was eventually settled before coming to trial. Though reluctant to retell the tale and quite understandably cautious, as any new information released here might reignite the case, Martine informed me that “the lesson we learned was not to defend ourselves in the least but to come to some sort of agreement and settlement. Which is not a good lesson to have to learn, not an intellectually satisfying lesson at all.” Despite having an ardent interest in it, the press was similarly unable to bring out a British version of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism: As Beinart uses real-life examples (and names names) to back up the book’s discourse, it was declared dynamite by a libel lawyer. British Jews were thus excluded from taking part in the conversations roiling the English-speaking Jewish world over the past two years.
This would not be the only instance of the widening gap between British and American publishers. The press used to have “many more relations with American publishers, especially having a great sympathy with east coast publishers,” Peter told me. Their books were often sold to Grove and George Braziller, and in the other direction they bought volumes from the lists of FSG and Basic Books. Yet the Halbans could not find an American publisher for the scabrous, funny A Visit From Voltaire by (the ironically) American Dinah Lee Kung: The tale of an American woman ensconced in a cottage outside of Switzerland being visited by Voltaire was deemed too odd by American publishers.
When I asked whether there is a future for Jewish publishing, the response was, “There is one, if a limited one.” Intriguingly enough, Europe’s biggest market for literary translation is in Germany. Yet to speak of one singular future for European Jewish publishing for all of its 28 nations is exceedingly difficult. With the recent explosion in popularity of Scandinavian genre fiction, the press has followed the wider English publishing trend of turning to literary thrillers. The thriller Duet in Beirut, by ex-Mossad agent Mishka Ben-David has garnered a great deal of attention as has the British publications of Jonathan Rabb’s thrillers.
Amid gloomy prognostications of the impending collapse of publishing, e-books might well be the saving grace at the end of the tunnel. “That is one of the reasons we would not call ourselves gentlemanly,” Martine told me with a smile. ‘‘Gentlemen publishers would never have gone into e-books. We love e-books!” Surging e-book sales have a way of balancing out the decline of revenue streams precipitated by the shuttering of brick-and-mortar bookshops, the consolidation of chain bookstores, and the rise of decentralized online distribution. E-books do not require much capital investment and thus have greater margins. Also, unlike the mysterious peregrinations of the ephemeral bound object, one knows precisely where every e-book is being sold and read. There is also something indisputably charming in knowing the exact number of English translations of A.B. Yehoshua circulating around Japan.
“I wonder if my kids will read books,” I confessed to Martine on my last visit to the Halbans’ offices. “If you have them in the house, they will read them,” she reassured me. “If you use e-books, they will use those.”
It was raining for the fourth day in a row. Martine poured me another cup of tea. We talked about our families, our shared experiences of being refugees in childhood, being Jews from Muslim countries. I asked her, too, what her vision of the future was. “Well,” she paused resolutely before answering stoically, “we shall carry on.” Then she caught and corrected herself mid-sentence with characteristic thoughtfulness: “No, wait. Maybe I should say something more buoyant for the Americans?”
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