The ProsenPeople

Interview with a Publisher: Fredric Price of Fig Tree Books

Monday, January 28, 2019| Permalink

with Jamie Wendt

I recently talked with Fredric Price, founder and publisher of Fig Tree Books, to discuss his experiences in the world of American Jewish publishing. What follows is our conversation about his company, including their mission and submission process, as well as advice for Jewish writers looking to get their work published.

Jamie Wendt: Fig Tree Books was founded in 2013 as a home for Jewish books. Can you share a little bit about your mission?

Fredric Price: Our mission is straightforward and embodied in our tagline, “Publishing the best literature of the American Jewish experience.” So what do we mean by that? We typically define American as dealing with the people or institutions of the United States; this doesn’t mean that the protagonist must be a citizen or that the action must take place exclusively within our country, but the book needs to be grounded in American values, culture, or history. American readers need to be able to identify with the characters and the story.

For us, the “Jewish experience” means engaging with what it means to be a Jewish American, or how one goes about his or her life practicing (or denying) his/her Judaism, or how one copes with Jewish identity, or deals with social/political/cultural issues associated with being Jewish or interactions between/among Jews and other groups.

It’s important to note that we limit our offerings to novels and memoirs. We don’t publish books for children or young adults, science fiction, poetry, chap books, etc.

JW: What are the major challenges and benefits of running a small Jewish press?

FP: Simply stated, the biggest challenge has been to find manuscripts that meet our definition of the mission statement, and are also extremely well-written and have something new to say. The most important benefits we’ve experienced are the reception that our books have received from critics and from organizations that award prizes.

JW: Do you see any unifying elements among the books you’ve published?

FP: In both of the memoirs that we’ve published (Abigail Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year and Angela Himsel’s A River Could Be A Tree), the authors have integrated their own journeys within the context of current events, which has the effect of providing more illumination to their narrations. In essence, it has allowed them to paint on a wider canvas.

With regard to the novels we’ve published that are not reprints (David Hirshberg’s My Mother’s Son, Jessamyn Hope’s Safekeeping, Jonathan Papernick’s The Book of Stone, and Ben Nadler’s The Sea Beach Line), the stories are built upon foundations of issues that can help drive conversations about critically important concerns of Americans today.

JW: What do you do in order to ensure both a Jewish and non-Jewish audience for your books?

FP: Interestingly enough, the issues Jews face in integrating and thriving in our society mirror those that are found in most other minority groups. And with the total of these groups together being a large percentage of the American population, non-Jews can identify with our books in the same manner as Jewish readers do with books about the trials and tribulations of others. So in a sense, our messages are universal, despite being focused on Jewish protagonists. We try to make this clear in our advertising and promotional materials.

JW: Why are such a small number of submissions actually published?

FP: It’s a truism that an excellent story needs a strong beginning, middle, and end. We find that many submissions start out well but then fade in terms of the quality of the writing and the ability of the author to be convincing—sometimes this is because an author is predominantly a short story writer, and it is simply not true that a novel is just a longer version of a short story. Other times, we have found that the author has simply run out of gas and doesn’t have the wherewithal to embark on a rewrite that will elevate the book to the level that was evident at the outset. And it’s also true that occasionally, authors are thin-skinned and despite evidence of talent, do not believe their manuscripts need to be changed.

JW: When considering a manuscript for publication, do you take the author’s biography and previously published work into account?

FP: In a limited way, yes. If we’re impressed by an earlier publication, this will allow us to start the process of manuscript review with greater expectations than if we have never seen anything written from a particular author. But having said that, we make our decision to publish based solely on the quality of the manuscript at hand.

JW: What advice do you have for Jewish writers looking for a home for their work?

FP: Select unique topics; don’t mine territory that others have done well. Copycatting may actually work in some areas of publishing but the aspiring Jewish writer would be better served by staking out topics, places, events, etc. that are not shopworn by sophisticated readers. Also, don’t be afraid to address sensitive topics that might ruffle some feathers—I’m not talking about writing polemics and screeds; rather, I am suggesting that there are some topics that deserve new perspectives.

Writing a manuscript is easy. Writing an excellent manuscript is very hard, especially for Jewish audiences who have a high bar for quality.

Photo credit: Alison Sheehy

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poetry collection Fruit of the Earth, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company (2018). She is a graduate of the University of Nebraska Omaha MFA program. Her poetry has been published in various literary journals, including Lilith, Raleigh Review, Minerva Rising, Third Wednesday, and Saranac Review. Her essays and book reviews have been published in Green Mountains Review, The Forward, Literary Mama, and others. She teaches high school English and lives in Chicago with her husband and two children.

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