I am often asked: “Professor Jaffee, would you rather be a hilarious, widely loved columnist for a regionally prominent Jewish newspaper, or, to the contrary, an esoteric intellectual whose work is known, albeit respectfully, only to a few academic cognoscenti?”
Honest — folks ask me just this question all the time! Seems like whenever I’m stuck in the checkout line at QFC, waiting for the wrong order at Noah’s, or otherwise marking time while locked in my own fantasy world, the question pops up.
So let me respond once and for all by sharing a maaseh shehayah (a more or less true story made truer by the retelling). Maybe that’ll put the question to rest!
I recently received an odd request from my old friend, Andy. Andy believed, you see, that a friend of his might benefit from reading a book I had written several years ago. I was very flattered — and astonished that anyone outside by immediate circle of academic colleagues even remembered that I’d once written a book about Oral Tradition in Judaism!
But as I read further, it became clear that my elation was premature. In fact, Andy wanted to buy the book for his friend. But then he got sticker shock. The publisher, Oxford University Press, was selling it for $100 (yours at Amazon.com for a mere $85). Andy wondered if I had any odd copies laying around that I might part with for, say, $40?
Actually, I’d have let a copy go for 10 bucks. But my personal copies were distributed years ago, and what writer, anyhow, buys his or her own book? The only copy I own is my personal dog-eared author’s copy — with the notes toward the second edition (“Now available in paperback with an expanded bibliography!”) that never materialized.
Then flattery was followed, upon reflection, by outrage. A hundred bucks? For a book that retailed at $30 just 10 years ago? What? Had Oxford resumed publishing the gold-leaf, leather-bound editions of the 19th century in imitation of Artscroll’s faux-classic styling?
If so, where are the royalties? Instead of an annual check, I normally get a yearly notice from Oxford informing me that “Oxford remits royalties only for sums in excess of $50. Annual royalties of less than $50 accrue on a yearly basis until reaching that sum.” In other words, in most years it costs Oxford more than it’s worth to cut and mail my royalty check! Is that any way to treat “royalty?”
Any which way I carved up this turkey, the whole thing turned out to be baloney!
So I resolved to search for a “better deal.” A little Googling turned up a Web site in India (Flipkart.com) that is in fact selling my book for 3,056 Indian rupees. At the current exchange rate of about 2 cents to 1 Rupee, my memorable tome can be in the hands of readers for a mere $66 or so — about $20 less than Amazon.com’s discount.
It is my pleasure, then, to inform the many readers desiring my thoughts on the history of rabbinic oral tradition that a copy will be sped to your door in response to only a few clicks of the mouse!
The only problem is, your door has to be in Mumbai or Lucknow. While Flipkart distributes its wares “without postage throughout the Indian sub-continent,” it will not ship to any points outside of India.
Pity the poor Pakistani or Afghani reader, seeking respite from border skirmishes with the Taliban, who will be denied escape into the clear light of my theories of rabbinic oral tradition! Not to mention the “natural constituency” of readers throughout the European Union nations, who might desire to stretch their euros by picking up cheap rabbinic scholarship from New Delhi or Bangalore.
Are you listening, Greece?
Duly chastened, I sought consolation in the summary-blurb that Flipkart.com had composed to describe my book. At least I could enjoy reminding myself how clever my book’s argument sounded!
There I discovered a small typo on the blurb. Prospective readers are now informed that rabbinic Oral Torah is “an unbroken chain of diving (SIC!) revelation to Moses on Sinai.” Hmm. My book is being marketed in India as a study of Jewish revelations of the laws of deep sea diving? Clever!
But, despite the radical marketing strategy of expanding my readership to the pearl-diving community of the Gulf of Mannar between India and Sri Lanka, the product doesn’t seem to be moving any faster on the Sub-Continent than in Europe or the States.
I suppose I can live with this — academic books like mine usually sell in the low hundreds of copies, if that! But what really hurts is Flipkart’s astute observation that readers of my book on Judaism might also enjoy other “similar books.”
According to Flipkart.com, these “similar books” include, among others: Dr. Suess’s The Cat in the Hat; J.D. Salinger’s, The Catcher in the Rye; Prof. Subash Dhar’s, The Natural Gas Market in India; Martin Sicker’s, The Islamic World in Decline; and, last but not least, Shakuntala Devi’s immortal, Awaken the Genius of Your Child.
Okay — it’s an honor to have my work included in any list that includes The Cat in the Hat and Catcher in the Rye. But still, about the only thing that these esteemed volumes have in common as far as I can tell — either with each other or with my own — is that they are all written in English and, perhaps more importantly, the letter “S” appears somewhere in each author’s name!
So to get back to the question to which my tale is a reply: “Whadda you think, Weisenheimer?”