When Publication of Books Really Did Need Angels

The online world has so expanded the reach of authors and writers, by collapsing the publication and distribution functions into one, that we sometimes forget the challenge that the world of traditional publishing posed for certain groups who were long on literacy but short of funds. One such realm was the publication and distribution of commentary to religious texts for primary use by religious scholars and their students. For them, the printed book was paramount, but the ability to publish and distribute such books frequently encountered the problem of how to obtain the necessary funding to enable it to take place.

One prominent example is the world of rabbinic commentary in the Jewish tradition. Reaching back to preserved oral commentary from over two millennia ago, a rich literature continues to be produced by rabbis and their talmudic students. And therein lies the problem---no less than for a book publisher in the secular world, the iron laws of economic prevail. How could the rabbinic scholar who wished to publish cover the costs of production and distribution where his income is minuscule? The solution was the phenomenon of the "prenumerantum" (more or less transliterated from the Yiddish word-- פרענומעראנטן--meaning "pre-subscribers").

In a fascinating article written (in Hebrew) by Avishai Elboim, a curator at the Tel-Aviv Municipal Library, the author describes a unique publishing ecology in place for hundreds of years. The "prenumerantum" was intended to recruit sponsors for the intended work. As described by Elboim, it worked this way:
"... [T]he names of the sponsors are listed at the back of the back. For most books, the list is by the geographic location of the subscribers and the list appears only in the first edition. This list is removed in any subsequent edition (and photocopy version) because it is not relevant for further distribution of the book." 
The upshot is that publication of religious commentary took on a collective nature that made the publication of the book a matter of widespread communal interest (without intending any sacrilege, this is functionally similar to the communal ownership of the Futbol Club Barcelona--better known as Barça to all of its supporters-- here).

A study published in 1975 attempted to identify all such lists of contributors and the study identified over 8,750 different communities, which encompassed over 350,000 individual contributors. This probably understates the actual number of individual contributors because often only the representative of the community listed his name, although contributions were usually collected from several members of the particular community. Redolent of the roadshow of today's IPO world, many authors went door by door, community by community, village by village, to secure contributions. (Given the subject matter of these books, one might think that the modern notion of the investor angel was invented here). Indeed, one well-known rabbi was famously advised in 1886 not to even begin writing the book until he had secured sufficient contributions. This prospective rabbinic author declined the advice,
"lest I humiliate myself and our rabbinic literature by going from city to city and knocking on doors, when most of those whom I would visit do not know books ... such that the author in their eyes is like a beggar who goes from door to door seeking a hand-out." 
 Another famous rabbi collected money reluctantly, primarily from individuals of proven financial means. Even here, he viewed the process as problematic, insisting that he would not actually collect the funds until the book was published (how the publication was funded in such a situation was not described), lest there be any concern that he had violated the prohibition of "robbery". This could occur if he had taken the money in advance, but the contributor passed away before the book was published and the rabbinic author could not locate the contributor's heir to return the payment.

That said, one wonders how many other authors were deterred from writing a book of commentary, overwhelmed by the daunting task of obtaining the necessary individual contributions. The article does not indicate to what extent the tradition of the "prenumerantum" continues precisely in this form to this day.

It is this Kat's impression that the publication of Jewish religious commentary continues to be heavily supported by individual benefactors, although usually there is a small number of such financial contributors and their names appear at the beginning of the particular book. However, even here, such contributors are almost invariably identified by both name and city, the latter perhaps a residue of the previous custom. This Kat wonders whether there is a parallel to the "prenumerantum" in the publication of commentary in other religious traditions. Readers with any insight into this are encouraged to share it.

More on Yiddish here.
When Publication of Books Really Did Need Angels When Publication of Books Really Did Need Angels Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, May 11, 2012 Rating: 5


  1. This practice of producing books once financing is secured by sponsors or subscribers wouldn't have been exclusively limited to religious works.

    Stephen M. Stigler of the university of Chicago wrote two interesting, even charming, books on the history of statistics. In chapter 15 of "Statistics on the Table - the History of Statistical Concepts and Methods" (1999) he sets out to find out who discovered Bayes' theorem.

    [The author convincingly argues that discoveries and inventions are hardly, if ever, named after their true authors, which is more than slightly disheartening if you happen to work in IP...]

    On page 293 Stigler explains his sleuthing:

    I decided to start with the obvious inspiration for Hartleys friend work, Abraham de Moivre. [...] The "ingenious Friend" had certainly read De Moivre. Now the first of these works, the Miscellenea Analytica of 1730 is unusual in that it carries with is a list of its readers. The work, like several of the time, was sold by advance subscription, and the list of subscribers was printed with the book (see Fig. 15.1). Could the "ingenious Friend" be on this list?

    The author then goes on to check the suspects and their alibis.

  2. The Miscellenea Analytica is available in Google Books, and the list of subscribers is to be found in the first few pages just after the preface.

    You could perhaps search there for other examples? Looking for פרענומעראנטן returns 953 books, and "list of subscribers" more than one million, with a lot of telephone books among them...


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