In order to convince publishers to produce their works, Jewish writers in traditional milieux would roam from town to town collecting the names of people who pledged in advance to buy the books. As a token of appreciation, those names were then published in the books themselves. Elli Fischer explains what this practice can teach about Jewish history:
Between the late 18th and mid-20th centuries, several thousand Jewish books were published with lists of pre-subscribers (or prenumeranten), in a practice similar to today’s crowdfunding campaigns. Though the lists are generally organized alphabetically, either by name or by place, sometimes the order is geographical. By plotting such lists on a map, it is possible to reconstruct the journeys that authors or their agents took as they sold subscriptions to their books.
Fischer notes one of the most remarkable of these journeys:
Eliezer Ashkenazi was born in Poland in the early 19th century, but in 1845, his home was Tunis, and he was on his way back to Europe to publish a manuscript he found in North Africa. He had become a collector, dealer, copyist, and publisher of such manuscripts, and he returned to Europe several times, and by several different routes, writing on one occasion of his travels to Gibraltar by way of Morocco, and on another occasion of his return to North Africa from the port of Marseille.
As can be seen from Ashkenazi’s introduction to the first work he published, Sefer Zikaron (Livorno, 1845), by an early 16th-century Spanish refugee rabbi who found his way to Tunis, Ashkenazi viewed himself as a cultural bridge between the different lands of his travels.
“The dry heat of Africa did not stop me,” wrote Ashkenazi, “and the ice of Ashkenaz did not deter me.”