Good intentions occasionally pave the way to nowhere. Sometimes legislation is born out of the best of intentions, but legislative good intentions can often leave no winners.
That appears to be the case with the measure that went into effect last Thursday and is popularly dubbed the “Authors Law.”
One of its aims was to make sure that writers receive higher – that is at least minimal – royalties.
That was to be achieved by curtailing the bargain- basement approach to book retailing. The “four-for-NIS 100” deals are to be disallowed for the first 18-months that a given book is on the market.
That ostensibly could hurt the two big, nearly monopolistic chains. This supposedly is good news for the struggling (and almost extinct) category of small, independent booksellers.
In actual fact, the law includes many more provisions than doing away with the discount deals – the one feature that stuck in the popular mind.
The main aim of the law is to even the playing field and prevent a chain or a publishing house from making sure certain books get preferential display and exposure.
This is often arranged out of the consumers’ sight via payoffs from publishers to the chains, a machination that turns given authors into bestsellers and others into failures. This is especially crucial considering that some chains own pieces of publishing concerns.
At first glance, the new legal strictures look eminently fair. Banning shenanigans cannot but be a good thing. The trouble is that this will raise prices for the consumer, and, ironically, increase the pressure the chains exert on the publishers to cut them greater discounts to keep the chains’ profit margins wide. All this will leave the publishers with mounting losses.
The bottom line is that some authors might see slightly higher royalties, but they will sell fewer books. Unknown newcomers may only in theory fare better in a fairer setting.
This is not idle speculation. Laws similar to this one have been tried in some countries, and in all they were spectacular flops. Without exception, the number of new publications decreased dramatically – in some markets by more than half.
Can this conceivably even the playing field? Already some publishers are shut out of some chains for refusing to bow down to their demands. What in effect boils down to blacklisting and strong-arm tactics are not going to go away. The publishers remain at the mercy of the super-powerful retail chains.
Odds are that this new law will leave the monopolies laughing on the way to the bank.
And even they may not be laughing for long.
Hi-tech innovations are throwing the print industry into dire straits. Reference books were the first to go, but others are not thriving either. In this environment, original Israeli publications are particularly vulnerable – especially in Hebrew, a language with limited readership.
NO BOOK-LOVER likes to see books hawked like overripe tomatoes at a fruit and veg stall. The crass sales techniques practiced by the chains are more than distasteful. The question, however, is whether they should be the primary targeted. They may just be the vulgar face of an uglier reality.
Perhaps, for all of its praiseworthy aims, the legislative approach here was misguided. Perhaps it would have been best not to focus on retail prices but on the cut the chains demand and receive from the publishers. The current law does not fully attack this ill.
The chains can keep holding publishers to ransom, which down the line raises the prices consumers pay. Like it or not, this new law plots a course that is contradictory and inherently self-defeating.
This paradoxical situation is not unavoidable.
Lawmakers simply must turn their attention to what happens before books reach the sales counters.