Books: Turning the income page

Ahead of Hebrew Book Week, Publishers Association head Racheli Edelman talks about local literature, translated books and making a living as a writer.

The Book Week in Israel (photo credit: AMNON BEN SHMUEL)
The Book Week in Israel
(photo credit: AMNON BEN SHMUEL)
One might have expected, with the advent of the Internet, myriad-channel TV and all manner of other media distractions, that the efforts of literary artists would suffer significantly over the last decade or two. That may have had a detrimental effect on the market, but it has transpired that bookstore chains’ efforts to keep the customer happy and willing to shell out hard-earned cash on literary works – by proffering highly attractive package deals, such as four books for a paltry NIS 100 – have made serious dents in the revenue of publishing houses and, in turn, of the writers themselves.
The bookstore sales vehicle caused much consternation among publishers and authors alike and, after demonstrations and negotiations aplenty, in 2013 the Knesset passed the Law for the Protection of Literature and Writers in Israel.
Ahead of this year’s Hebrew Book Week, which will take place at some 40 locations around the country from June 3 to 13, long-serving Publishers Association head Racheli Edelman is upbeat. “Reading and writing has always been around in this country, and always will be,” she states.
Even so, Edelman was naturally, keenly and painfully aware of the downward spiral the revenue category took during the days when “Four for” offers – including for brand-new, hot-off-the-presses tomes – were the bookshop rule of thumb. “The book sector in Israel endured some pretty difficult years, with all the crazy sales offers. That was great for the customer, but the publishers and writers suffered.”
While it is still early days, Edelman believes that the new law – which is designed to ensure that publishing houses and authors get their fair whack of the income generated by the sales of new books, within 18 months of their release – has helped to steady the ship. “While it’s true that we still have to get used to the new legislation, and it’s a transitional period, I think we are definitely moving in the right direction.”
The clampdown on slashing book prices in their first lease of life is circumnavigated during Hebrew Book Week – which, presumably, helps to make the annual event an even more attractive affair. “I expect the Book Week to be a success,” says Edelman. “I think the fact that new books can be offered at a lower price will restore the Book Week to the good times. In recent years when book sales slumped, publishing houses took fewer stalls, and I think we are getting back to normal now, to where we were at before the downturn.”
And it’s not just pricing policy that has changed of late. “I think the taste of the Israeli book reader has evolved over the years,” Edelman notes. “In the past, people tended to buy classic books and fine literature.
Today, there are commercial novels and best-sellers, suspense works and “how to” books, and children’s books have always been successful – not all children’s books, but the sector in general has tended to sell well.”
It seems we are looking for more light escapism. “You could say there are more entertaining, fun books being bought in Israel today. I think the range of books here is now wider, and the works being offered appeal to all sorts of levels. In the past the level was higher, but now all levels are catered for.”
When Edelman first took over at the helm of the Publishers Association, over 30 years ago, Israel was still in many ways a more insular society. The Internet, presumably, has helped the average local literature consumer to leapfrog geographical and cultural borders .
“I think that, in terms of translations of foreign works into Hebrew, Israel is one of the richest countries in the world,” Edelman continues. “We translate from almost every language there is.”
Size and perceived global centrality may have something to do with that. “We are in a very different situation compared with the US, where the volume of translations is negligible. Here, there is almost no book that appears interesting that we don’t translate.”
That outward-looking orientation doesn’t necessarily impact on the subject matter of original works from here. “Most of the topics that Israeli writers address, naturally, engage with local life. But there are all sorts of universal elements which appeal to non-Israeli readers too, and Israelis also write about adventures and experiences they have had abroad.”
The average Hebrew-language reader also tends to try to get in on some action from foreign climes. Edelman partially attributes that to simple mathematics.
“We are a country of only eight million people and, while we do have quite a few writers, that is nothing compared with the number of writers around the world. I think translated works account for more book sales than original Hebrew-language works.”
The numbers game also means that the vast majority of local authors don’t manage to make ends meet from their literary work, and have to supplement their income with regular employment. “There are very few writers who enjoy sales that are big enough to allow them to concentrate solely on writing,” Edelman asserts.
“And even if they do have one big success, there is no guarantee that their subsequent efforts will meet with the same level of success.
“I once did a calculation for TV that if the better- known writers, like Meir Shalev and A.B. Yehoshua, sell 100,000 copies of one book and 50,000 of another, and so on, if you spread their sales out over all the years of their writing career, you end up with the average monthly income, no more than that. Israel is a small market. If a writer had parallel success in a country like England or Germany, they would be financially secure.”
With the local market size in mind, Israeli writers who have their works translated into other languages and do well abroad generally sit pretty. “Zeruya Shalev’s first book did very well in Germany, and Amos Oz’s [autobiographical 2002 work] A Tale of Love and Darkness was a best-seller in several countries, so such writers do well.”