Opinion // The True Value of Cheap Books
Why a law intended to help Israeli authors ended up hurting them instead
by Shmuel Rosner
It is Book Week in Tel Aviv. At Rabin Square, the tables are loaded with volumes, old and new, light and heavy, and buyers are leafing through them as they move from one publisher’s table to the next. But the main topic of conversation is not an exciting new author or a provocative bestseller. Instead it is legislation—or, rather, the elimination of a thoroughly wrong-headed piece of legislation with as yet unknown consequences.
Two years ago, Israel, for reasons I still struggle to understand, decided to re-engineer its vibrant book market. Then-Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat, backed by an energetic Member of Knesset from Meretz, Nitzan Horowitz, and encouraged by a chorus of Israeli authors—Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman, Meir Shalev, Dorit Rabinyan, Haim Be’er and many others—convinced the Knesset to pass legislation attempting to regulate the market. Modeled after a similar French law, the new Israeli law made it a criminal violation to give a discount on a book in the first 18 months after publication. It also established rules for bookstores dictating the ratio of books they could present from each publisher. That is to say, whether a publisher was wonderful or lousy, the bookstore had to choose its books based on rules made by politicians. (Full disclosure: I work for an Israeli publisher that opposed the legislation.)
The idea behind the law was simple: Books in Israel were selling for prices the politicians considered too low. Discounts were common; special sales were frequent. The public enjoyed it, of course, but authors complained that with such prices, they could not make a living. The minister of culture thought it was her job to help Israeli authors make a living. She also thought the way to do this was to make books more expensive. She forgot the simple rule of capitalism: In most cases, the market sets the price of a product better than most politicians do.
This was a familiar battle: protectionism versus the free market. Interestingly, it was also a battle of the old novelists’ elite versus newcomers. Low book prices—culminating in the campaign of “four (books) for a hundred (Israeli shekels)”—made the market for books much more egalitarian. In Israel, the number of books per capita is one of the highest in the world. Instead of going into a bookstore and buying one book by a well-established author—say, Amos Oz—Israelis can go into a bookstore and buy Oz and three more for almost the same price. That way, new authors get a real chance of finding readers and making themselves known.
True, the financial reward is not exactly significant. It is almost impossible to make a living in Israel by writing books in Hebrew. But that is not because of the low price of books; it is because there are only six million Hebrew readers in the world, many of whom are children, ultra-Orthodox or—believe it or not—just don’t much like to read. The Knesset can pass laws, it can dictate different rules, but it cannot make people spend more than they want to on books. If a book costs more money, people will buy fewer books. If there are no discounts, people will be less inclined to go into bookstores. If new books are costlier, they will not stand a chance against older books. They will quickly stop appearing on shelves. Publishers will then cease taking risks on new books by unknown authors.
The two years this ridiculous law was in place were not good years for the publishing industry. The mood was gloomy, the professionals disoriented. How bad was it? It’s hard to know. The numbers tell different stories, depending on their source. New books still came out, but many authors had to pay to get them out. Some books still became bestsellers, but those familiar with the numbers say that having a bestseller under the law was not the same as having one before the law. Financially speaking, a few authors may have gained. Alas, most authors in Israel write to gain readers, not profits (which are negligible anyhow). And many writers lost readers.
The law reigned until a new minister of culture, Miri Regev, decided to put an end to it. The cultural establishment despises Regev. She is loud, blunt, unimpressed by the elites, unapologetically right-wing. She cultivates an image as minister of the culture of the people, rather than of what elitists of the left call culture. For her, canceling the book law was a political home run. It would reduce the price of a product, and the people prefer lower prices. It would open the market for new voices—not just those vetted and approved by leftist literary elites. It would enrage those elites—and Regev seems to enjoy their rage. No less significant, it would grab the headlines. Like most politicians, and maybe slightly more than most, Regev knows how to appreciate a headline.
Three months ago, the minister announced that the law would be canceled before the annual Israeli Book Week. Choosing her stage carefully to boost the level of uproar—she was speaking before a hostile crowd at a conference of the paper of the old establishment, Haaretz—Regev declared that “canceling this law is compatible with the social policies in which I believe.” Then, overcoming some obstacles and legislative hurdles, she convinced the Knesset to deliver. During Book Week, prices were lower for new books, and in September, most of the core components of the law will be completely eliminated. The people of the book will once again become the people of the book sale—and I mean this in a good way.
Shmuel Rosner, a Tel Aviv-based writer and editor, is a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times and senior political editor of The LA Jewish Journal. Rosner is also the head of nonfiction for Israel’s Kinneret-Zmora-Dvir Publishing.