Where Have All the Old Books Gone?

The life blood of book publishers is their backlist - books which they continue to publish for years. In order to continue to exist, publishers require a backlist that is alive and kicking: in other words, ongoing sales of previously published titles which provide continuous income. This rule is always valid, even when market conditions change, and they have indeed changed in recent years.

In a very competitive culture that emphasizes newness and fashion, and promotes the reading of a current blockbuster which is forgotten in a moment's time, the backlist is a vanishing phenomenon. The volume of sales of one-year-old or older books is shrinking, while newer books capture an increasing share of the market. Most major publishers realize that this ratio has changed. The scope of the decrease is estimated to be 20 percent: the backlist which once accounted for 60 percent to 70 percent of the sales volume now represents 40 percent to 50 percent, depending on the size and age of the publisher.

Thus good books, which are also fairly new, vanish from cultural memory. This is not only true of classic literature, which can always find someone to fight on its behalf, but it is mainly true of good books released two, three, or 10 years ago, which disappeared without leaving a sign. It appears that anything produced in the gap between Cervantes and Harlan Coben is likely to pay a price.

"This change is part of a major cultural shift, which is hard to examine in depth because we are still in the throes of the process," says Dov Eichenold, CEO of Yedioth Books. "It's not just the discount war among the chains - leisure culture has also changed. The shelf life of a book is getting shorter. Once, it was measured in months. Now, it is two weeks. Classic books also sell a lot less. That's a result of a very large selection. Original literature is thriving. Everyone writes endlessly, and all of the world's literature is translated into Hebrew. It is a very difficult mission, nowadays, to maintain steady sales of a book."

A few years ago, Yedioth Books published new translations of Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita" and Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment."

"We used to sell 3,000 copies a year of classic books like that - now we sell 1,500 copies a year," Eichenold reports. "There are books on the backlist that we print all the time, but in smaller numbers. On the other hand, when Tsomet Sfarim [a major bookstore chain] discounts 60 books to commemorate Israel's 60th anniversary, they are mainly books on the publisher's backlist, so that during a period like that, those books sell in greater numbers. The problem is that a sale like that takes place about once a decade."

'Apartment for Rent' forever

One sector where sales remain stable is children's books. Parents typically want to provide their children with the classic children's literature that they read. But here as well, the market has slowed.

"Children's books like 'A Story of Five Balloons,' 'Where is Pluto?', and 'Apartment for Rent' continue to sell well," notes Nahman Gil, director of sales for Kibbutz Hameuhad publishers, "But there as well, we sense that sales have decreased by 10 percent to 20 percent during the past year. In children's books, too, if you don't hold sales you don't sell."

Gil says that even old books by the finest writers sell less now.

"Popular books like David Grossman's 'The Zigzag Kid' and 'Someone to Run With' sell a few thousand copies a year," he said. "But, in general, that is less than in the past."

How do new publishers establish themselves in these market conditions?

"A backlist is built up over time, in any case," says publisher Yosef Cohen of Ivrit Publishing. The publisher's catalog has accumulated 50 titles to date, and he says steady monthly sales of a few dozen copies of a book are enough to keep that book alive.

"Some of the books are still active, and others were not even active when they were first released," Cohen said. "Sometimes a book that was not initially a hit sells well over time. But in any case, it appears that a backlist as it is classically defined - which includes books that sell solidly over time - doesn't work as well nowadays."

One-year-old for sale

One suggestion for toning down competition in the industry and shoring up the backlist is a bill that would establish a stable price law for books. A law of that type would ban discounts of new books during the first year of their release. Publishers are still arguing the efficacy and potential damage of such a law, but most of them would support it.

If such a law was passed, it would to some extent contribute to the recovery of the backlist, based on the assumption that bookstores would continue to hold sales, but discounts would pertain only to books that are more than a year old.

The cultural price of such a law is that new books may be neglected, and Israeli publishers would, in general, release fewer new books making the industry less vibrant and current than it is now.

For now, several publishers led by Racheli Edelman of Schocken Books - who chairs the Publishers Association - accepted the task of promoting such a bill, in collaboration with MK Michael Melchior. At this point, the language of a similar law is being translated from French to Hebrew.

"We received information about the law and its implications from other countries," Edelman says. "After it is translated, we will turn to the Knesset Education Committee again in an attempt to promote it. In my opinion, publishers could put a stop to this situation - on their own - without a law. They accustomed the public and the stores to discount prices. But, now, the law appears to be the only choice."

Mendele is once again selling books

But there is a positive side to this phenomenon. In a sort of reverse reaction to the weakening of the backlist, there is renewed publishing of new editions of older books. Am Oved, Hakibbutz Hameuhad, Keter, Kinneret, and other publishers have rediscovered hidden treasures within their own catalogs and they are re-releasing them, sometimes in new printings and sometimes in new editions or new translations.

Thus, Am Oved published a new edition of "The Wanderings of Benjamin III" by Mendele Mocher Sforim, in the series that Nir Baram is currently editing; Keter released Simone de Beauvoir's "A Very Easy Death;" Kinneret republished Gogol's "Dead Souls," and Menachem Peri, editor of Hasifriya Hahadasha, established "Hasifriya Haktana," a series which revives original and translated classics, from Yosef Haim Brenner and David Fogel to Tolstoy and Natalia Ginzburg.

"The initial need for 'Sifriya Haktana' was to revive things which people no longer get to these days," Peri explains. "Theoretically, you can obtain a copy of 'Musical Moment' by Kenaz, but in practice, it's not available in stores. 'Hasifriya Haktana' may not succeed to the extent of dozens of thousands of copies, but it earns the publisher a profit, and some of the books sell as many as 7,000 copies."

The average is 3,000 copies sold per title in the series. Until now, the biggest sellers have been "Momik," by David Grossman, "Haifa Stories," by Yehudit Katzir, "That's How it Happened," by Natalia Ginzburg, "The Kreutzer Sonata," by Tolstoy, and "In the Presence of the Sea," by David Fogel. "They sell more on the Hasifriya Hahadasha Internet site and less in stores, because it's a book that costs NIS 49 and it doesn't pay for the stores to sell at that [low] cost," Peri says.

From the point of view of the backlist, Israel Book Week exhibitions represent tremendous potential. These fairs display books from many publishers, including small publishing houses. Publishers display a considerable portion of the titles in their catalogs in their booths, including books that are difficult to find in stores.

But Book Week has changed, as well. Over the years, because of mounting expenses, fewer publishers erect fewer booths at the exhibitions, and there is therefore a smaller selection of books. If 340 booths were established in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv during Book Week in 1998, this year only 315 booths will display books - in other words, a decrease of 10 percent.

Despite that, Book Week is still an opportunity to revive the backlist and preserve cultural memory.

"People who really want to choose the books that interest them should attend Book Week," Edelman says. "It's an opportunity to employ free choice rather than what is pushed in the book chains, discounted books which are sold based on financial interests."

A decade ago, Menachem Peri issued a call to publishers to reinstate the original character of Book Week displays.

"I spoke about the need for publishers to sell only their backlists in the exhibitions - books that are a year old or older, at significant discounts of 40 percent or 50 percent; and to sell their new books - which are less than a year old - in the stores, at a predetermined discount. I suggested that for five years, from 1990 to 1995, and everyone laughed at me. They can continue to laugh, but in another five years, that's what's going to happen."