What price story?
Can you actually make a living from writing books? Who benefits most from the 'Four books for NIS 100' deal? Writers and publishers offer some insight into the dollars and sense of the local book market
1. Why write?
Writers do not write to earn a living. George Orwell said as much in his charming and frank essay, "Why I Write," published in 1946. Writers write, according to him, for four "great motives," none of which have anything at all to do with money: "(1) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood...; (2) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement...; (3) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity; (4) Political purpose - Using the word 'political' in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after." Orwell argued that these motives exist in different degrees among all "serious" writers, who can be distinguished from each other by their priorities and by proportions. In any one writer, the proportions will vary, depending on "the atmosphere in which he is living."
Writing a book, he added, "is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention."
No one does it for the money.
2. Who benefits?
Nevertheless, writing is work that takes a lot of time and requires great effort, and writers need to earn a living. Let's say someone spends three years writing a novel and it is being sold at Steimatzky or Tzomet Sfarim as part of a "4 books for NIS 100" deal. Let's say the writer is relatively successful and manages to sell two editions - that is, 4,000 copies - of his or her book. Who benefits from the special deal? And how much will the author earn?
Local writers usually receive royalties ranging from 10 to 20 percent, with the percentage rising as more copies are sold. (Israeli publishers don't regularly pay their authors an advance, and when they do, it is generally very low.) The rest of the money from sales is divided up among production costs (paper and printing), the publisher (editors, public relations, advertising), the distributors, marketers and bookstores. The bookstores take the largest chunk along the way, 25 to 35 percent.
In the 1990s, publishers still calculated royalties based on the book's sticker price, regardless of what discounts were offered. That system has changed. The publisher of one small local publishing house notes that royalties are currently calculated as a percentage of the intake - i.e., the publisher's income from the sale of the book. In addition, says the publisher, "there are some who pay royalties only from the sale of the 1,001st copy and onward." Recently, writers have been dealt another blow: a reduction in royalties for books sold at a discount. Several publishers are signing contracts with writers guaranteeing the author NIS 1, and no more, for every book sold at a discount price.
"That may sound as if the publisher is 'hitching a ride' on the back of bookstores' special offers," the publisher explains, "but in effect there is no choice. The publisher has to reduce the writer's royalties in order to cover fixed costs like paper, printing, translation and the like. Today, the main beneficiaries in the book market are the store owners, primarily the two major book retailers."
So let's assume that the relatively successful author who sold out two editions of his or her book wins out and receives 18 percent on every copy sold. And let's say the books were sold at a discount, for NIS 25 each. This means the writer will earn around NIS 18,000 for three years of work, or the equivalent of NIS 500 a month. But most writers in this country receive lower royalties and sell fewer copies than in this example.
3. Oren earns a living
"I earn a living from writing," says author-publisher Ram Oren. "But I'm not an example. A new book of mine is published every 10 months. And each one is an automatic best-seller, from 60,000 copies and beyond. The books with the most sales were 'Seduction' and 'The Mark of Cain,' which each sold 100,000 copies."
Oren explains that writing takes up most of his time. "I write 10 hours a day at least. I don't need to earn a living from another job, but I still publish books by other writers that I like. I don't live a 'crazy' lifestyle. I haven't bought a new car in over six years. But I earn well because I am the publisher of my books; all of the profits from sales are my royalties. But basically, I still have the mentality of a salaried employee. I'm still afraid of the phone call from the bank about an overdraft, although today there's no way in the world that such a call will come."
Oren says the local book market "has gotten totally out of control in recent years." And he notes: "When I set up my publishing house in 1996, I organized it financially in such a way that I could pay high royalties to writers. I cut costs; I worked from home, didn't employ a staff, only subcontractors. I managed to pay writers who had an established reputation 30 percent of the intake - starting with the first copy of the book sold. Beginning writers started off with 20 percent. But in recent years, certain elements that did not exist in the past have entered the market. Apart from special offers that eat into the profits of all parties involved, the publishers have also started investing in large-scale radio advertising campaigns. There are some publishers who demand that the writer share in the advertising costs, and some writers who undertake the advertising themselves. These huge expenses are deducted from the little profit there was."
And he stresses: "I know writers who spend six-seven years on a book and in the end they only receive a miserable few thousand shekels. It happens a lot. A successful book by a new writer sells five to six thousand copies. After the discounts and special deals, there's not much left for him. Most authors don't sell more than 1,000 copies. Of the 6,000 titles published each year in Israel, how many reach the best-seller list? You can count them on the fingers of both hands. I don't know a writer who writes for the money."
4. Ben Israel tries to make it
Most writers in this country, therefore, earn a living from something other than writing books: from leading writing seminars, lecturing at a university, writing for newspapers or editing. Take Mirit Ben Israel, for example. Her books, "Teva domem" ("Still Life") and "Banot hadrakon" ("The Daughters of the Dragon"), earned critical acclaim. Something in her writing is reminiscent of Toni Morrison's dark power and talent. "The Daughters of the Dragon," for example, is the first of a trilogy - a riveting fantasy for adolescents and adults alike, radical, very readable and highly praised by many. Does she manage to earn a living from her works?
Ben Israel: "I had great hopes of earning a living from 'The Daughters of the Dragon.' I had solid backing from the publishers and from my editor. I invested money in my own public relations person who did wonderful work, and I organized book launchings. It took a lot of energy out of me and so far only three editions have been printed. I know it's not 'only,' but still it's a disappointment. There is a huge gap between the sales, and the reviews and reactions.
"I have no doubt that if I had more time, I would write more. But I also know that the dynamics of writing is more complex than the simple calculation of hours; in the first years after the birth of each of my children, I produced a lot more than I did before, only out of fear that motherhood would swallow up the writing and the art. On the other hand, when I lived in the United States, I could write but I didn't, due to depression. And all of this doesn't absolve the country of its responsibility. It is not doing enough, and even what is done is done in a degrading way. Submitting an application for the Prime Minister's Prize, for example, is like submitting something to a wall, to a black hole. There's no one to talk to. There is no response, confirmation that the forms were received or announcement of the results."
5. Supply and demand
"If I am talking about supply and demand," says Yaron Sadan, the CEO of the Am Oved publishing house, "only a few people have the ability to write a successful and good book. The demand for these books is great and the supply is limited. Therefore, it's appropriate to pay high royalties to writers."
But the language of the free market does not at all correspond to the book market: "The culture of special deals, which is a derivative of the free competition among the stores, does indeed have a positive side. Books have become a very popular and accessible item, and the book market has been invigorated. But this competition also has a negative aspect: The publishers are cautious about investing in books. If, for example, Nili Mirsky, the recently announced winner of a 2008 Israel Prize for translation, takes it upon herself to translate 'The Brothers Karamazov' for us, and I know that the book will be sold as part of the '4 books for NIS 100' deal - how could I dare do something like that in the future?"
Sadan says he supports the initiative to legislate a fixed price for books - a bill that would prevent discounted sales and "free competition."
"But I'm skeptical," he adds. "Given the financial regime in Israel today, it will be hard to explain to the public why it is bad if it pays less. In the end, competition will decrease, there will be two retailers and a few big publishing houses left, a lot of cheap books and few good ones will be sold, the selection will be limited - and the readers will be affected."
Is it possible to explain this to a nation that has already replaced its citizens with consumers, and sees before it nothing other than the price tag?
6. A French idea
Roslyn Deri, of the Institut Francais, who is responsible for promoting the sale of French books in Israel, suggests learning from the French experience. In the 1970s, she says, France suffered from a problem similar to ours: Competition ran amok, large retailers took control of the market, small bookstores closed, and thus the status of the book and the writer deteriorated. In 1981 the Lang Law, a "fixed-price" law, was passed. It simply stated that only the publisher could determine the price of a book (with no time limitation on it).
French bookstores, ranging from the giant retail chain FNAC down to the smallest store in peripheral areas, must thus sell a book for the cover price, which can be reduced only by up to 5 percent. If a publisher decides for his own reasons to reduce the price, he must formally notify all the relevant parties. In this way, explains Deri, competition in the French book market is no longer over the price, but rather over the book's content and quality, and the service provided by the stores. Many other European countries recently adopted a law in this regard, and all report that the move has been successful.
Racheli Edelman, publisher of Schocken Books, is one of the leaders of the drive to pass a fixed-price book law in Israel. She consistently and stubbornly refrains from taking part in any special deals - "and I suffer from it because my books are on the shelves and not in the prominent sales displays. And because next to an average book that costs NIS 40, my books selling for NIS 70 make me look as expensive as a pharmacy."
According to her, the large chains pressure the publishing houses to increase the discounts on books in exchange for a promise to display the books prominently in stores. The publishing houses become nervous and offer steep discounts.
"Let's say, for example, that the catalog price is NIS 88," Edelman explains. "The writer will get NIS 9.14 for it. For the same book, after a 70-percent discount, she or he will receive NIS 3.40. And the publisher tries to save himself because if he carries on this way, he won't be able to issue new books. So he invests less in editing, proofreading and production. And so in this course of events, the independent bookstores are also harmed, because the market doesn't grow, it is just divided among the big retailers."
Those who formulated France's Lang Law explained within its text the reasoning behind it: "Due to the large variety and the fact that it is a unique pipeline of culture, the book cannot be considered merely 'a product.' This cultural asset has to be accessible to the public at large in every place; therefore a developed and dense network of bookstores is crucial. This is the one and only objective of the fixed-price law."
7. Why sell books?
"In France there are independent bookstores - such as, for example, the Ombres Blanches store in Toulouse - that are able to determine the fate of a book and a writer, even if the newspaper critics haven't heard of them," Deri explains, and goes on to mention another recent development regarding the fixed-price law: the initiative of Anton Gallimard, the president of the large and venerable French publisher that bears his family's name.
Last September, Gallimard presented a report on the status of independent bookstores to the French ministry of culture. His suggestion? Instituting standards that will provide far-reaching benefits to stores that meet a series of criteria, among them: the owner of the store is completely independent; the store's purchaser makes his or her choices from a full selection of books and doesn't buy them in concentrated "package deals"; at least half of the store's inventory is books that are at least a year old (that is, not new books); and the wages of the professional booksellers in the store is more than 15 percent of its turnover. An independent store that receives the proper certification will receive assistance from the French government and from publishers in decisions concerning the store's inventory, subsidies for paying employee wages and income-tax deductions.
Deri says this initiative is on the verge of being instituted any day now. The gist of the French idea, she explains, is as follows: The culture of reading and writing requires the existence of a variety of small, independent stores, which promote distribution of books that cater to a range of tastes and which organize vital, animated encounters - real and metaphoric - between writers and readers. The writers, for their part, deserve to earn a living from writing to the greatest extent possible. As for the consumers, for their own good, it is beneficial for them to be active partners in this culture: They should circulate, look around, meet each other, exchange ideas, become engrossed, be confused and express wonder. The culture of special deals can only thwart all of this.